Drug legalization is often misconstrued and misrepresented.
The drug problem is a frustrating and seemingly futile issue when one views the problem from a superficial standpoint. The media and society often represent the problem as epidemic in nature and this view tends to make individuals believe that the drug problem is at best being controlled or significantly slowed in its growth. This perception is also taken to extremes in which many proponents of drug legalization believe that legal remedies have done nothing to curb the problem or even made it worse. Within this framework of thinking, the arguments for drug legalization seem compelling, however, these arguments are founded on the assumptions that drug control is ineffective and that the criminalization of drugs creates a black market. These assumptions contain an element of truth but fail to show the reality of drug decriminalization. When one examines the reality of decriminalization, the dangers and negative impacts of drugs clearly reflects the necessity for drugs to remain criminalized.
One of the more prominent arguments used to promote decriminalization is the argument that criminalization of drugs creates a black market and increased crime. The most commonly used example is the failure of prohibition. While criminalization of alcohol did increases crime, during prohibition, the ending of prohibition did not end crime. When prohibition ended, the black market for alcohol continued to exist and still does currently. In fact, in every case of decriminalization, black markets and crime have continued to exist. There is a variety of examples that are evidence for the failure of decriminalization. One major example of this failure is tobacco. Cigarettes have always been legal and there is a tremendous black market that exists with this product (Johnson, 2011).
“The tax loss for the diversion of cigarettes into the criminal markets costs the taxpayers many millions of dollars per year,” ATF Agent in Charge Scott Sweetow said. “This is not a new problem but the scope of it I think would startle most people,” said Sweetow (Winne & Tangherlini, 2011).
Tobacco is not an isolated incident for the black marketing of legal products. Prescription drugs are another example of how legal drugs can be used in criminal activities. Prescription drugs and nonprescription drugs are commonly found on the black market (ATF, 2012). The illegal selling and buying of prescription drugs is a major problem because taxpayers lose millions of dollars annually from government programs being defrauded for drugs. Poor people are often induced to sell prescriptions in order to make money for living expenses. In many ways, the prescription drug black market rivals the illicit drug market.
Operators of a nationwide black market have illegally sold more than $100 million of expensive …drugs obtained from patients on the government-run Medicaid health insurance plan, U.S. authorities said on Tuesday…Authorities said that in the last 15 months, the scheme cost Medicaid $108 million. In total, going back seven years, the fraud could be as much as $500 million, they said (Katz, 3012).
Alcohol however, is one of the greatest examples of the failure and misconception of decriminalization. Admittedly, prohibition did increase crime, but the decriminalization of alcohol has never removed the black market selling of the product. Underage drinkers are a large component of the black market for alcohol. Studies have shown that 50% of the time underage drinkers illegally obtain alcohol from bars and liquor stores (Forster et al, 1994). Along with illegal drinking and illegal alcohol sales cost millions of dollars in tax revenue (ATF, 2012).
From these examples, one can glean that there is a misunderstanding with criminalization of drugs and alcohol. The misconception is that criminalization creates black markets. This is however not the case; the demand for drugs and alcohol is what drives the black market, not the legal status of the product.
The other large misconception concerning drug decriminalization is the argument that criminalization is ineffective. Proponents of drug decriminalization cite prohibition as their example. The ineffectiveness argument relies on the idea that people continued to drink and the drinking was driven underground such as in speakeasies. Although this is true to some extent it is not a true representation of the effect of prohibition. The criminalization of alcohol had positive impacts on public health. For example, prohibition significantly reduced the number of alcohol-related illnesses and deaths. As well, the number of deaths caused by cirrhosis of the liver decreased nearly 30% (Will, 2012).
Tobacco is another instance where legal remedies have been extremely successful in controlling the risks associated with drug use. Before legal intervention, cigarette companies were permitted cart blanche advertising. The unrestricted advertising of tobacco led to the number of smokers in the United States being approximately 40% of the population. The death rates from smoking were also extremely large. Because of legal intervention the smoking population in the United States has been lowered from 40% to less than 20% (Maugh, 2010).
The legal intervention with addictive drugs such as cocaine and heroin has reduced the addicted user population to below 1% (SAMHSA, 2011). Comparatively speaking, the legalization of these drugs would increase this addicted population as it has in other situations. One can see this correlation when viewing prohibition statistics. Before legalization, alcohol abuse and addiction was less than 1% of the population. Today, legal consumption of alcohol has increased abuse and addicts of alcohol to 7% of the population (Will, 2012).
There are many misconceptions concerning the decriminalization of drugs. Supporters of drug legalization continue to make the same arguments despite the evidence that contradicts their arguments. There are contemporary examples that provide evidence for continued legal intervention such as in the recent decriminalization of drugs in Portugal.
When Portugal completely decriminalized drugs this did not have the desired affect of solving the problems associated with drugs. The act of decriminalization obviously lowered the crime rate it did not curb drug dealing or the problems associated with this market (Szalavitz, 2009). Since the decriminalization of drugs in Portugal the number of addicts has stayed the same (Szalavitz, 2009).
Portugal reflects the misunderstanding attached with drug decriminalization. Even the countries which claim to be successful with drug decriminalization are not truly decriminalized. Proponents of drug legalization often do not make this distinction. The truth is that many of these countries have legalized soft drugs such as cannabis (Peeperkorn, 2003 pg. 8). Many of these countries still have restrictions on hard drugs such as heroin and cocaine. As shown from the example of decriminalization of alcohol in the US, countries such as Portugal had increased drug addiction population. The addiction problem was worsened when harder more addictive drugs such as cocaine and opium were not considered for restriction. The most powerful example of this can be seen in the opium epidemic that infected China from the 1800’s to the 1940’s (Brook & Wkabayashi, 2000 pg. 32). It is estimated that China had 70 million opium addicts during this period (Brook & Wkabayashi, 2000 pg. 40). It would require strict and severe criminal penalties to end the opium epidemic. Millions of people died in China as a direct result of opium (Brook & Wkabayashi, 2000 pg. 32).
The proponents of drug legalization also overlook other serious problems caused by drug use. Their arguments do not take into account the issue of increased risks to public health. Addiction and secondary diseases become larger problems when drug use is allowed to flourish. These problems affect not just the using population but also the non-drug using people. Diseases such as AIDS and hepatitis become increased risks for nonusers within the population. The problem is so bad that in many countries where drug legalization has occurred, free needles must be issued by the government to reduce the risk of communicable diseases being spread.
It is clear that there are many misconceptions and misunderstandings concerning the legalization of drugs. The arguments of proponents overlook the dangers of public health issues. As well, their arguments concerning crime and control also fall short when they are viewed in a critical manner. The decriminalization of drugs merely has the appearance of less crime and fewer problems. This appearance is nothing more than an illusion created by the fact that arrest rates naturally diminish, since the buying and selling of drugs is no longer illegal. Decriminalization only masks the problem and makes it a public health issue rather than a police matter. Within this context, the people who benefit the most from drug decriminalization are the drug dealers and addicts since there is no longer a punishment for the activities. The real losers are the nondrug using population, since they will now be dealing with increased drug related dangers and activities.
ATF. (2012). Alcohol smuggling. Retrieved from http://searchjustice.usdoj.gov/search?q=alcohol smuggling&site=default_collection&sort=date:D:L:d1&output=xml_no_dtd&ie= UTF8&oe=UTF8&client=atf&proxystylesheet=atf&ip=126.96.36.199,10.4.1465 ,10.14.4.33&a ccess=p&q=(site:atf.gov )&entqr=3&entqrm=0&ud=1&start=10
Brook, T., & Wkabayashi, B. T. (2000). Opium regimes: China, britain, and japan, 1839–1952. Berkley California: University of California Press.
Forster JL, McGovern PG, Wagenaar AC, Wolfson M, Perry CL, Anstine PS. The ability of young people to purchase alcohol without age identification in northeastern Minnesota, USA. Addiction. 1994 Jun;89(6):699–705.
Will, G. F. (2012, April 4). The drug legalization dilemma. Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/would-drug-legalization-do-more- harm-than-good/2012/04/04/gIQANg46vS_story.html
Johnson, K. (2011, April 8). Violent criminals expand into cigarettes. Retrieved from http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2011-05-02-atf-cigarette-smuggling.htm
Katz, B. (3012, July 17). U.s. busts $108 million black market in medicaid drugs. Retrieved from http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/07/17/us-usa-medicaid- arrests-idUSBRE86G0KZ20120717
U.S. smoking rate hasn’t changed, CDC says September 08, 2010 By Thomas H. Maugh II, Los Angeles Times
Marc Peeperkorn (22 April 2003). “Kamer voor legaliseren softdrugs” (in Dutch). Volkskrant. Retrieved November 17, 2012. “To make the sale, trade and growth of softdrugs not punishable is currently hindered by United Nations treaties.”
SAMHSA. (2011, September). Results from the 2010 national survey on drug use and health: Summary of national findings. Retrieved from http://oas.samhsa.gov/NSDUH/2k10NSDUH/2k10Results.htm
Szalavitz, M. (2009, April 26). drugs in portugal: Did decriminalization work?. Retrieved from http://www.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,1893946,00.html
U.S. smoking rate hasn’t changed, CDC says September 08, 2010 By Thomas H. Maugh II, Los Angeles Times
Winne, M., & Tangherlini, T. (2011, October 19). Up to 50 arrested in illegal cigarette trafficking ring . Retrieved from http://www.wsbtv.com/news/news/50-arrested- illegal-cigarette-trafficking-ring/nFJ8P/