Alcohol, nicotine and caffeine are also legal drugs. Tobacco, Alcohol and Opioids Kill Hundreds of Thousands a Year. Marijuana, meanwhile, has caused zero overdose deaths. If Bill Clinton “inhaled” when he tried marijuana as a college student was the closest the last presidential campaign came to tackling the issue of drugs.
The current one, however, could be quite different. For the fourth consecutive year, a federally supported national survey of U.S. high school students conducted by the University of Michigan has indicated an increase in drug use. After a decade or more in which drug use had been falling, Republicans will surely blame President Clinton for the bad news and attack him for failing to carry out the Bush and Reagan administrations' high-profile stance on drugs.
The scope of this topic is less certain, but if the worrying trend in adolescent drug use continues, public debate about how best to respond to the drug problem will clearly not end with the elections. In fact, there is already growing concern that the great wave of adolescents, the group most at risk of using drugs and which will skyrocket at the beginning of the century, will be accompanied by a further increase in drug use. As in the past, some observers will undoubtedly see the solution in much more severe penalties to deter both suppliers and consumers of illicit psychoactive substances. Others will argue that the answer is not in more law enforcement and tougher sanctions, but in less.
Specifically, they will argue that the building of national laws and international conventions that collectively prohibit the production, sale and consumption of a wide variety of medicines for anything other than medical or scientific purposes has proven to be physically harmful, socially divisive, prohibitive, expensive and, ultimately, counterproductive to generate the same incentives that perpetuate a violent black market for illicit drugs. In addition, they will conclude that the only logical step for the United States to take is to “legalize drugs,” in essence, repeal and dissolve current drug laws and law enforcement mechanisms, just as the United States abandoned its brief experiment with alcohol prohibition in the 1920s. Although the legalization alternative often arises when public anxiety about drugs and desperation for existing policies are at an all-time high, it never seems to leave the media radar screen for long. Periodic incidents such as the heroin-induced death of a young, well-to-do New York City couple in 1995 or the 1993 observation by then-Surgeon General Jocelyn Elders that legalization could be beneficial and should be studied guarantee this.
The prominence of many of those who have repeatedly defended legalization, such as William F. Buckley. But every time the issue of legalization comes up, the same arguments for and against are dusted off and brought up, leaving us without a clearer understanding of what it could entail and what the effect could be. As will be clear, drug legalization is not a public policy option that lends itself to a simplistic or superficial debate.
It requires the dissection and scrutiny of an order that has been notably absent despite the perennial attention it receives. Beyond the discussion of some proposals defined in a very general way, a detailed evaluation of the operational meaning of legalization has not been made. There is not even a commonly accepted lexicon of terms that would allow for an intellectually rigorous exchange to take place. Legalization, as a consequence, has come to mean different things to different people.
Some, for example, use legalization interchangeably with “decriminalization,” which generally refers to eliminating criminal penalties for possession of small quantities of drugs for personal use. Others equate legalization, at least implicitly, with complete deregulation, without recognizing in the process the extent to which currently legally available drugs are subject to strict controls. The government, including the Clinton administration, has done little to improve the debate. Although it has consistently rejected any withdrawal of the ban, its position has evidently not been based on a thorough investigation of the potential costs and benefits.
The belief that legalization would lead to an instantaneous and dramatic increase in drug use is considered so evident that no further study is warranted. But if this is indeed the likely conclusion of any study, what is there to fear other than criticism that relatively small amounts of taxpayer money have been wasted to prove what everyone had believed in the beginning? Would such an outcome not in any case help to justify the continuation of existing policies and would it convincingly silence those who, undoubtedly, never more than a small minority calling for legalization? A real debate that recognizes the inevitable complexities and uncertainties surrounding the notion of drug legalization should have long since begun. Not only would it deter people from making the kind of casual, if not frivolous, statements both for and against that have permeated previous debates on legalization, but it could also stimulate a broader and equally critical evaluation of the current U.S. UU.
However, what is normally described as a fairly simple process of lifting prohibitionist controls to reap these putative benefits would actually involve addressing an extremely complex set of regulatory issues. As with most, if not all, products supplied privately and publicly, key regulatory issues relate to the nature of legally available medicines, the terms of their supply and the terms of their consumption (see page 2) Relaxing the availability of psychoactive substances that have not yet been are commercially available, opponents often argue that it would lead to an immediate and substantial increase in consumption. To support their claim, they point to the prevalence of opium, heroin and cocaine addiction in several countries before international controls came into force, the increase in alcohol consumption after the Volstead Act was repealed in the United States, and studies showing higher rates of abuse among professional doctors with greater access to prescription drugs. Without explaining the basis of their calculations, some have predicted dramatic increases in the number of people who use drugs and become addicted.
These increases would translate into significant direct and indirect costs to society, including increased public health spending as a result of drug overdose, fetal deformities and other drug-related misadventures, such as car accidents; loss of productivity due to absenteeism of workers and accidents at work; and more drug-induced violence, child abuse and other crimes, not to mention educational impediments. Proponents of legalization admit that consumption would likely increase, but counteract that it is not axiomatic that the increase is very large or that it lasts a long time, especially if legalization were combined with appropriate public education programs. They also cite historical evidence to reinforce their claims, noting that opium, heroin and cocaine use had already begun to fall before the ban went into effect, that alcohol consumption did not increase suddenly after the ban was lifted, and that the decriminalization of cannabis use in 11 U.S. States in the 1970s did not precipitate a dramatic increase in consumption.
Some also point to the legal sale of cannabis products through regulated outlets in the Netherlands, which also does not seem to have significantly boosted consumption by Dutch citizens. Public opinion polls showing that most Americans would not rush to try the hitherto banned drugs that were suddenly available, are also used to support the case for legalization. Neither side's arguments are particularly reassuring. Historical evidence is, at best, ambiguous, even assuming that the experience of one era is relevant to another.
The extrapolation of the results of political measures from one country to another with different socio-cultural values encounters the same problem. Similarly, within the United States, the effect of decriminalization at the state level should be considered within the general context of the continuing federal ban. And opinion polls are known to be unreliable. More specifically, until the nature of the alleged regulatory regime is specified, such discussions are futile.
It would be surprising, for example, if the use of legalized drugs did not increase if they became commercially available, as are alcohol and tobacco products today, with sophisticated packaging, marketing and advertising. However, more restrictive regimes could have very different results. In any case, the risk of increased drug use could be acceptable if legalization could drastically reduce, if not completely eliminate, the crime associated with the black market of illicit drugs and, at the same time, make some forms of drug use safer. Once again, there are disputed claims.
Opponents of more permissive regimes doubt that black market activity and its associated problems will disappear or even fall much. But, as before, addressing this issue requires knowing the details of the regulatory regime, especially the conditions of supply. If drugs are sold openly on a commercial basis and prices are close to the costs of production and distribution, the opportunities for illicit undercutting would appear to be quite small. Under a more restrictive regime, such as government-controlled outlets or prescription plans, illicit sources of supply are more likely to remain or evolve to meet legally unmet demand.
In short, the desire to control access to stem consumption must be balanced with the opportunities that would arise on the black market. Schemes that risk black market continuity require more questions about the new functioning of black markets over time, whether it is likely to be more benign than existing ones, and, more generally, whether compensation with other benefits still makes the effort worthwhile. The most obvious case is the regulation of access to medicines by adolescents and young adults. Under any regime, it's hard to imagine that drugs that are now banned are more readily available than alcohol and tobacco today.
Would a black market for adolescent drugs emerge, or would the regulatory regime be as fluid as the current one for alcohol and tobacco? An affirmative answer to either question would diminish the appeal of legalization. What about international repercussions? Not surprisingly, the broader international ramifications of drug legalization have also gone unnoticed. Here too, a long set of questions remains to be addressed. Role as the main sponsor of international drug control measures, how would the decision to move towards drug legalization affect other countries? What would happen to the broad regime of multilateral conventions and bilateral agreements? Would each nation have to conform to a new set of rules? If not, what would happen? Would the most permissive countries suddenly be inundated by drugs and drug users, or would traffickers focus on countries where tighter restrictions kept profits higher? This is not an abstract question.
The Netherlands' liberal drug policy has attracted an influx of “drug tourists” from neighboring countries, as has the city of Zurich following the now-abandoned experiment that allowed an open drug market to operate in what became known as “Needle Park”. And while it is conceivable that rich countries can mitigate the worst consequences of drug legalization through extensive public drug prevention and treatment programs, what about the poorest countries? Finally, what would happen to major suppliers of illicit drugs if restrictions on the commercial sale of these drugs were lifted in some or all of the major markets? Would trafficking organizations adapt and become legal businesses or turn to other illegal companies. What would happen to countries of origin? Would new producers and manufacturers suddenly benefit or emerge elsewhere? These questions have not even been systematically posed, let alone seriously studied. While greater precision in defining more permissive regulatory regimes is essential to evaluating their potential costs and benefits, it will not resolve existing uncertainties.
Because small-scale experimentation (assuming the consent of a particular locality to be a guinea pig) would inevitably generate complaints that the results were biased or inconclusive, implementation would have to be widespread, even global, by nature. However, to scrap nearly a century of prohibition, when the supposed benefits remain so uncertain and the potential costs are so high, would require a Herculean leap of faith. Only an extremely serious and widespread deterioration of the current drug situation, at the national and international levels, is likely to produce again the consensus, national and international, that could drive such a leap forward. Even then, the legislative challenge would be great.
The debate on how to establish the conditions to control access to each of a dozen popular medicines could consume legislatures in major industrial countries for years to come. None of this should discourage a deeper analysis of drug legalization. In particular, a rigorous evaluation of a number of hypothetical regulatory regimes according to a common set of variables would clarify their potential costs, benefits and trade-offs. In addition to instilling much-needed rigor into any further discussion of the legalization alternative, such an analysis could encourage the same level of scrutiny of current drug control programs and policies.
With the situation apparently deteriorating both in the United States and abroad, there is no better time for a fundamental reassessment of whether our current responses to this problem are sufficient to address likely future challenges. Alcohol, tobacco and opioid pain relievers are probably more lethal than other drugs because they are legal, making it difficult to compare their aggregate effects with those of illegal drugs. Decriminalization means that if you are discovered in possession of small quantities of a drug for personal use, you do not incur a criminal penalty. In addition, governments could abandon the costly and largely futile effort to suppress the supply of illicit drugs and imprison drug offenders, spending the money thus saved to educate people not to use drugs and treat those who become addicted.
A drug expert conference measured all factors related to mortality, other physical harm, likelihood of developing dependence, deterioration of mental function, effect on crime, etc., and assigned a score to each drug. And, according to experts and researchers, legislators could do more to curb deaths caused by the three deadliest drugs if they only paid more attention to legal drug policy. Although drug policy experts generally agree that alcohol is dangerous and definitely more dangerous than marijuana, they argue that the report ignores some of the nuances behind the harms of each drug. This is similar to what has happened in many countries of the European Union where drugs are legal, technically legal recreational drugs that law enforcement doesn't put you in jail for having them, but they still make significant investments in harm reduction programs.
It should also be noted that, despite being legal, economic costs due to law enforcement and criminal justice could also contribute to the economic burden due to violations of laws that accompany legalization (e). . .