Colorado and Washington have legalized the recreational use of marijuana, and thus far it’s gone quite well. Crime is down and the states are making significant money of the sale and implementation of their newly created marijuana industries. But could a similar system be applied for all drugs? Is the answer to the failed War on Drugs found in the legalization of everything? Or is there a line somewhere between prescription drugs, marijuana, heroin, and crack-cocaine that we should not cross?
The idea behind drug criminalization and the billions spent on fighting the War on Drugs is that the effort will somehow decrease drug use and addiction and take power from criminal enterprises known for spreading violence and fear throughout the U.S. and supplier countries. But, if those are measures of success, criminalization isn’t working.
Recently, German Lopez at Vox, asked three experts in the field to weigh in on decriminalization. Isaac Campos, drug historian at the University of Cincinnati; Mark Kleiman, drug police expert at UCLA; and Jeffrey Miron, economist at Harvard University and the Cato Institute provided interesting input to the discussion of prohibition. Despite some differences of opinion, they more or less agreed that legalization was the only possibly effective way to go.
Ideally, drug criminalization would put pressure on drug dealers and producers. This pressure would cut into the drug supply, making the drugs less affordable for users. But drug prices are actually lower than ever. Heroin, crack, and cocaine prices fell sharply over the past few decades, and have now stabilized. Meth prices have remained pretty constant.
Likewise, if drug criminalization was effective, drug use would obviously be down. In the past few years, the number of people reporting heroin use has risen slightly. Further, drug use doesn’t normally correlate with drug policy, according to the panel. Instead, it fluctuates for a variety of reasons like cultural changes, trends, and demographics.
Not only is drug prohibition not having any measurable effects on price or drug use, it carries considerable societal costs.
The Drug War has singlehandedly given the U.S. the distinction of being the most incarcerated nation in the world. It has ripped apart families and communities, has perpetuated a market that funds violent criminal organizations, and has had notable disproportionate effects on racial minorities. It does all of this while spending tens of billions of federal, state, and local monies every single year.
Of Lopez’s panelists, Kleiman is the most cautious. But even he believes decriminalization is the answer.
“What I’ve learned since then,” he says, “is nobody’s got any empirical evidence that shows criminalization reduces consumption noticeably.”
How to implement decriminalization is another matter. Should systems mimic Colorado and Washington’s marijuana programs, where the state controls supply and production, taking the drugs out of the hands of criminal enterprises? Or should the government simply sit back and let the cards fall where they may?
Before the specifics can be ironed out, a consensus has to be reached on whether or not decriminalization is a worthwhile endeavor at all. And while there is little evidence on how all-out legalization would work, there is bountiful evidence on how prohibition doesn’t work.
So what’s your take on drug legalization? Should all currently-illegal drugs be made legal? And if not, why?