Should we legalize drugs?

The legalization of drugs is a controversial topic. Why would we legalize something that kills our children and makes people violent or poor? The answer is simple: it is a public health issue, not a criminal one. Legalizing drugs is the right step towards a brighter future for a large percentage of Americans and their communities. Fewer people would be incarcerated for possession, selling, and usage and they would be actively contributing to society. Racial disparity would decrease as people of color would stop being targeted. Drug use and drug deaths would go down as more resources would go to saving lives and promoting security, prosperity, health, and well-being. There would be a reduction in violence within communities by removing drug dealers and drug lords from the streets.

There is a lot of confusion when it comes to the term “legalization”. What does it mean to legalize drugs? With the legalization of drugs, criminality, incarceration, and black markets decrease, eliminating the numerous social problems that exist within communities today. The legalization process of marijuana, which is currently underway, has been characterized by the argument that “Personal use and possession of drugs are private behaviors. Criminalizing them entails intruding on human autonomy and privacy rights” (Sanchez-Moreno, 2014). Personal drug use and possession doesn’t harm others, and it leads to incarceration which has been shown to have destructive consequences not only for the individual drug users but also for their families and the community at large. Institutional economic infrastructure is currently being built to accommodate the legalization of marijuana. With regards to the legalization of more fatal drugs such as cocaine, meth, heroin, etc… should be addressed in specific stages of legal control and regulations and customized resources should be developed to manage each stage with appropriate results. Fatal drugs need to be monitored carefully with accessible clinics, trained staff, and people-centered educational and health resources.

Far too many African-Americans and people of color are incarcerated for possession or production of drugs, coming from disproportionately low-income families and communities. Additionally, drug users who are incarcerated along with violent criminals and murderers have a low chance of healthy rehabilitation. White people are also involved in drug dealing and are incarcerated far less than African Americans. According to the Huffpost, “Some studies indicate that white youth are significantly more likely to engage in illegal drug dealing than black youth.” (Alexander, 2010). A report by the Sentencing Project concludes, “Black men are six times as likely to be incarcerated as White men and Latinos are 2.5 times as likely. For Black men in their thirties, about 1 in every 12 is in prison or jail on any given day” (The Sentencing Project, n.d.). The Sentencing Project also highlights that although illegal drug use is similar between White people, African Americans, and Latinx, “45% of all convicted drug offenders in state prison are Black compared to 28 percent that is White and 20 percent that are Hispanic” (The Sentencing Project, n.d.). Incarceration is knowingly harmful to offenders and rehabilitative methods and treatment has been proven to be more successful in helping substance abusers.

Drugs are often followed by excessive and easily avoidable violence, a key factor that makes the drug trade extremely dangerous. According to the Washington Post, “Drug users generally aren’t violent… It’s the corner slinger who terrifies neighbors and invites rivals to attack” (Moskos & Franklin, 2009). In legalizing drugs, violence would be drastically reduced through the elimination of drug dealers, drug cartels, and kingpins since the profit motive would no longer exist. Furthermore, violence by and against police would also be reduced reversing the lack of trust and confidence by communities in law enforcement. An article writing on how the ‘War on Drugs’ has failed writes, “Heavily investing in a criminalization approach can inadvertently lead to an arms race between law enforcement and violent trafficking organizations, make those markets more ruthless, and increase the homicide rates” (The Leadership Conference Education Fund, n.d.). There are many civic groups around the country working to reduce violence and by legalizing drugs, they believe that the incentive would be eliminated violence and profiteering.

Many experts agree that the War on Drugs has largely been unsuccessful in reducing the usage and production of dugs. The Total Federal Drug Budget was $34.5 billion in 2020 alone (Federal Drug Control Funding, 2020). The enormous amount of money congress spends every year on the War on Drugs could be reallocated to promote alternatives to incarceration, promote drug research and health services, and provide access to controlled drugs along with essential medicines. Additionally, funds for developing a drug education program could help reduce the demand for drugs and minimize the influence of violent cartels. By providing resources for drug treatment and creating more growth opportunities in underserved communities with the aim of eliminating drug use and subsequent violence, communities will begin to thrive. The War on Drugs has largely failed not only because of its repressive strategies but “Arresting and incarcerating tens of millions of these people in recent decades has filled prisons and destroyed lives and families without reducing the availability of illicit drugs or the power of criminal organizations” (The Leadership Conference Education Fund, n.d.). Incarceration does not work for drug use, as recidivism rates show that drug offenders just offend again and go back to prison if they don’t receive treatment and community-based support, which is rare due to the War on Drugs mentality. In the 40 years since Nixon declared the war on drugs, a report from the global commission concludes that the war on drugs failed. Instead, millions of people have been incarcerated, and lives and families have been destroyed without reducing the availability of drugs or the influence of criminal organizations (The Leadership Conference Education Fund, n.d.).

If drugs are legalized, drug usage and drug-related deaths would decrease significantly. In other countries around the world, they have seen similar positive results in legalizing drugs simply by reducing the fine and creating more treatment programs instead of prison time and a criminal record. In 2001, Portugal decriminalized drugs, including heroin, cocaine, and weed, and instead of jail time for possession of drugs, drug users were given a small fine and a referral to a treatment program. In an article discussing Portugal’s legalization of drugs, it mentions that “The prevalence of past-year and past-month drug use among young adults has fallen since 2001, according to statistics compiled by the Transform Drug Policy Foundation… Overall adult use is down slightly too. And new HIV cases among drug users are way down,” (Perry, 2017). People are less likely to be concerned about being caught with drugs, thus reducing the incentives to evade legal channels. Along with fewer deaths, HIV cases and adult drug usage have decreased significantly. With this new approach to drugs, Portugal has the second-lowest drug-related deaths in the European Union in terms of drug-related deaths. In contrast, the United States holds the number one spot in drug-related deaths due to its continued policies in the criminalization of drugs.
In order for the legalization of drugs to be successful and effective, a sound drug education program with the aim of reducing and ultimately eliminating the demand for harmful drugs should be simultaneously developed. According to Aspenridge Recovery, a treatment center for addiction, mental health, and trauma, “The best solution is to reach young people with effective, fact-based drug education—before they start experimenting with drugs” (Aspenridge Recovery, n.d.). Everyone can benefit from being exposed to what addiction looks like, what addiction can lead to, and the negative effects of harmful drugs on both mental and physical health. Not only will young people be educated on the drug epidemic issue, community residents, physicians, law enforcement, educators, and all pillars of the community are taught as well (Aspenridge Recovery, n.d.).

Others contend that the legalization of drugs is not the way to go and that it is a step in the wrong direction. For example, many believe that organized crime groups would not take lightly the legalization and retaliate with intensified violence. It has been argued that organized crime groups would take over other illegal economies such as “the smuggling of other contraband or migrants, prostitution, extortion, and kidnapping” and they may “also seek to take over the black economy… [thus] their political power over society will be greater than ever” (Felbab-Brown, 2012). However, these organized crime groups are most likely already involved in these other illegal economies, and with law enforcement being able to focus on them without the pressing drug crime, they will have better resources to close down these groups.

Ultimately, legalizing the drug trade, and overhauling the existing regulations and infrastructure at local, state, and federal levels, while at the same time, redirecting the resources for education, treatment, health, and revitalization of communities, will create a happier healthier nation. Evidence has shown time and time again that creating more punitive laws that seem to mostly target nonviolent drug users while at the same time increasing violence and corruption due to the profit incentive of the illegal drug trade has hurt numerous communities around the country. Legalizing the drug trade could also help rebuild the trust between law enforcement, the judicial system, and communities. If a regulatory framework around legalizing drugs is designed to meet the specific needs of the different political, social, and cultural components of communities then we will see a positive change, more responsible drug use, or even no drug use.