The debate over legalization
This is a preview to the chapter The debate over legalization from the book World War D by Jeffrey Dhywood.
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“I think what was truly depressing about my time in UKADCU was that the overwhelming majority of professionals I met, including those from the police, the health service, government and voluntary sectors held the same view: the illegality of drugs causes far more problems for society and the individual than it solves. Yet publicly, all those intelligent, knowledgeable people were forced to repeat the nonsensical mantra that the Government would be ‘tough on drugs’, even though they all knew that the Government’s policy was actually causing harm.”
Julian Critchley, former head of UK anti-drug co-ordination unit (UKADCU)
It should be quite obvious by now that the current prohibitionist drug policies are in dire need of reform, and that the status quo is not an option. How then can current drug policies be reformed, and can they be reformed in the first place, or should drug prohibition be repealed altogether? Current international treaties pose specific challenges and limitations to drug reform. We will address this issue at the end of the chapter. Let’s first look at the various options and their relative advantages and disadvantages.
To begin with, the regulation of psychoactive substances should be stripped of its obsolete ideological foundation and be based on sound evidence-based policies. Substance abuse should be viewed as a public health issue, not a criminal issue. Policies should be founded on respect of individual freedom and human rights with the goal of reducing harm, addressing the public health and public safety concerns without overly encroaching on civil liberties. They should be based on rights and the responsibilities attached to the exercise of those rights. Legislators should stop trying to legislate private lives. What informed consenting adults do to themselves or between themselves without intentionally endangering others is their sole responsibility. As a corollary, they should be held responsible for the potentially though not intentionally harmful consequences of their acts.
The limits of decriminalization
More and more countries are moving away from the strict US prohibitionist model towards some form of decriminalization. This is the case in most of Europe and Latin America as well as Australia. The United States is particularly schizophrenic on the issue, with the Federal government remaining the world’s prohibitionist in chief while a growing number of states are adopting some form of decriminalization or semi-legalization with a medical marijuana fig leaf.
The issue is hotly debated at the international level. After initially opposing it as a potential violation of international drug treaties, the UNODC even endorsed decriminalization in its 2009 annual report. Addressing Portugal’s decriminalization, the report affirms: “These conditions keep drugs out of the hands of those who would avoid them under a system of full prohibition, while encouraging treatment, rather than incarceration, for users. Among those who would not welcome a summons from a police officer are tourists, and, as a result, Portugal’s policy has reportedly not led to an increase in drug tourism … It also appears that a number of drug-related problems have decreased.” But the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) in its 2009 annual report is concerned that “[t]he movement [towards decriminalization] poses a threat to the coherence and effectiveness of the international drug control system and sends the wrong message to the general public.” At the International AIDS Conference held in Vienna in July 2010, more than 13,000 clinicians, researchers, and public policy experts signed a declaration calling for the global decriminalization of drug use and the implementation of evidence-based policies to halt the rampant spread of HIV infection among injecting drug users (IDUs).
While it pushes their limits, decriminalization doesn’t violate the current international treaties and can be implemented without major international upheaval. Decriminalization also reduces harm to the users, helping them to seek treatment, protecting them from the claws of the justice system, while alleviating pressure on said justice system. In theory, it allows the reallocation of law enforcement resources towards the fight against drug traffickers and organized crime. As decriminalization reduces use only marginally at best, one must assume that the effects on drug trafficking are minimal. Decriminalization seems to reduce crime related to drugs acquisition. In that sense, decriminalization succeeds in reducing micro-harms, the harms at the individual and community level. But decriminalization fails to address the quality control issue and, unless it is accompanied by other harm reduction practices, it doesn’t sensibly reduce hazardous administration practices. More importantly, if decriminalization narrowly addresses some of the use issue, it fails to address the arguably far more important supply issue, as well as the most globally damaging effects of prohibition and drug trafficking, the macro-harms, the harms to societies and to nations, chief among them organized crime and its associated violence and corruption.
Decriminalization is really just a patch, a temporary fix that alleviates some problems but ultimately leaves intact or even strengthens the black market, which totally defeats the purpose. Furthermore, just as prohibition was really intended to minimize the impact of illegal drug use on Western countries, decriminalization minimizes the impacts of prohibition on using countries but fails to address the harms imposed on producing and transiting countries by the illegal drug trade. So while it is certainly a step in the right direction, decriminalization is clearly not the whole answer.
Momentum is growing in favor of some degree of legalization, with wide support in favor of marijuana legalization, especially in Western countries. The global youth culture already operates in post-prohibition mode. Consumption and possession of small quantities of cannabis are already decriminalized in many states and countries. In the US, medical marijuana, which for all practical purposes is legalization with a medical fig leaf, is slowly but surely eroding marijuana prohibition. Cannabis is semi-legal in the Netherlands and widely tolerated throughout Europe. All these measures might be viewed by some as a step in the right direction, but they still leave organized crime in control.
It is debatable whether selective legalization of the softer psychoactives, mainly cannabis, might lead to an explosive growth of the black market for hard drugs. It could be argued that a legal access to relatively mild psychoactive substances might dry up the demand for harder substances. But wide availability of alcohol didn’t prevent the dramatic rise in the use of other substances. On the other hand, users of mild psychoactives get exposed to hard psychoactives mostly through their supply channel, which wouldn’t be the case if soft psychoactives were legalized. Therefore, selective legalization would likely result in a dramatic decrease in undue exposure to hard psychoactives.
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