Legalizing Drugs

America’s war on drugs is not working. Each year the United States government spends millions of taxpayer’s dollars to imprison non-violent drug offenders for years, sometimes for life. Billions are also spent on trying to keep drugs off the streets, and still we have failed to see any real results. The old way of doing things is not working. It is time to try something new. Decriminalizing drugs would save Americans money, decrease deaths caused by drugs, and it would be a more humane way, in general, to deal with the problem.

People often confuse decriminalization of drugs with full legalization, but there is a difference between legalizing and decriminalizing drugs. Full legalization means no penalty for growing, manufacturing, selling, or using drugs. Decriminalization means that it is still a criminal offense to make, grow or sell illicit drugs, but people caught using or possessing drugs would have the option to receive treatment for their addiction instead of facing incarceration.

Treating addiction as a sickness, instead of a crime is a far cheaper option for American taxpayers than our current system. According to an article by Kimberly Powell, “Decriminalization of Drugs: A Logical Solution,” “The public spends $110,000 for an addict that is placed in the prison system on simple drug possession charges that result in a mandatory minimum sentence for five years in prison”.  Powell also goes on to point out that we could give that same addict one year in prison, a year of residential drug treatment, and three years of probation and outpatient drug treatment for less than half the cost of a five year prison term. This would benefit taxpayers and addicts alike. Drug addicts usually do not receive proper treatment for their drug addiction in prison, which results in excessive recidivism.

The money saved by decriminalizing drugs could be used for better drug prevention programs such as community treatment centers, the D.A.R.E. program, and any other drug education programs. Education is the key to fighting drug addiction. Decriminalizing drugs would also help to solve the problem of prison overpopulation. America’s prisons are full of non-violent offenders, who truly do not belong there. Prison should be a place for people who commit real crimes such as murder, rape, child abuse, terrorism, and white collar crimes. Non-violent drug offenders need medical treatment not incarceration.

Families suffer tremendously because of the current drug policies. As Powell points out, the number of women in prison increased by almost 600% between 1980 and 1997, with most of them there for non-violent drug offenses. This costs more money for taxpayers, and puts a strain on families, because the children of these women are usually taken and placed in foster care. These families would benefit much more from a treatment program and family counseling instead. It is unconscionable to break up a family when there are so many other options available.       

Decriminalizing drugs would decrease the number of deaths caused by drug use, and the amount of people searching for help with drug addiction would surely increase. This has proven to be the case in Portugal, where the possession of illicit drugs, including heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, LSD, and marijuana have been decriminalized since 2001.

According to an article in Scientific American, entitled “5 Years After: Portugal’s Drug Decriminalization Policy Shows Results,” by Brian Vastage, “the number of deaths from street drug overdoses dropped from around 400 to 290 annually, and the number of new HIV cases caused by using dirty needles to inject heroin, cocaine and other illegal substances plummeted from nearly 1,400 in 2000 to about 400 in 2006.” In another article, published in Time Magazine, titled “Drugs in Portugal: Did Decriminalization Work?” the author, Maia Szalavitz, states that “the number of people seeking treatment for drug addiction more than doubled”. These are astounding results, making the way Portugal has handled their drug problem a model for other countries to follow.

Not everyone agrees that decriminalizing drugs is the right move. Joseph A Califano, Jr. argues in his article, “Should drugs be decriminalized? No,” “Vigorous and intelligent enforcement of criminal law makes drugs harder to get and more expensive“.  This statement is true, but the problem is that when the price of illegal drugs goes up so does the amount of drug dealers. Higher prices for consumers makes dealing drugs seem worth the risk, and violence increases as drug traffickers become desperate to push their product. Also, drugs are only harder to get for a short period of time. It doesn’t take long for the flow of drugs to adjust. I see evidence of this even in the small town I have grown up in.

Other critics say that decriminalizing drugs would cause a massive surge in drug use. But as the Portugal example shows, what happened was just the opposite. Many addicts want to get help but are afraid of going to jail. If we decriminalize drug use, it would eliminate that fear and many addicts would be more willing to come forward.

America continues to allow free use of tobacco and alcohol, yet criminalize the use of less harmful drugs such as ecstasy, cannabis and LSD. You don’t have to look far to find statistics on the harmful effects of tobacco and according to an article written by Kristy LeAnn Morgan, entitled “ The Effects of Alcohol on Society,” “There are approximately 75,000 deaths a year in the U.S. as a result of alcohol abuse”. I have yet to find proof of any deaths caused by marijuana use. It really makes no sense to prohibit the use of one set of drugs, but let the use of other more harmful drugs go on. Prohibition did not work to stop the use of alcohol, and it is not working to stop the use of other drugs either.

The decriminalization of drugs is a provocative issue that incites a lot of passion for both those who are in favor of it and those who are against; it is difficult for many people to have a cool and rational discussion of the matter. For this reason alone, it is a very complicated issue that will not be solved overnight. The best hope for achieving a real dialogue on America’s handling of its drug problem will be to shift the general public’s focus from the moral implications of drug use itself to the common sense of how we handle the resulting punishment. This is why decriminalization is a much more pragmatic approach than legalization, and one that is much more achievable.

Bottom line is that no matter what, there will always be drugs in this world, but how we handle it can be improved. The war on drugs does not have to mean war on victims of drug use. It is simply too costly, both monetarily and sociologically, to continue down the cruel and oppressive road this “war” has taken America down. Decriminalization is the best answer to help curb America’s drug problems.