Should Illicit Drugs Be Legalized Essay, Research Paper
Whether Bill Clinton “inhaled” when trying marijuana as a college student was about the closest the last presidential campaign came to addressing the drug issue. The present one, however, could be very different. For the fourth straight year, a federally supported nationwide survey of American secondary school students by the University of Michigan has shown increased drug use. After at least 10 years in which drug use had been falling, the major concern that is already rising is that the large wave of teenagers, the group most at risk of taking drugs, will be accompanied by a new surge in drug use (Gwynne, 1). The only logical step for the United States to take is to “legalize” drugs, in essence repeal and trash the current drug policies. This can be accomplished in a similar procedure with which America abandoned its brief experiment with alcohol prohibition in the 1920s. Illicit drugs should be legalized for the reasons of public satisfaction, government taxation, reduction of crime, and industrial value.
Although the legalization alternative typically surfaces when the public’s anxiety about drugs and despair over existing policies are at their highest, it never seems to exit the media for long. Frequent incidents, such as the heroin-induced death of a young, wealthy New York City couple in 1995 or the 1993 remark by then Surgeon General Jocelyn Elders that legalization might be beneficial and should be studied, support this. The prominence of some individuals who have made the case for legalization, such as William F. Buckley, Jr., Milton Friedman, and George Shultz, also helps (Dawsey, 73). However, each time the issue of legalization arises, the same arguments for and against are used repeatedly, leaving us with no clearer understanding of what it might involve and what the effect might be.
Obviously, drug legalization is not a public policy option that lends itself to simple or shallow debate. It requires analysis and scrutiny of an order that has been surprisingly absent despite the attention it constantly receives. Beyond discussion of some very general proposals, there has been no detailed evaluation of the operational meaning of legalization. There is not even a commonly accepted vocabulary of terms to allow a serious debate to take place (Dawsey, 73). Legalization, consequently, has come to mean different things to different people. Some, for example, use legalization interchangeably with “decriminalization,” which usually refers to removing criminal sanctions for possessing small quantities of drugs for personal use. Others define legalization as complete prohibition, failing in the process to recognize the extent to which currently legally available drugs are subject to strict controls (Bustard and Kelly, 1).
Unfortunately, the U.S. government, including the Clinton administration, has done little to improve the debate. Although it has consistently rejected any retreat from prohibition, its position has clearly not been based on in-depth investigation of the potential costs and benefits. Based on a study performed by the New Citizen Project, an average of $58 billion was spent on illegal drugs between the years 1988-1993 (Bustard and Kelly, [graph]). If the government could consider for one moment the amount of taxation potential within legalized drugs, a serious proposal regarding current policies could be considered.
The belief that legalization would lead to an instant and dramatic increase in drug use is considered so self-evident as to warrant no further study. Nevertheless, if this is indeed the likely conclusion of any study, what is there to fear aside from criticism that extremely small amounts of taxpayer money had been wasted in demonstrating what
everyone had believed at the beginning? Wouldn’t such an outcome in any case help justify the continuation of existing policies and silence those calling for legalization? (Donnelly, 1).
Many arguments appear to make legalization an impressive alternative to today’s prohibitionist policies. Besides reducing the black-market incentives to produce and sell drugs, legalization could remove or at least significantly reduce the problems that cause the greatest public concern: the crime, corruption, and violence that come with the operation of illicit drug markets. It would also diminish the damage caused by the absence of quality controls on illicit drugs and slow the spread of infectious diseases due to needle sharing and other unhygienic practices (Bustard and Kelly, 1). Furthermore, as Dale Ferranto (special agent in charge of the state Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement) says, governments could abandon the costly and largely futile efforts to suppress the supply of illicit drugs and jail drug offenders, spending the money thus saved to educate people not to take drugs and treat those who become addicted (qtd. in Dorgan, 2).
What becomes immediately apparent from even a casual review of these questions is that there is an enormous range of regulatory changes for each drug. Until all the primary alternatives are clearly laid out in sensible detail, however, the potential costs and benefits of each cannot begin to be assessed. This basic point can be illustrated with respect to the two core questions most likely to affect public opinion. What would happen to drug consumption under more lenient regulatory regimes? And what would happen to crime? (Dorgan, 2)
Advocates of legalization admit that consumption would probably rise, but counter that it is not evident that the increase would be very large or last very long, especially if
legalization were accompanied by appropriate public education programs. They too cite historical evidence to bolster their claims, noting that consumption of opium, heroin, and cocaine had already begun falling before prohibition took effect, that alcohol consumption did not rise suddenly after prohibition was lifted, and that decriminalization of cannabis use in 11 U.S. states in the 1970s did not result in a dramatic rise in its consumption (Dawsey, 73). 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 use by Dutch nationals. Public opinion polls showing that most Americans would not rush off to try hitherto forbidden drugs are likewise used to support the pro-legalization case (Bustard and Kelly, 1).
Opponents of more permissive regimes doubt that black market activity and its associated problems would disappear or even fall very much. However, as before, addressing this question requires knowing the specifics of the regulatory system, especially the terms of supply. If drugs are sold openly on a commercial basis and prices are close to production and distribution costs, opportunities for illicit undercutting would appear to be small (Donnelly, 1). Under a more restrictive regime, such as government- controlled outlets or medical prescription, illicit sources of supply would be more likely to remain or evolve to satisfy the legally unfulfilled demand. In short, the desire to control access to consumption has to be balanced against the black market opportunities that would surface. Schemes that risk a continuing black market require more questions, about the new black market’s operation over time, whether it is likely to be more favorable than existing ones, and more broadly whether the trade-off with other benefits still makes the effort worthwhile (Gwynne, 1).
Marijuana has been proven to have industrial benefits as well. Industrial hemp is basically the same plant as marijuana, but looks quite different – tall stalk, few leaves – and contains so little of marijuana’s psychoactive ingredient, THC, that even the most determined pothead could smoke it all day to little effect. The plant’s many uses, as displayed in an exhibition in the Vermont Capitol in early 1996, include hemp flour, hemp soaps, hemp textiles (including a sneaker from Adidas), hemp machine lubricants, even hemp mortar and fiberboard for building. Hemp brownies were passed around to the eager crowd (Economist, 28).
As can be concluded from the information above, the legalization of illicit drugs is a controversial, yet absolute concept. Hopefully, the United States government will eventually realize the potential of this revolutionary reform and act upon it.