The way we treat drugs right now does not work. The American approach towards addiction and drugs is to crack down and make sure people know there are consequences. According to data from the Federal Bureau of Prisons, around half of all U.S. prisoners are behind bars for drug crimes. We keep on locking people up, giving people harsher sentences—but drug use continues to be a growing problem.
Experts say this approach is not grounded in science. Instead of treating drugs as a criminal issue, it should be treated as a health care issue. Millions of people use drugs for a variety of reasons. Decades of prohibition has shown that people are not going to stop using drugs. Researchers have directly linked efforts to stamp out drugs to violence and other harmful effects in communities.
In a lengthy review of the state of global drug policy, the Hopkins-Lancet experts conclude that the prohibitionist anti-drug policies of the past 50 years "directly and indirectly contribute to lethal violence, disease, discrimination, forced displacement, injustice and the undermining of people’s right to health."
Legalizing drugs would save lives. A lot of drug violence happens because of prohibition. Legalizing drugs means drug sales are done in the open, in a regulated manner. States like Colorado should be seen as a test-kitchen for legalization. People worried about potential negative effects, but marijuana sales have increased tax revenue, while lowering the number of people being locked up for petty drug crimes. Researchers found legalization and decriminalization in the U.S. has hurt Mexican drug cartels, who are struggling to compete against domestically produced marijuana.
Legalization would have similar effects as this, but on a wider scale. Criminal organizations would lose some of their biggest revenue streams. Communities would see fewer incidents of violence, as drugs are taken out of the black market and become regulated products. Fewer people would be in prison. Those who struggle with addiction and drug abuse would be free to seek help without fear of retribution. Research shows prohibition is all cost with next to no benefit.
But perhaps the best reason to legalize hard drugs is that people who wish to consume them have the same liberty to determine their own well-being as those who consume alcohol, or marijuana, or anything else. In a free society, the presumption must always be that individuals, not government, get to decide what is in their own best interest.
Critics say legalizing drugs would drastically increase the number of people taking drugs. This ultimately harms society. Legalizing drugs removes barriers that prevent people from using them. The more people use drugs, the more removed they become from society. That's not a good thing. Political scientist James Q. Wilson raises three points about why legalizing drugs would lead to more people abusing drugs.
Right now, hard drugs have a higher cost than they would if they were legal, for a variety of reasons. This means not everyone who wants drugs has access to drugs. If drugs were to be legalized and openly available, more people would seek out drugs. It's a function of basic economics.
Drug quality would stabilize, meaning people would be more comfortable buying and consuming drugs because there's less doubt over what they're getting.
Finally, legalization would reduce the risk of finding drugs. You no longer have to worry about possession or dealing with criminal drug dealers. There's no longer any risk involved.
Wilson says any positive effect from legalizing drugs would be countered by the sheer number of people who will become addicts. Most people who do drugs do not become drug addicts. But some do. The sheer increase in addicts would overwhelm many of the systems we have in place. Addiction is only one small facet of the problem with drugs. The increase in drug use will ripple out across society.
Or to take another example. Suppose we have 15,000 people killed by drunken drivers. How many will be killed by coke- or heroin-addicted drivers if access to those products becomes as easy as access to alcohol is now? There is no way to tell, but it would be foolish to assume that the number would be trivial.
Or ask how many marriages, now afflicted by alcoholism, will be afflicted by drug abuse when drugs become legal. Or how many pregnancies that now are harmed by fetal alcohol syndrome will be harmed by fetal drug syndrome.
Any argument for legalization has to somehow justify that the gains for legalization would outweigh the negatives. Many people are skeptical.
Advocates for legalization say this chart is the most compelling reason to go through with legalization. It will save lives.