Americas Quarterly December 2016
The argument that drug decriminalization, or legalization, will solve the budget crisis, reduce prison overcrowding and cripple drug cartels is simply not supported by evidence. In fact, the benefits of keeping marijuana and other illicit drugs illegal clearly outweigh the negative and predictable consequences of legitimizing these substances.
There are academic distinctions between decriminalization and legalization. In the United States’ experience, decriminalization arguments are typically employed as a rhetorical and political tool, often explicitly, by advocates attempting to pry open the door to full legalization. Our position is simple and evidence-based: both decriminalization and legalization of illicit drugs would increase their use, along with their associated health and social costs. Unless advocates of decriminalization or of outright legalization can establish that more drug use is a net good for society, both arguments are self-refuting.
The Barack Obama Administration has made crucial changes in U.S. drug policies, but they reflect the realities of science and experience. They reflect what has worked in the past and what we need to improve. We recognize that drug addiction is a disease—one that we must strive to eradicate through prevention, evidence-based interventions and comprehensive treatment.
Criminal sanctions against drugs are not a purely punitive tool. Penalties, or even the threat of them, frequently spur individuals struggling with addiction or substance abuse to get the treatment they might never seek or receive on their own. In fact, more than one-third of all treatment referrals in the U.S. are currently from the criminal justice system. Our support for drug courts, Drug Market Initiatives and criminal justice innovations that rely on swift but moderate sanctions reflect the invaluable and multifaceted role the criminal justice system plays in addressing drug use and its consequences.
Our drug policy addresses both the public health and public safety aspects of drug use through expanded support for drug prevention and treatment. It has already reduced the mandatory minimum sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine—an historic first-time reduction of mandatory minimum sentencing signed into law by President Obama in July. It supports efforts to help the millions of Americans in recovery. These are policies guided by what we know; they make more sense than making changes based on the dubious proposition that decriminalization or legalization can sweep away the myriad problems associated with drug use.
Our long experience with two legal substances, alcohol and tobacco, demonstrates that legalization increases society’s acceptance, availability, use, and associated costs. Alcohol and tobacco cause hundreds of thousands more deaths per year than all illegal drugs combined, in part because their use is more widespread. Alcohol and tobacco are currently used by 51.6 percent and 28.4 percent, respectively, of the population aged 12 and older; while use of marijuana, the most popular illicit drug, hovers around six percent. Marijuana today is less accepted and less widely used among youth than alcohol or tobacco—in no small part because it is illegal.1
Another factor discouraging more widespread use of illegal drugs is their relatively high cost. According to multiple economic analyses, current marijuana prohibitions raise the cost of its production by at least 400 percent; the resulting higher prices help hold down rates of usage. Consumption pattens for marijuana, cigarettes and alcohol are known to be sensitive to changes in price, especially among young people. Rigorous independent research has shown that even small price changes affect marijuana consumption rates, consistent with what we know about cigarettes, where research has shown that a 10 percent drop in price yields a 7 to 8 percent increase in demand.2
Legal drugs are cheap and easy to obtain. High profits make the addiction business lucrative. Consider the Dutch experiment with commercialized marijuana: after “coffee shops” were widely promoted in the Netherlands, the rate of regular marijuana use among 18-to-20-year-olds more than doubled.3 Because of crime, drug tourism and public nuisance problems, the Dutch have severely restricted the number of coffee shops where marijuana is sold commercially.
The U.S. does not need another vice industry dedicated to promoting and supporting addiction. Think about the tobacco industry, dominated by lobbyists, glorified by advertisements, promoted by global marketing designed to skirt domestic regulation, and defended by “scientific” institutes determined to present the drug in the softest possible light. Do we want the same for marijuana and cocaine?
Why not legalize and tax drugs to gain much-needed revenue? Our experience with alcohol and tobacco shows that tax revenue from these substances does not even begin to cover the costs associated with them. Federal excise taxes collected on alcohol in 2002 totaled $8.3 billion, which is only 4.5 percent of the $184 billion in alcohol-related costs, such as lost productivity and increased health care spending.
With tobacco, we spend more than $200 billion annually on social costs, but collect only about $25 billion in taxes. Illegal drugs represented about $181 billion in social costs in 2002—a figure that would increase, because of increased use, under legalization.4
A central tenet of legalization is that it would eliminate underground drug markets, since drugs would be available openly. But there is no reason to believe legalization would bring about this result. Instead, government would have to regulate a new, legal market while continuing to pay for the negative effects of an underground market whose suppliers have little economic incentive to disappear. When the Canadians instituted a cigarette tax creating a mere $2-per-pack differential versus the U.S. price, it created such a huge smuggling problem that Canada was forced to repeal the tax increase.5
The enthusiasm of advocates for decriminalized and regulated drugs should be tempered by our experience with prescription drugs like OxyContin© and other analgesic opioids. These are legal, highly regulated drugs, dispensed under supervision; yet unintentional U.S. drug overdose death rates have increased roughly five-fold between 1990 and 2006, due primarily to deaths attributed to narcotic pain relievers.
The idea that legalizing drugs will lessen drug abuse contradicts research showing that misperceptions of prescription drugs as less harmful actually contribute to their abuse.6
Legalization proponents argue that the criminal justice system costs associated with prohibition unduly burden taxpayers. There are certainly criminal-justice costs to maintaining current prohibitions, but legalizing drugs would not eliminate them. Alcohol-related arrests, in the form of liquor law violations, public drunkenness and driving under the influence, totaled nearly 2.7 million in 2009. All illegal drug-related arrests in 2009 totaled almost 1.6 million. With the increased use that legalization would bring, it is not hard to forecast related increases in arrests and other drug-related criminal justice costs.
Instead of promoting risky drug policies grounded in speculation rather than science, we should pursue our current course of a coordinated, balanced strategy including prevention, treatment, enforcement, and international cooperation.