But for all the effort and cost, the war on drugs didn`t have much to show: drug use had actually increased in recent years, and America was in the midst of the deadliest drug crisis ever in the opioid epidemic. What would happen if heroin, cocaine and other drugs were legal? Image: RHJPhtoandilustration / Shutterstock.com Proponents of drug legalization believe that the wide and cheap availability of high-quality drugs will eliminate the illicit drug market, regulate quality and price, and reduce prosecution costs, including arrest and incarceration. They predict that governments will spend less money on enforcement, benefit from a new source of tax revenue, and that drug-related crime will decline as drugs ranging from marijuana to heroin become widely available, more or less like alcohol and tobacco. Research confirms that marijuana use among young adults has reached all-time highs, particularly marijuana vaping rates. The annual Monitoring the Future (MTF) survey found that one in four young adults use marijuana and nearly one in 10 use it daily. One survey found that Gen Z is twice as likely to use marijuana as the national average. But are these increases due to the decriminalization of drugs? Studies show that the legalization of drugs has increased marijuana use among adults, but not among teenagers, as many feared. Young adults include both of these age groups. More importantly, such discussions are unnecessary until the nature of the purported regulatory regime is clarified. It would be surprising, for example, if the use of legalized drugs did not increase, if they were as available on the market as alcohol and tobacco products are today, with sophisticated packaging, marketing and advertising. But more restrictive systems could have very different results. In any case, the risk of increased drug use could be acceptable if legalization could dramatically, if not completely, eradicate crime linked to the black market in illicit drugs, while making some forms of drug use safer.
Again, there are controversial claims. I am skeptical. Consider U.S. statistics: In 2015, drug overdoses killed more than 52,000 people, and more than 33,000 of those deaths were opioid-related. That`s far more than the number of people who died from homicide: nearly 18,000 in 2015, only some of whom were linked to violence in the war on drugs. Based on these numbers, the legal drug has led to a crisis that kills far more people than black market violence. Decriminalization primarily refers to offences related to the use and possession of drugs, not the sale or supply of drugs. One of the arguments in favour of decriminalization is to focus on drug users rather than drug suppliers. The idea is to give users a more humane and reasonable response to their drug use. In fact, in the 1990s and 2000s, the federal government urged doctors to prescribe opioids as part of the “Pain as the Fifth Vital Sign” campaign, when pharmaceutical companies misleadingly marketed opioids to treat chronic pain. And in some cases, various levels of government have eased access to opioids after lobbying pharmaceutical companies — passing laws requiring insurers, for example, to cover drugs. As in the past, some observers will no doubt see the solution in much harsher penalties to deter both suppliers and users of illicit psychoactive substances.
Others will argue that the answer lies not in more enforcement and tougher penalties, but in fewer penalties. In particular, they will argue that the edifice of national laws and international conventions that collectively prohibit the production, sale and use of large numbers of drugs for non-medical or scientific purposes has proven to be physically harmful, socially divisive, prohibitive and ultimately counterproductive by creating the very incentives that perpetuate a violent black market for illicit drugs. They will also conclude that the only logical step for the United States is to “legalize” drugs – essentially by repealing and dismantling current drug laws and enforcement mechanisms, just as America abandoned its brief experiment with alcohol prohibition in the 1920s. Data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) show the gap between the use of legal drugs (alcohol, tobacco and increasingly marijuana) and illicit drugs. Among Americans 12 and older, about 51 percent have consumed alcohol in the past 30 days, while about 21 percent have used tobacco. The percentage of those who used marijuana is almost 12%, which is considerably higher than those who used opioids (1%) or cocaine (0.7%). If the government heavily imposed a legalized drug market, drug gangs could still operate. This could include manufacturing or smuggling fabrics and selling them to consumers at lower prices or selling stronger versions. The composition of the different substances could be monitored more closely.
This may mean, for example, reducing the amount of THC – the main psychoactive component of a cannabis strain. It could also help prevent other drugs from being “cut” with even more dangerous substances and regulate the purity of certain substances, reducing the risk of overdose. Portugal has experienced much lower overdose rates since legalization, as well as drug-related AIDS cases. The DEA now has the authority to set production quotas for certain opioids, such as hydrocodone and oxycodone, that are produced for sale. He could have used this power, as he did in previous drug crises, to limit the supply of these dangerous drugs. But Frydl pointed out data to me showing that since at least 1999, the agency had allowed the opioid quota to rise and increase — effectively giving up a tool that would have allowed it to limit the rapid growth of opioid use. As drug policy experts pointed out in an article I reported in 2016, the U.S. has plenty of room to lighten its sentences before legalization.
One possibility is essentially the Portuguese model: drugs are decriminalized for personal use, so you cannot be punished with prison sentences only if you possess or consume illegal substances such as cocaine and heroin. But drugs remain illegal for big companies to produce and sell for profit — effectively stopping the kind of marketing that has fueled tobacco, alcohol and opioid epidemics. Drug prohibition violates civil liberties. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that because drugs are such a horrible thing, it is acceptable to circumvent the Fourth Amendment (which deals with search and seizure) to make it easier to obtain convictions in drug cases. Easing the availability of psychoactive substances that are not already commercially available, opponents generally argue, would lead to an immediate and substantial increase in consumption. To support their claim, they point to the prevalence of opium, heroin and cocaine addiction in various countries prior to the entry into force of international controls, the increase in alcohol consumption following the repeal of the Volstead Act in the United States, and studies showing higher rates of abuse among health professionals with better access to prescription drugs. Without explaining the basis of their calculations, some have predicted a dramatic increase in the number of people who use drugs and become addicted.
These increases would result in significant direct and indirect costs to society, including increased public health spending as a result of overdoses, foetal malformations and other drug-related accidents such as car accidents; loss of productivity due to absenteeism and accidents at work; and more drug-induced violence, child abuse and other crimes, not to mention school unrest. It is too early to say whether the positive or negative effects of drug decriminalization will have the greatest impact on this age group and on society as a whole. However, for young adults with cannabis use disorder caused by underlying trauma, depression and anxiety, comprehensive mental health treatment can help change their trajectory. Even as the country moves toward broader decriminalization of drugs, drug legalization remains a contentious issue. For every argument for why drugs should be legal, there is one that focuses on why drugs should not be legalized. And there are statistics on drug legalization that support both sides of the problem. Let`s take a closer look at the debate about drug legalization, the pros and cons of drug legalization, and what the research says about how drug decriminalization will affect young adults in particular. Opponents of more permissive regimes doubt that black market activities and related problems will disappear or even decline sharply. However, to answer this question, it is still necessary to know the specificities of the regulatory system, in particular the conditions of supply. When drugs are sold openly on a commercial basis and prices are close to production and distribution costs, the potential for illegal undercutting seems rather slim. In a more restrictive regime, such as state-controlled outlets or medical prescription systems, illicit sources of supply would be more likely to persist or expand to meet legally unmet demand. In short, the desire to control access to containment consumption must be weighed against emerging black market opportunities.