Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

The time has come to reduce the role of criminalization and the criminal justice system in drug control, while protecting public health and safety.

Reading Time: 5 minutes[i] Can decriminalization move us beyond the war on drugs? [b]Yes[/b][/i]
Reading Time: 5 minutes

The case for decriminalizing or legalizing marijuana and other illicit drugs is essentially the same as the case that persuaded most Americans to repeal Prohibition in the early 1930s. Banning alcohol was ineffective, costly, counterproductive, and immoral. Legal regulation, on the other hand, can better reduce the harm of drugs and drug control policies.

Consider the consequences of drug prohibition today: about 500,000 people incarcerated in United States prisons and jails for nonviolent drug law violations; 1.8 million drug arrests this year;1 $50 billion taxpayer dollars spent annually to fund a drug war that over 70 percent of Americans say has failed;2 and millions of people now marked for life as former drug felons. Moreover, tens of thousands are dying each year from drug overdoses that have more to do with prohibitionist policies that fuel violence and an illicit market than the drugs themselves.  And as many as 28,000 more Americans became infected with HIV and hepatitis C in past years because those same policies undermine and block responsible public health responses.3

The experiences of other nations, which have taken the same approach as the U.S., further make the case for change. In Afghanistan, a third or more of the national economy is both beneficiary and victim of the failed global drug prohibition regime. In Mexico, the escalating violence associated with the drug war is already far worse than Prohibition-era Chicago. Elsewhere in Latin America, prohibition-related crime, violence and corruption undermine civil authority and public safety, and mindless drug eradication campaigns wreak environmental havoc. In 1998, the UN estimated the annual value of the global market in illicit drugs as $400 billion—or 8 percent of global trade.

Clearly, the time has come to reduce the role of criminalization and the criminal justice system in drug control as much as possible, while protecting public health and safety.

Start with marijuana, which should never have been made illegal in the first place. The government’s decision to criminalize had nothing to do with expert medical testimony and everything to do with prejudice against Mexican-Americans and Mexican migrants, rancid tabloid journalism, Reefer Madness-like propaganda, and legislative testimony. In any case, marijuana became dramatically more popular after its prohibition than it ever was before.

Over 100 million Americans have tried it, including the three most recent occupants of the Oval Office. Billions of dollars are spent and earned illegally from it each year. Marijuana is routinely described as the first, second or third most lucrative agricultural crop in many states.

And taxpayers spend billions of dollars each year to pay for futile efforts to enforce an unenforceable prohibition. Marijuana prohibition is unique among American criminal laws. No other law is enforced so widely and so harshly.4 Police made roughly 800,000 arrests last year for possession of marijuana, typically in tiny amounts. That’s more than 40 percent of all drug arrests.

Meanwhile recent polls show that over 40 percent of Americans think that marijuana should be taxed and regulated like alcohol. The figure is closer to 50 percent among Democrats, independents, adults under age 30, and voters in a growing number of western states.

Would decriminalization result in more people consuming marijuana? Perhaps, although probably not among young people, given that over 80 percent of high school seniors say that marijuana is already easier to buy than alcohol.5

In the Netherlands, where retail sales of marijuana are more or less legal, levels of use have increased and decreased in tandem with increases and decreases elsewhere in Europe—and remain well below levels in the United States.

What about decriminalizing drugs other than marijuana?

Decriminalization and harm-reduction strategies are well supported by scientific evidence. Hundreds of studies demonstrate that needle exchange programs, supervised injection facilities and heroin maintenance clinics reduce death, disease and crime—and save taxpayers money—without increasing drug use.6 Portugal notably decriminalized possession of all drugs in 2002, and saw significant drops in drug-related harm and no increases in most categories of drug use.

Decriminalization is now endorsed by Michel Kazatchkine, the executive director of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, and by the tens of thousands of physicians, scientists and others who have signed the Vienna Declaration launched at the XVIII International AIDS Conference in July 2010.

Legalization would be the best way to reduce prohibition-related crime, violence and corruption, as well as over-incarceration, human rights violations and the dangers posed by black market drugs of unknown potency and purity.

The only argument against broader legalization is the fear that drug addiction would jump dramatically. That fear should be taken seriously. But it is not sufficient reason to shut off debate or persist blindly with prohibitionist policies that have failed so dreadfully.

Back in the 1920s, many countries, not just the U.S., were troubled by the evils of alcohol. Most decided against a prohibitionist approach. Britain, Australia and the Netherlands were among those that opted instead for strict controls that kept alcohol legal but restricted its availability, taxed it heavily, and otherwise discouraged its use.

These policies succeeded not just in avoiding America’s prohibition disaster but also in reducing consumption and misuse of alcohol more successfully than in the United States.

Keep in mind, too, that the evolution from drug prohibition to legal regulation will be incremental, not revolutionary, with ample opportunity to reassess and refine drug control strategies. Exaggerated fears of radical alternatives to current policies help sustain the failed policies of the past and impede fair consideration of viable alternatives.


1.  http://www.sentencingproject.org/doc/publications/dp_25yearquagmire.pdf

2.  $15 billion per year at a minimum. ONDCP is notorious for underreporting the true costs of the drug war, i.e. incarceration and arrest related costs are excluded. This figure is based upon the FY 10 ONDCP budget found here: http://www.whitehousedrugpolicy.gov/publications/policy/11budget/fy11budget.pdf

3.  Zogby Interactive/Inter-American Dialogue Survey, October 2, 2008 found that 76 percent of likely voters believe the war on drugs is failing <http://www.zogby.com/news/readnews.cfm?ID=1568> For a more recent poll on July 2010: http://blog.seattlepi.com/seattlepolitics/archives/215315.asp

4.  http://www.viennadeclaration.com/the-declaration.html

5.  2009 gallup poll on legalizing marijuana. http://www.gallup.com/poll/123728/u.s.-support-legalizing-marijuana-reaches-new-high.aspx

6.  Monitoring the Future annual review. “Ever since the MTF study began in 1975, between 83% and 90% of 12th graders each year have said that they could get marijuana fairly easily or very easily if they wanted some.” http://monitoringthefuture.org/pubs/monographs/overview2009.pdf

7.  National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University (CASA). National Survey on American Attitudes on Substance Abuse XIV: Teens and Parents.35 percent of 16-17 year olds say marijuana is easiest to buy in 2009 as opposed to only 14 percent that say beer is easiest to buy.

8.  For a sample of studies, please see:

The National Institute on Drug Abuse advises people who inject drugs to use a clean syringe with each injection.] U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health, National Institute on Drug Abuse, “Principles of HIV prevention in drug-using populations” http://www.nida.nih.gov/pohp/faq_1.html

Eight government reports concur that syringe exchange programs do not increase drug use and there has not been a single credible report to contradict these findings.  Please see:  “The Twin Epidemics of Substance Abuse and HIV,” National Commission on AIDS, 1991; U.S. General Accountability Office, “Needle Exchange Programs: Research Suggests Promise as an AIDS Prevention Strategy,” 1993; Lurie P and Reingold AL et al., “The Public Health Impact of Needle Exchange Programs in the United States and Abroad,” University of California, 1993; Normand J, Vlahov D, and Moses L, “Preventing HIV Transmission: The Role of Sterile Needles and Bleach,” National Research Council and Institute of Medicine, 1995; Office of Technology Assessment of the U.S. Congress, “The Effectiveness of AIDS Prevention Efforts,” National Technology Information Service, 1995; “Interventions to Prevent HIV Risk Behaviors,” National Institutes of Health Consensus Panel, National Institutes of Health Consensus Program Information Center, February 1997; David Satcher, Surgeon General, “Evidence-based findings on the efficacy of syringe exchange programs: an analysis of the scientific research completed since April 1998,” 2000; Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Science, “No Time to Lose: Getting More from HIV Prevention,” 2000

Syringe exchange programs are credited with helping to lower HIV incidence by 80 percent among people who inject drugs. The Journal of the American Medical Association notes that “those exposed through [Injection Drug Use] have reduced needle sharing by using sterile syringes available through needle exchange programs or pharmacies and have reduced the number of individuals with whom they share needles.” Hall HI, Song R, Rhodes P et al., “Estimation of HIV Incidence in the United States,” Journal of the American Medical Association, August 6, 2008; Vol. 300, No. 5, pp. 520-529

To date, 28 methodologically rigorous studies on the impact of supervised injection facilities have been published in leading peer-reviewed medical journals Strathdee SA and Pollini R, “A 21st century Lazarus: the role of safer injecting sites in harm reduction and recovery,” Addiction, Vol. 102, No. 6, June 2007, pp. 848-849(2); Maher L, “Editorial: Supervised injecting facilities: How much evidence is enough?” Drugs and Alcohol Review, Vol. 26, July 2007, pp. 351-353

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