These past few weeks have seen advances in the nation’s policy towards drugs, specifically marijuana. In Colorado, customers lined up on Jan. 1 to become part of the first segment of the population able to legally purchase state-regulated cannabis for recreational use, with Washington state set to do the same later this year. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently announced his plan to allow limited access to medical marijuana in the Empire State, joining 20 other states and the District of Columbia that already allow some use of the historically illicit plant.
Nevertheless, the country’s increasing push towards liberalization of marijuana and perhaps eventually other drugs is certainly a step in the right direction.
As expected, these new decisions and rollouts of laws have continued the longstanding debates about the repercussions of moving away from customary prohibition measures. Pundits and policy experts argue and cite conflicting studies on the projected effects of legalization and decriminalization on public health, crime, taxation and even traffic safety, never mind the underlying moral issues of using drugs.
While many have deemed the early marijuana sales in Colorado a success, it is obviously far too early to judge the long-term consequences of the state’s legalization. Personal opinions on the merits of drug use aside, one of the biggest reasons for supporting these new measures is that past prohibition policies have not been effective.
Historically, the policy in the United States towards drugs has been as follows: stop the production of drugs at their source through eradication, intercept remaining drug shipments before they reach American soil, support foreign law enforcement to combat international drug networks and discourage domestic use through high black market prices and stiff sentencing — all in all, aspects of the hard-nosed philosophy of waging a “war on drugs.”
In the first place, years of these tactics have proved to make little progress in curbing drug production in the key target area of Latin America. Although officials have cited reductions in specific countries, they have done little to stop overall output. Temporary gains and concentration of forces in one country simply push the problem to its neighbors, a phenomenon known as the balloon effect. This term is analogous to the idea of what happens when you squeeze a balloon: putting pressure on one spot simply pushes its contents to another.
In the Andes region for example, production of cocaine has repeatedly shifted back and forth from Peru and Bolivia to Colombia as periodic crackdowns occur. As cited in a recent article by the Cato Institute, “Overall, the World Drug Report by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime estimates that cocaine production levels in the Andes are pretty much the same as a decade ago.”
It makes sense then that if production remains relatively unaffected, supplies are still reaching United States soil. A similar balloon effect due to increased counternarcotics efforts in Mexico has also now pushed trafficking (and subsequent violence) into Central American countries and even the Caribbean. While the American government has spent roughly $40 billion a year on the drug war over the past decade, domestic consumption has not drastically changed.
Experts often attribute the fluctuations in the use of specific drugs to societal changes and fashions, not counternarcotics efforts. Marijuana, the drug at the center of these new laws, has actually seen its use steadily increase over the years. In 2012, 5.4 million people used it on a near daily basis, compared to 3.1 million people in 2006, according to the 2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health.
Why would people be deterred from dealing with the black market when drug prices are at an all time low? “In the U.S., the average price of heroin, cocaine and cannabis decreased by at least 80 percent between 1990 and 2007, while average purity increased by 60 percent, 11 percent and 161 percent respectively,” according to CNN.
In the process of failing to reduce consumption, the war on drugs and prohibition efforts have also helped create insurgent-caliber drug cartels in Mexico. In some areas they have become near shadow governments, able to extort businesses and threaten citizens with violence and kidnapping. While estimates vary on the specific amount, the billions of dollars spent by Americans’ drug habits have without a doubt helped to finance these powerful criminal groups.
This in turn has led to tens of thousands of civilian deaths as cartels fight each other (and government forces) for control over lucrative trafficking corridors. Not to mention giving them power to expand their influence into other criminal activities. In fact, violence indicators increased throughout Mexico after the onset of the Mérida Initiative, a concentrated attack on drug cartels by the United States and Mexico.
Yet, some might argue that shifting away from prohibition is simply giving up on discouraging drug use. In some ways it can be seen as following the old mantra, “if you can’t beat them, join them.” However, the evidence suggests that continuing prohibition policies seems more along the lines of “beating a dead horse.”
Pursuing alternative strategies does not mean that government is sanctioning drug use; rather it allows it to treat addiction as a public health issue, as opposed to a criminal act. In 2001, Portugal decriminalized all drugs — still keeping them illegal but removing criminal penalties for possessing small amounts, something many states in America have already done with marijuana.
Instead of incarceration, those found in possession of small quantities of any drug (even be it heroin or cocaine) are required to pay a fine or perform community service. Problem users and those that truly have an addiction crisis are sent to government sponsored rehab and treatment centers. These efforts have resulted in a dramatic reduction in the number of problematic drug users and HIV infections among addicts in Portugal, as well as less of a strain on its criminal justice system.
The recent efforts by some states to pursue unconventional policies in regards to drugs should be continued. While there maybe some interesting conflicts between state and federal law in the interim (a recent article published by the New York Times discussed how legal pot growers often have trouble setting up bank accounts), it is best for everyone to see how decriminalization and legalization pan out on a smaller scale before making drastic national changes to public policy.
Federal legalization of marijuana (something roughly half of all Americans support) and decriminalization of harder drugs might well be the answer to America’s drug problems and failed prohibition policies down the road. However, it will only work when put in tandem with stronger treatment methods for those with severe addiction problems.
While decriminalization is not without its drawbacks, the United States should continue to pursue alternatives to a war on drugs that cost billions of dollars and countless lives, all while failing to significantly curb drug use.