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NO: Decriminalization of Drug Possession

Joseph A. Califano, Jr., LL.B.

(Joseph A. Califano, Jr., LL.B., is president of The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse
at Columbia University (CASA). He has served as U.S. Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare.)
The objective of a drug-free America, brushed aside by advocates of legalization, is a statement of
hope that a generation of children can come of age largely free of the life-destroying effects of
illegal drugs. Drugs like marijuana, heroin and cocaine are not dangerous because they are illegal;
they are illegal because they are dangerous. If drugs were legalized, it is the nation's children who
could suffer long-lasting, perhaps permanent damage.
The boomlet to legalize drugs like heroin, cocaine and marijuana is founded in myths, not realities.
Here are some of those myths:
Myth 1: There's been no progress in the war on drugs.
The National Household Survey on Drug Abuse reports that current drug use in America has fallen by
half in the last fifteen years, demonstrating that there has been progress in the war on drugs.
Myth 2: Whether to use drugs and become hooked is an adult decision.
Hardly anyone in America begins drug use after age 21. An individual who does not smoke, use drugs
or abuse alcohol by 21 is virtually certain never to do so. That's why the nicotine pushers fight so
strenuously to kill efforts to keep their stuff away from kids.
Myth 3: Legalized drugs would be available for adults and not to children.
Nothing in the American experience gives any credence to our ability to keep legal drugs from
children. It's illegal for children to purchase cigarettes and alcohol and yet three million adolescents
smoke, constituting a $1-billion-a-year market, and twelve million underage Americans drink, a $10billion-a-year market.
Myth 4: Greater availability and legal acceptability of drugs would not increase use.
This defies human nature. In the 1970s we de facto decriminalized marijuana. The result? A soaring
increase in marijuana use, particularly among youngsters. Today, we have 50 million nicotine addicts,
18 million alcoholics and alcohol abusers, and 6 million drug addicts. It is logical to conclude that, if
drugs are easier to obtain, less expensive, and socially acceptable, more individuals will use them.
With legalization, experts believe the number of cocaine addicts alone could jump beyond the
number of alcoholics.
Myth 5: Marijuana is a benign drug. Marijuana is particularly harmful to children and young teens.
It can impair short-term memory and ability to maintain attention span; it inhibits intellectual, social
and emotional development, just when young people are learning in school. CASA's study shows a
powerful statistical correlation between using marijuana and use of other drugs such as heroin and
cocaine. Recent neuroscientific studies give clues to why this strong statistical link exists. They indicate
that marijuana, cocaine, nicotine, alcohol and heroin all affect dopamine levels through common
pathways in the brain. Another study demonstrates that cessation of marijuana use brings on
withdrawal symptoms, which may encourage a user to try drugs such as cocaine or heroin.
Today, most kids don't use illicit drugs, but all of them, particularly the poorest, are vulnerable to
abuse and addiction. Russian roulette is not a game anyone should play. Legalizing drugs not only is
playing Russian roulette with children, it is slipping a couple of extra bullets into the chamber.

Decriminalization would increase the use and the economic and social costs of drugs.
The argument that drug decriminalization, or legalization, will solve the budget crisis, reduce prison
overcrowding and cripple drug cartels is simply not supported by evidence. In fact, the benefits of
keeping marijuana and other illicit drugs illegal clearly outweigh the negative and predictable
consequences of legitimizing these substances.
There are academic distinctions between decriminalization and legalization. In the United States
experience, decriminalization arguments are typically employed as a rhetorical and political tool,
often explicitly, by advocates attempting to pry open the door to full legalization. Our position is
simple and evidence-based: both decriminalization and legalization of illicit drugs would increase
their use, along with their associated health and social costs. Unless advocates of decriminalization or
of outright legalization can establish that more drug use is a net good for society, both arguments are
The Barack Obama Administration has made crucial changes in U.S. drug policies, but they reflect
the realities of science and experience. They reflect what has worked in the past and what we need
to improve. We recognize that drug addiction is a diseaseone that we must strive to eradicate
through prevention, evidence-based interventions and comprehensive treatment.
Criminal sanctions against drugs are not a purely punitive tool. Penalties, or even the threat of them,
frequently spur individuals struggling with addiction or substance abuse to get the treatment they
might never seek or receive on their own. In fact, more than one-third of all treatment referrals in the
U.S. are currently from the criminal justice system. Our support for drug courts, Drug Market Initiatives
and criminal justice innovations that rely on swift but moderate sanctions reflect the invaluable and
multifaceted role the criminal justice system plays in addressing drug use and its consequences.
Our drug policy addresses both the public health and public safety aspects of drug use through
expanded support for drug prevention and treatment. It has already reduced the mandatory
minimum sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocainean historic first-time reduction
of mandatory minimum sentencing signed into law by President Obama in July. It supports efforts to
help the millions of Americans in recovery. These are policies guided by what we know; they make
more sense than making changes based on the dubious proposition that decriminalization or
legalization can sweep away the myriad problems associated with drug use.
Our long experience with two legal substances, alcohol and tobacco, demonstrates that legalization
increases societys acceptance, availability, use, and associated costs. Alcohol and tobacco cause
hundreds of thousands more deaths per year than all illegal drugs combined, in part because their
use is more widespread. Alcohol and tobacco are currently used by 51.6 percent and 28.4 percent,
respectively, of the population aged 12 and older; while use of marijuana, the most popular illicit
drug, hovers around six percent. Marijuana today is less accepted and less widely used among youth
than alcohol or tobaccoin no small part because it is illegal.1
Another factor discouraging more widespread use of illegal drugs is their relatively high cost.
According to multiple economic analyses, current marijuana prohibitions raise the cost of its
production by at least 400 percent; the resulting higher prices help hold down rates of usage.
Consumption patterns for marijuana, cigarettes and alcohol are known to be sensitive to changes in
price, especially among young people. Rigorous independent research has shown that even small
price changes affect marijuana consumption rates, consistent with what we know about cigarettes,

where research has shown that a 10 percent drop in price yields a 7 to 8 percent increase in
Legal drugs are cheap and easy to obtain. High profits make the addiction business lucrative.
Consider the Dutch experiment with commercialized marijuana: after coffee shops were widely
promoted in the Netherlands, the rate of regular marijuana use among 18-to-20-year-olds more than
doubled.3 Because of crime, drug tourism and public nuisance problems, the Dutch have severely
restricted the number of coffee shops where marijuana is sold commercially.
The U.S. does not need another vice industry dedicated to promoting and supporting addiction.
Think about the tobacco industry, dominated by lobbyists, glorified by advertisements, promoted by
global marketing designed to skirt domestic regulation, and defended by scientific institutes
determined to present the drug in the softest possible light. Do we want the same for marijuana and
Why not legalize and tax drugs to gain much-needed revenue? Our experience with alcohol and
tobacco shows that tax revenue from these substances does not even begin to cover the costs
associated with them. Federal excise taxes collected on alcohol in 2002 totaled $8.3 billion, which is
only 4.5 percent of the $184 billion in alcohol-related costs, such as lost productivity and increased
health care spending.
With tobacco, we spend more than $200 billion annually on social costs, but collect only about $25
billion in taxes. Illegal drugs represented about $181 billion in social costs in 2002a figure that would
increase, because of increased use, under legalization.
A central tenet of legalization is that it would eliminate underground drug markets, since drugs would
be available openly. But there is no reason to believe legalization would bring about this result.
Instead, government would have to regulate a new, legal market while continuing to pay for the
negative effects of an underground market whose suppliers have little economic incentive to
disappear. When the Canadians instituted a cigarette tax creating a mere $2-per-pack differential
versus the U.S. price, it created such a huge smuggling problem that Canada was forced to repeal
the tax increase.5
The enthusiasm of advocates for decriminalized and regulated drugs should be tempered by our
experience with prescription drugs like OxyContin and other analgesic opioids. These are legal,
highly regulated drugs, dispensed under supervision; yet unintentional U.S. drug overdose death rates
have increased roughly five-fold between 1990 and 2006, due primarily to deaths attributed to
narcotic pain relievers.
The idea that legalizing drugs will lessen drug abuse contradicts research showing that
misperceptions of prescription drugs as less harmful actually contribute to their abuse.6
Legalization proponents argue that the criminal justice system costs associated with prohibition
unduly burden taxpayers. There are certainly criminal-justice costs to maintaining current
prohibitions, but legalizing drugs would not eliminate them. Alcohol-related arrests, in the form of
liquor law violations, public drunkenness and driving under the influence, totaled nearly 2.7 million in
2009. All illegal drug-related arrests in 2009 totaled almost 1.6 million. With the increased use that
legalization would bring, it is not hard to forecast related increases in arrests and other drug-related
criminal justice costs.
Instead of promoting risky drug policies grounded in speculation rather than science, we should
pursue our current course of a coordinated, balanced strategy including prevention, treatment,
enforcement, and international cooperation.


NOVEMBER 09, 2007
By Joseph A. Califano, Jr.
Drug misuse (usually called abuse in the U.S.) infects the world's criminal justice, health care and
social service systems. Although bans on the import, manufacture, sale and possession of drugs such
as marijuana, cocaine and heroin should remain, drug policies do need a fix. Neither legalization nor
decriminalization is the answer. Rather, more resources and energy should be devoted to research,
prevention and treatment, and each citizen and institution should take responsibility to combat all
substance misuse and addiction.
Vigorous and intelligent enforcement of criminal law makes drugs harder to get and more expensive.
Sensible use of courts, punishment and prisons can encourage misusers to enter treatment and thus
reduce crime. Why not treat a teenager arrested for marijuana use in the same way that the U.S.
treats someone arrested for drunk-driving when no injury occurs? See the arrest as an opportunity
and require the teenager to be screened, have any needed treatment, and attend sessions to learn
about the dangers of marijuana use.
The medical profession and the public health community should educate society that addiction is a
complex physical, psychological, emotional and spiritual disease, not a moral failing or easily
abandoned act of self-indulgence. Children should receive education and prevention programs that
take into account cultural and sex differences and are relevant to their age. We should make
effective treatment available to all who need it and establish high standards of training for treatment
providers. Social service programs, such as those to help abused children and homeless people,
should confront the drug and alcohol misuse and addiction commonly involved, rather than ignore
or hide it because of the associated stigma.
What we don't need is legalization or decriminalization, which will make illegal drugs cheaper, easier
to obtain and more acceptable to use. The U.S. has some 60 million smokers, up to 20 million
alcoholics and alcohol misusers, but only around 6 million illegal drug addicts. If illegal drugs were
easier to obtain, this figure would rise.
Switzerland's "needle park," touted as a way to restrict a few hundred heroin users to a small area,
turned into a grotesque tourist attraction of 20,000 addicts and had to be closed before it infected
the entire city of Zurich. Italy, where personal possession of a few doses of drugs like heroin has
generally been exempt from criminal sanction, has one of the highest rates of heroin addiction in
Europe, with more than 60% of AIDS cases there attributable to intravenous drug use.
Most legalization advocates say they would legalize drugs only for adults. Our experience with
tobacco and alcohol shows that keeping drugs legal "for adults only" is an impossible dream.
Teenage smoking and drinking are widespread in the U.S., United Kingdom and Europe.
The Netherlands established "coffee shops," where customers could select types of marijuana just as
they might choose ice cream flavors. Between 1984 and 1992, adolescent use nearly tripled.
Responding to international pressure and the outcry from its own citizens, the Dutch government
reduced the number of marijuana shops and the amount that could be sold and raised the age for
admission from 16 to 18. In 2007, the Dutch government announced plans to ban the sale of
hallucinogenic mushrooms.

Recent events in Britain highlight the importance of curbing availability. In 2005, the government
extended the hours of operation for pubs, with some allowed to serve 24 hours a day. Rather than
curbing binge drinking, the result has been a sharp increase in crime between 3 am and 6 am, in
violent crimes in certain pubs and in emergency treatment for alcohol misusers.
Sweden offers an example of a successful restrictive drug policy. Faced with rising drug use in the
1990s, the government tightened drug control, stepped up police action, mounted a national action
plan and created a national drug coordinator. The result: "Drug use is just a third of the European
Almost daily we learn more about marijuana's addictive and dangerous characteristics. Today's
teenagers' pot is far more potent than their parents' pot. The average amount of
tetrahydrocannabinol, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, in seized samples in the U.S. has
more than doubled since 1983. Antonio Maria Costa, Director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime
(UNODC), has warned, "Today, the harmful characteristics of cannabis are no longer that different
from those of other plant-based drugs such as cocaine and heroin."
Evidence that cannabis use can cause serious mental illness is mounting. A study published in the
Lancet "found a consistent increase in incidence of psychosis outcomes in people who had used
cannabis." The study prompted the journal's editors to retract their 1995 statement that, "smoking of
cannabis, even long term, is not harmful to health."
Drugs are not dangerous because they are illegal; they are illegal because they are dangerous. A
child who reaches age 21 without smoking, misusing alcohol, or using illegal drugs is virtually certain
to never do so. Today, most children don't use illicit drugs, but all of them, particularly the poorest, are
vulnerable to misuse and addiction. Legalization and decriminalizationpolicies certain to increase
illegal drug availability and use among our childrenhardly qualify as public health approaches.

Why We Should Not Legalize Marijuana

Tuesday, 20 Apr 2010 | 12:02 AM ET
Contrary to the beliefs of those who advocate the legalization of marijuana, the current balanced,
restrictive, and bipartisan drug policies of the United States are working reasonably well and they
have contributed to reductions in the rate of marijuana use in our nation.
The rate of current, past 30-day use of marijuana by Americans aged 12 and older in 1979 was 13.2
percent. In 2008 that figure stood at 6.1 percent. This 54-percent reduction in marijuana use over that
29-year period is a major public health triumph, not a failure.
Marijuana is the most commonly abused illegal drug in the U.S. and around the world. Those who
support its legalization, for medical or for general use, fail to recognize that the greatest costs of
marijuana are not related to its prohibition; they are the costs resulting from marijuana use itself.
There is a common misconception that the principle costs of marijuana use are those related to the
criminal justice system. This is a false premise. Caulkins & Sevigny (2005) found that the percentage of
people in prison for marijuana use is less than one half of one percent (0.1-0.2 percent).
An encounter with the criminal justice system through apprehension for a drug-related crime
frequently can benefit the offender because the criminal justice system is often a path to treatment.

More than a third, 37 percent, of treatment admissions reported in the Treatment Episode Data Set,
TEDS, collected from state-funded programs were referred through the criminal justice system.
Marijuana was an identified drug of abuse for 57 percent of the individuals referred to treatment from
the criminal justice system. The future of drug policy is not a choice between using the criminal justice
system or treatment. The more appropriate goal is to get these two systems to work together more
effectively to improve both public safety and public health.
In the discussion of legalizing marijuana, a useful analogy can be made to gambling. MacCoun &
Reuter (2001) conclude that making the government a beneficiary of legal gambling has
encouraged the government to promote gambling, overlooking it as a problem behavior. They point
out that the moral debasement of state government is a phenomenon that only a few academics
and preachers bemoan.
Legalized gambling has not reduced illegal gambling in the United States; rather, it has increased it.
This is particularly evident in sports gambling, most of which is illegal. Legal gambling is taxed and
regulated and illegal gambling is not. Legal gambling sets the stage for illegal gambling just the way
legal marijuana would set the stage for illegal marijuana trafficking.
The gambling precedent suggests strongly that illegal drug suppliers would thrive by selling more
potent marijuana products outside of the legal channels that would be taxed and otherwise
restricted. If marijuana were legalized, the only way to eliminate its illegal trade, which is modest in
comparison to that of cocaine, would be to sell marijuana untaxed and unregulated to any willing
Marijuana is currently the leading cause of substance dependence other than alcohol in the U.S. In
2008, marijuana use accounted for 4.2 million of the 7 million people aged 12 or older classified with
dependence on or abuse of an illicit drug. This means that about two thirds of Americans suffering
from any substance use disorder are suffering from marijuana abuse or marijuana dependence.
If the U.S. were to legalize marijuana, the number of marijuana users would increase. Today there are
15.2 million current marijuana users in comparison to 129 million alcohol users and 70.9 million
tobacco users. Though the number of marijuana users might not quickly climb to the current numbers
for alcohol and tobacco, if marijuana was legalized, the increase in users would be both large and
rapid with subsequent increases in addiction.
Important lessons can be learned from those two widely-used legal drugs. While both alcohol and
tobacco are taxed and regulated, the tax benefits to the public are vastly overshadowed by the
adverse consequences of their use.
Alcohol-related costs total over $185 billion while federal and states collected an estimated $14.5
billion in tax revenue; similarly, tobacco use costs over $200 billion but only $25 billion is collected in
taxes. These figures show that the costs of legal alcohol are more than 12 times the total tax revenue
collected, and that the costs of legal tobacco are about 8 times the tax revenue collected. This is an
economically disastrous tradeoff.
The costs of legalizing marijuana would not only be financial. New marijuana users would not be
limited to adults if marijuana were legalized, just as regulations on alcohol and tobacco do not
prevent use by youth. Rapidly accumulating new research shows that marijuana use is associated
with increases in a range of serious mental and physical problems. Lack of public understanding on
this relationship is undermining prevention efforts and adversely affecting the nations youth and their

Drug-impaired driving will also increase if marijuana is legalized. Marijuana is already a significant
causal factor in highway crashes, injuries and deaths. In a recent national roadside survey of
weekend nighttime drivers, 8.6 percent tested positive for marijuana or its metabolites, nearly four
times the percentage of drivers with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of .08 g/dL (2.2 percent).
In another study of seriously injured drivers admitted to a Level-1 shock trauma center, more than a
quarter of all drivers (26.9 percent) tested positive for marijuana. In a study of fatally injured drivers in
Washington State, 12.7 percent tested positive for marijuana. These studies demonstrate the high
prevalence of drugged driving as a result of marijuana use.
Many people who want to legalize marijuana are passionate about their perception of the alleged
failures of policies aimed at reducing marijuana use but those legalization proponents seldomif
everdescribe their own plan for taxing and regulating marijuana as a legal drug. There is a reason
for this imbalance; they cannot come up with a credible plan for legalization that could deliver on
their exaggerated claims for this new policy.
Future drug policies must be smarter and more effective in curbing the demand for illegal drugs
including marijuana. Smarter-drug prevention policies should start by reducing illegal drug use
among the 5 million criminal offenders who are on parole and probation in the U.S. They are among
the nations heaviest and most problem-generating illegal drug users.
Monitoring programs that are linked to swift and certain, but not severe, consequences for any drug
use have demonstrated outstanding results including lower recidivism and lower rates of
incarceration. New policies to curb drugged driving will not only make our roads and highways safer
and provide an important new path to treatment, but they will also reduce illegal drug use.
Reducing marijuana use is essential to improving the nations health, education, and productivity.
New policies can greatly improve current performance of prevention strategies which, far from
failing, has protected millions of people from the many adverse effects of marijuana use.
Since legalization of marijuana for medical or general use would increase marijuana use rather than
reduce it and would lead to increased rates of addiction to marijuana among youth and adults,
legalizing marijuana is not a smart public health or public safety strategy for any state or for our

Dont Decriminalize Marijuana

OCT 27, 2006
Barrett Duke has served in the ERLCs Washington office as Vice President for Public Policy and
Research since 2003. He came to the ERLCs Nashville office in 1997 after serving as founding pastor
of a church in Colorado. Barrett holds a BA from Criswell College, an MA from Denver Seminary, and
a PhD from the Iliff School of Theology and the University of Denver.
Weve come to voting season again, and as usual were being asked to consider many proposals.
Some of these proposals are well-meaning, sensible plans to improve the lives of citizens. Others are
misguided, irresponsible policy issues that will devastate and even destroy the lives of many millions of
our fellow citizens. A perfect example of a misguided ballot issue is the proposal in some states to
decriminalize possession of up to an ounce of marijuana. Nevada is even being asked to authorize
government-regulated sales of marijuana.

Decriminalizing marijuana possession is a bad idea. I used drugs for the first time when I was 14 years
old. I still remember that day. It was a day that changed my life, but it wasnt a change for the
better. After my first introduction to drugs, I spent the next seven years of my life in a drug-induced
stupor. By the time I was 21, I had no interests except to find ways to get high. Drugs dominated my
life and the decisions I made.
The first drug I used was hashish, essentially a concentrated form of marijuana, but marijuana was the
mainstay of my drug use because it was relatively inexpensive and readily available. Marijuana is the
drug that kept me high between the availability of other drugs. As a longtime user of the drug, I can
attest to its completely destructive force. A person who is high on marijuana has no interest in doing
anything. The debilitating effects of marijuana are more severe than those of alcohol.
Anyone who believes that decriminalizing marijuana possession will help control our nations drug
crisis is completely out of touch with the reality of the problem. Decriminalization will make matters
worse for a number of reasons.
First, decriminalizing marijuana possession will enable users to spend more time being high. When
people can walk the streets with it in their pockets without fear of arrest, they will have it more often
and use it more often. It is hardly an encouraging prospect to think that marijuana users will be high
more often. Such a disastrous outcome will put even more pressure on our families, communities,
businesses, health services, and law enforcement officials.
Second, decriminalizing marijuana possession will increase the likelihood that more people,
especially impressionable, curious young people, will try the drug. When government declares that
something is no longer illegal, many people drop their guard. They surmise that if the government
isnt worried about it, it must not be very dangerous. Many of these people will begin a downward
spiral that will only end when they hit bottom, with their lives and maybe their futures shattered.
Equally troubling is the prospect that more young people will start out on the road to a lifetime of
drug addiction. It is a scientific fact that the younger a person is when he starts to use illicit drugs, the
greater the likelihood that he will develop drug dependency. We have enough young people living
that reality already. We certainly do not need to increase their numbers.
Third, decriminalizing marijuana possession will not rid us of the illicit drug trade. The only thing
decriminalization will do is create more customers for the illicit drug trade. People who use marijuana
will be more inclined to want to try other drugs. They will know what it is like to get high, and they will
want to experiment with other drugs to see how they affect them. This was certainly true for me. In
addition, those who claim that regulating the sale of marijuana will undercut the illicit trade in the
drug do not fully understand the issue. While commercialization may reduce the cost of marijuana,
the illicit drug trade will still be able to undersell the legal market, though the profit margin might be
reduced. It is even possible, maybe probable, that the legal drug will be more expensive than the
current price of the illegal drug once the grower, the middleman, the shipper, the retailer, and the
taxing authorities add their various charges. It is also likely that people will be attracted to the illicit
trade in marijuana if the illicit marijuana being offered is of higher potency. Finally, there will always
be people who will not want it known that they use marijuana. They are going to buy it illegally in
order to hide their use from public knowledge. This will be especially true for teenagers. Not only will
they want to hide their use from their parents knowledge, they will still not be able to purchase the
drug legally, so they will turn to illicit sources.
Fourth, decriminalizing marijuana possession will lead to an increase in the availability of other drugs.
As the demand for other drugs increases, the supply of those drugs will also increase. In other words,
decriminalization will not reduce the current drug problem afflicting our nation; it will increase it.

When has demand for something ever not been met? People find a way to get what they want, and
as long as there is an easy profit in it, there will always be someone willing to supply them.
Fifth, decriminalizing marijuana possession will not empty our prisons of drug offenders. Today, very
few people go to prison for possessing small amounts of marijuana. While some people have ended
up in prison for possession of marijuana, the majority of people who go to prison these days for drug
offenses are there because of other crimes they committed. They may have had marijuana in their
possession at the time of their arrest, but their sentencing was related to more serious offenses, like
intent to sell drugs, or robbery, or violent crimes. Rather than reducing the prison population, it is likely
that decriminalization of marijuana possession will result in more people going to prison for drugrelated crimes. As the drug-abusing population increases due to the relaxed attitude about
marijuana, more people will end up with drug addictions, and many of these people will turn to
crime to support their habits or engage in other illegal behaviors that mandate prison time.
According to a 1997 U.S. Department of Justice survey, 33 percent of state prisoners and 22 percent
of federal prisoners said they were high on drugs when they committed their offense. Marijuana is
often implicated in these crimes. The U.S. Department of Justice also reports that more inmates in
federal and state corrections facilities who were high when they committed their crimes were high on
marijuana or cocaine at the time of their offense. It is better to leave it in the hands of prosecutors
and judges to determine whether or not a person should go to jail for marijuana possession than to
decriminalize marijuana possession and produce more addicted drug-users, many of whom will find
themselves facing jail time for their drug-related crimes.
Decriminalization of marijuana possession is just a bad idea. No one wins. Our young people will not
be helped. Businesses will not be helped. Families will suffer even more. Some things are just wrong,
and no amount of justification can make them right. This is one of those things. Some argue that
efforts to reduce drug use in this country have failed to make significant progress in recent years. This
is true; the statistics have not changed very much. However, I cannot help but wonder if the reason
for this is not the ineffectiveness of our drug control policy but rather the fact that 12 states have
already decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana. Such counterproductive policies
are bound to short-circuit our efforts to reduce the drug problem in this country. They are essentially
the equivalent of drilling holes in the bottom of your boat while you are frantically trying to bail water.
Instead of making drug use easier, we should redouble our efforts to warn people of the dangers of
drug use, develop more effective rehabilitation programs for those who are convicted of drug
possession, and increase our prosecution of those who supply the drugs. We are in a battle for the
lives of millions of people. They deserve our best efforts, not our surrender.

Drug Legalization: Why It Wouldn't Work in the United States

By Edmund Hartnett, Deputy Chief and Executive Officer, Narcotics Division, New York City Police
Department, New York
The issue of drug legalization is a complex one. Most Americans do not favor it, yet there is a strong
and very vocal lobby in the United States that feels that legalization would be the proper course to
take. When this vocal minority raises the issue in any community, citizens look to the police chief to
speak to the issue. Police chief are encouraged to borrow from this article as they prepare their
Proponents Arguments
Proponents of drug legalization believe that the current policies regarding drugs have been harmful
to individuals, families, and society as a whole. They strongly oppose current drug laws and policies
for a variety of reasons. Some see the laws as an impingement of individual freedoms. Some see
them as a colossal waste of government resources citing the opinion that the legalization of drugs
could produce millions in tax revenues while at the same time putting drug dealers out of business
and ensuring quality controls in the production of drugs. Some feel that legalization would reduce
overall crime. Some argue that the laws are a form of institutionalized racism designed to keep
minorities as a permanent disenfranchised underclass by keeping them in prison, addicted, or
completely dependent on government aid. Others take what they view as a humanitarian
approach, arguing that certain substances should be made legal for medicinal purposes. Some
have chosen to refer to the issue as harm reduction instead of drug legalization in an apparent effort
to soften the issue and give it a more humanitarian tone. Still others view the prohibition against drugs
as an inherently flawed and impossible strategy that has exacerbated crime and violence and has
contributed to a sense of despair and hopelessness for millions of Americans.
It is also interesting to note that the proponents of legalization include supporters from across the
political spectrum, from progressives on the far left to libertarians on the far right. Liberal Democratic
Congressman Charles Rangel is adamantly opposed to drug legalization, while conservative icon
and columnist William F. Buckley has long been a proponent of making drugs legal. Congressman
Rangel has referred to legalization as a very dangerous idea that should be put to rest once and
for all.1
Opponents to Legalization
Although it is clear the majority of U.S. citizens are in favor of keeping the use, sale, and possession of
drugs illegal, much of the writing from the anti- legalization viewpoint comes from law enforcement
and government officials. Former New York City Mayor Ed Koch once described drug legalization as
the equivalent of extinguishing a fire with napalm.2 Although many acknowledge that the socalled war on drugs has had mixed success, they believe that the alternative would have
catastrophic effects on the nation. They believe that the legalization of drugs would increase use,
lead to more experimentation by youth, and exacerbate the existing deleterious effects that drugs
have on society. They are of the opinion that government subsidization of addicts would have
crippling effects on the economy. They also feel that legalization would help to create a large black
market for drugs. Antilegalization proponents also point out that drug dealers and hardcore addicts
would not suddenly become productive, law-abiding members of society. The antilegalization point
of view is that dealers will still be involved in crime and violence and that users will still need to support
themselves by engaging in criminal activity. Basically, they believe that the legalization of drugs
would lead to increases, not reductions, in crime because there would be more addicts and
because of the aforementioned black market. Also, opponents of legalization often cite statistics

that show that drug prevention initiatives, drug awareness curricula in schools, and drug treatment
programs are working. They point to the fact that there are fewer addicts today than there were 20
years ago.
Drugs and Crime
There are two schools of thought on the issue of drug legalization and crime. Do drugs cause crime?
Does drug use inevitably lead to crime? If drugs were made legal, would there be less crime? If the
government subsidized addicts, would they still engage in criminal conduct? What would happen to
drug dealers and drug gangs if drugs were legalized? Although the issue is complex, both groups
agree that drugs and crime are inexorably linked.
Many legalization supporters believe that property crime, particularly burglary, larceny from persons
(purse snatchers, chain snatchers, and pickpockets), auto theft, theft from autos, and shoplifting
would decrease by 40-50 percent if drugs were made legal. Similarly, many believe that the terms
drug-related murder and drive-by shooting would become outdated once drugs were legalized.
In their view, turf wars would be eliminated because there would no longer be a need to fight for
ones turf.

Additionally, there are those who point out that drug enforcement is a waste of valuable law
enforcement resources since statistically most drug users do not get caught. Thus, the deterrent
effect of criminalization is lost. Todd Brenner uses the example of marijuana arrests. In 1987
approximately 25 million people in the United States used marijuana, the most easily detectable
drug, yet only 378,000 arrests were made; roughly one arrest for every 63 users.3 His point is that the
public would be better served if the police targeted crimes in which they had a better success rate.
Also, legalization supporters believe that once drugs were legalized, the government could pay less
attention to drug-related crime and spend more time and money on treatment, rehabilitation,
education, and job training programs. Other benefits cited would be reduced prison populations,
more manageable caseloads for judges and attorneys, and better relations between the public and
the police.
Many believe that traditional organized crime would be seriously affected by legalization. Benjamin
and Miller write: The Mafia would not disappear, because organized crime would be able to survive
on other criminal activities, such as loan sharking, gambling, prostitution, and child pornography. But
drug legalization would remove the backbone of organized crimes profits, causing it to diminish in
Opponents to legalization obviously do not see legalization as a panacea that will make crime go
away. They see a clear connection between drug use and crime and, perhaps more importantly,
between drug use and violence. Joseph Califano, the author and a member of President Johnsons
cabinet, stated: Drugs like marijuana and cocaine are not dangerous because they are illegal; they
are illegal because they are dangerous.5 The DEA reports that six times as many homicides are
committed by persons under the influence of drugs than those looking for money to buy drugs and
that most arrestees for violent crimes test positive for drugs at time of arrest.6 Speaking to a
Congressional subcommittee on drug policy in 1999, Donnie Marshall, then deputy administrator of
DEA, spoke of drug use, crime, and violence. He said that there is a misconception that most drugrelated crimes involve people who are looking for money to buy drugs. The fact is that most drugrelated crimes are committed by people whose brains have been messed up with mood-altering

Legalization opponents are convinced that the violence caused by drug use will not magically stop
because the drugs are legal. Legal PCP isnt going to make a person less violent than illegally
purchased PCP.8 Susan Neiberg Terkel echoes these sentiments by saying that legalizing drugs
cannot change human nature. It cannot improve the social conditions that compel people to
engage in crime, nor can it stop people from using drugs as an excuse to be violent.9 The belief is
that drugs, legal or not, often lead to violence. Erich Goode, a SUNY professor and a proponent of
harm reduction, writes: It is extremely unlikely that legalization will transform the violent nature of the
world of heavy, chronic drug abuse very much. That violence is a part of the way that frequent,
heavy drug users live their lives; it is systemic to their subculture.10
It is interesting to note that the federal approach to drugs and crime is not solely linked to arrest and
incarceration. In Congressional testimony in 1999, Barry McCaffrey, then-director of the U.S. Office of
National Drug Control Policy, stated: We cannot arrest our way out of our nations drug problem. We
need to break the cycle of addiction, crime, and prison through treatment and other diversion
programs. Breaking the cycle is not soft on drugs; it is smart on defeating drugs and crime.11
Public Health Concerns
Opponents of legalization seem to be just as committed as the prolegalization lobby. They believe
that the legalization of drugs would have devastating effects on public health, the economy, quality
of life, American culture, and society as a whole.
The advocacy group Drug Watch International points out that drugs are illegal because of their
intoxicating effect on the brain, damaging impact on the body, adverse impact on behavior, and
potential for abuse. Their use threatens the health, welfare, and safety of all people, of users and
nonusers alike.12 Legalization advocates contend that the same statement could be made about
William J. Bennett, former director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, responds to that
claim, arguing that legalized alcohol, which is responsible for some 100,000 deaths a year, is hardly
the model for drug policy. As Charles Krauthammer has pointed out, the question is not which is
worse, alcohol or drugs. The question is, can we accept both legalized alcohol and legalized drugs?
The answer is No.13 Morton M. Kondracke of the New Republic magazine discusses another
comparison between drugs and alcohol: Of the 115 million Americans who consume alcohol, 85
percent rarely become intoxicated; with drugs, intoxication is the whole idea.14
Legalization opponents believe that our already burdened health care industry would be
overwhelmed if drugs were legal. This would come in the form of direct results of drug use (more
overdoses, more AIDS patients, and more illness stemming from addiction) and indirect results of
drugs (more injuries due to drug-related violence, accidents, and workplace incidents). They also
believe that legalization would increase the number of emergency room visits, ambulance calls, and
fire and police responses. The ONDCP reports that in 2002 direct health care costs attributable to
illegal drug abuse were $52 billion.15
In addition, legalization opponents disagree with legalization advocates regarding whether
legalization would increase drug use. Legalization opponents believe that drug use would increase
dramatically if drugs were made legal and easy to obtain. William J. Bennett uses the example of
crack cocaine. He writes: When powder cocaine was expensive and hard to get, it was found
almost exclusively in the circles of the rich, the famous, or the privileged. Only when cocaine was
dumped into the country, and a $3 vial of crack could be bought on street corners, did we see
cocaine use skyrocket this time largely among the poor and disadvantaged.16 The DEA also takes
issue with the legalization lobby on the link between easier access to drugs and an increase in

addiction from a humanitarian standpoint: The question isnt whether legalization will increase
addiction levels it willits whether we care or not. The compassionate response is to do everything
possible to prevent the destruction of addiction, not make it easier.17
Drugs Tied to Terrorism
In the aftermath of September 11, it was evident that enormous amounts of money were part of a
global terrorist network. Much of this money was hidden in ostensibly legal outlets, primarily banks,
investments, and charitable organizations. They were correctly targeted by law enforcement
agencies and, in many cases, frozen; thereby denying terrorists access to the money. Many experts
believe that terrorists are now using narcotics trafficking to fund their activities. Although much of this
activity seems to be centered in the Afghanistan and Pakistan region (sometimes referred to as the
Golden Crescent in law enforcement circles), all international narcotics investigations now have to
add terrorism to their list of concerns. Legalization would only exacerbate this problem and put more
money into the terrorists bank accounts.
The DEA has identified links between drug suppliers and terrorism. Their investigations, again primarily
in Afghanistan and Pakistan, have shown connections among traffickers in heroin and hashish,
money launderers, and al Qaeda members. They also suspect a drug-related connection involving al
Qaeda and the train bombings in Madrid. According to DEA, The bombers swapped hashish and
ecstasy for the 440 pounds of dynamite used in the blasts, which killed 191 people and injured more
than 1,400 others. Money from the drugs also paid for an apartment hideout, a car, and the cell
phones used to detonate the bombs.18
Economy Issues
Legalization advocates claim that if drugs are legal it will be a financial windfall for the American
economy. They believe that all the public funds now wasted on the enforcement of drug laws and
related matters could then be used for the good of society in areas such as education, health care,
infrastructure, and social services. As mentioned earlier, some believe that drugs could eventually be
taxed and thus create much-needed revenue. The DEAs response is: Ask legalization proponents if
the alleged profits from drug legalization would be enough to pay for the increased fetal defects,
loss of workplace productivity, increased traffic fatalities and industrial accidents, increased domestic
violence and the myriad other problems that would not only be high-cost items but extremely
expensive in terms of social decay.19
Medical Marijuana
The anti-legalization point of view rejecting the use of marijuana to ease the pain of those suffering
from a variety of illnesses and conditions may appear harsh and insensitive. Their view is that there
are safer, more effective drugs currently available and that there is therefore no need to rely on
medicinal marijuana. The DEA states that the clear weight of the evidence is that smoked marijuana
is harmful. No matter what medical condition has been studied, other drugs have been shown to be
more effective in promoting health than smoked marijuana.20 They also believe that many
proponents of the use of medicinal marijuana are disingenuous, exploiting the sick in order to win a
victory in their overall fight to legalize drugs. They point to studies that show that marijuana smoke
contains hundreds of toxins, similar to cigarettes, and that prolonged use can lead to serious lung
damage. This, they feel, can only exacerbate existing health problems, especially for people with
compromised immune systems. The DEA cites the fact that marijuana has been rejected as medicine
by the American Medical Association, the American Glaucoma Society, the American Academy of
Ophthalmology, the International Federation of Multiple Sclerosis Societies, and the American
Cancer Society.21

Harm Reduction
The term harm reduction is anathema to the anti-legalization lobby. They believe that harm
reduction, a cover-all term coined by the legalizers, is a euphemism encompassing legalization and
liberalized drug policy, and can best be defined as a variety of strategies for making illicit drug use
safer and cheaper for drug users, at the expense of the rest of society, regardless of cost.22 The
passion surrounding the issue of harm reduction is illustrated by Drug Watch International: Harm
reduction abandons attempts to free current drug users and encourages future generations to try
drugs. It asserts that drug use is natural and necessary. Rather than preventing harm and drug use,
harm reduction feebly attempts to reduce the misery level for addicts. Harm reduction forsakes a
portion of the population, often the poor and minorities, to lifetime abuse of drugs.23
Opponents of harm reduction see it as a very dangerous message. They complain that, instead of
addressing and eventually eliminating the problems of addiction, harm reduction creates a situation
that prolongs the agony of the addicted, their families and their community.
Public Reaction
A 1998 poll by the Family Research Council showed that eight out of 10 responders rejected the
legalization of cocaine and heroin. The same poll asked whether they would support making these
drugs legal in a manner similar to alcohol; 82 percent responded No. A 1999 Gallup poll revealed
that 69 percent of Americans are against the legalization of marijuana. In addition, another Gallup
poll showed that 72 percent were in favor of drug testing in the workplace. However, one of the
better indicators of the publics disdain for drugs is the fact that an estimated 50 million Americans
who have used drugs in their youth have now rejected them.24
The U.S. Department of Justice National Drug Intelligence Center (NDIC) reveals some additional
alarming statistics. In 2002 an estimated 35.1 million people aged 12 or older reported using an illegal
drug within the past year; approximately 3.2 million people were drug-dependent or drug abusers.25
Based on this set of figures, there is still a significant demand for drugs in America and multitudes
willing to supply the drugs. It is this demand for drugs that is at the heart of the issue. Speaking from a
law enforcement perspective, it is clear that we can make millions of drug arrests, but if we dont
address the demand side of the problem, the best we can hope for is maintenance of the status
Progress in this regard has been achieved and considerable inroads have been made through years
of proactive prevention and education efforts. By 1999 the Office of National Drug Control Policy
reported that drug use in America had been cut in half and cocaine use was reduced by 75
percent.26 Nevertheless, in spite of these promising statistics, the across-the-board nature of the drug
problem in America indicates that we are far from declaring victory.
Speaking Out
The process of completing this project has led to a reexamination of my personal opinions and values
on the issue of drug legalization. I assume that it is normal to be introspective when exploring both
sides of a broad and complex problem. As a parent, a citizen, and a law enforcement official, I am
clearly a stakeholder in this issue. I was concerned that my views in light of my police background
would make me sound like an ideologue. As a public administrator, I hope that I reinforced my
opinions against the legalization of drugs with sound logic and analysis.

My research allowed me to see the issue from a broader outlook. I now understand the prolegalization viewpoint much better. Although I am still strongly opposed to the notion of drug
legalization, I realize that, for the most part, they are Americans, from a broad field, who are truly
committed to a cause in which they believe. Although they are pursuing a course that is dangerous
for America, I respect their passion and edication. But they are woefully wrong on this issue.
I encourage police executives to speak out against drug legalization, and I hope the information in
this article has provided some of the resources they need as they prepare to make these speeches.