Decriminalization: A Solution for the Future
It is becoming obvious to many people that the war on drugs is a losing
battle. We spend over $40 billion per year in the battle and still drugs
are freely available. In this document, I explain through free market
theory and historical facts that the criminalization of drugs is a losing
proposition and a better solution can be had through decriminalization
and careful regulation. The moral question of drug use is not debated.
Suffice to say, in my opinion and the opinion of the medical establishment,
long term drug use is not in the best health interests of the individual.
President Richard Nixon was the first president to treat the drug problem
as a criminal act. Before his administration, drugs were dealt with as
a public health issue. During this period, the impact of drugs on society
could be compared the modern day situation with cigarettes, a serious
health problem, but one that was manageable with the proper application
of money and education.
Then came the 1960's. Drug use became more open in society, being used
by more and more people in the middle class. Once drugs had penetrated
the mainstream, they showed up on the radar of groups that felt that the
best solution to the problem was to criminalize the act. By applying sufficient
political pressure, the groups pressured the Nixon administration to create
the first laws that set up the current situation that we are in. By doing
so, an entire system has been created to deal with the repercussions of
that fateful decision.
The problem is money. The United States is a wealthy, capitalist society
that forms market efficiently. We have had years of practice at it. By
criminalizing the use of drugs, we have created an incredibly profitable
black market for a product that is in high demand. It is a market so profitable
that a loss of the 90% of the product in shipping is acceptable. A market
so profitable that foreign criminal organizations wield enough power to
overwhelm their respective governments. A market so profitable that people
literally kill to secure their distribution rights.
Unfortunately, this is an expected consequence and can be explained through
free market theory. First, through criminalization, we attempt to reduce
supply for a product that is in high demand. The reduction in supply is
accomplished through law enforcement efforts. Reducing supply without
a corresponding decrease in demand results in a shortage of product. A
product shortage works in the long run to increase the price of the product.
In most cases of increasing prices, demand decreases because individual
are less inclined to buy at a higher price. However, drugs, in particular
narcotics, are relatively price inelastic. That is to say demand changes
very little in relation to supply. This is the market economics of addiction
and key reason that the war on drugs is failing.
Assuming costs and demand stay the same, the increase in price resulting
in very high profits. High profits mean more suppliers, i.e. drug dealers
and suppliers. People who would not ordinarily be involved in criminal
activity will sell drugs because of their financial situation. It's hard
to convince a disadvantaged 16 year old that they need to get a job at
McDonald's when they can make over $100,000 selling crack.
Increased law enforcement efforts will drive up prices and reduce supply
somewhat. However, with the large effort expended in drug interdiction
already, the effect to the supply with be minimal. We've already expended
so much effort in the war that it takes a considerable capital investment
to make a marginal decrease in supply.
More expensive drugs have another effect. Traditionally, drug users are
in lower income brackets. High prices mean more crime as these individuals
must steal to support their habit. Remember that drugs are price inelastic,
therefore an increase in price just means that demand doesn't decrease.
The user must come up with more cash to feed their addiction. If the cost
of their habit was $10,000 past year and $15,000 this year, that simply
means that they must commit $5,000 worth of additional crime to meet their
It is estimated that 30% of our prison population is incarcerated for
drug related offences. A common statement is that many of these drug offenders
were actually guilty of greater crimes, but were only arrested for drugs.
There may be some truth to that statement, however, in the light of prison
overcrowding, it makes more sense to incarcerate a known murder rather
than a possible one that is a drug user.
Is alcohol any different than the drugs currently outlawed in the U.S.?
Some say yes. But consider this. Both alcohol and narcotics are psychotropic
drugs, i.e. mood altering. Both are regularly used in doses that incapacitate
the user. Both are capable of killing in large doses. Both have physically
addictive qualities that prevent the user from easily quitting.
Marijuana is an even more interesting case. Its status as a schedule
I controlled substance is perplexing. First, it doesn't posses any physically
addictive characteristics. Second, there has never be a documented case
of a marijuana overdose. Finally, it has proven medical value for nausea
relief and as an appetite suppressant. Which begs the question: Why was
it included with LSD and heroin?
The answer is due to a belief that marijuana is a "Gateway Drug",
that is to say that it tends to be a stepping stone for people before
they begin to use harder narcotics. This may have some truth, however,
it must be pointed out that many studies have show that tobacco is used
even before marijuana in the same individuals. Tobacco is currently legal
In reality, the only really difference between alcohol and illegal drugs
is the method of delivery. We have become socialized to believe that alcohol
is less dangerous because it is drank rather that snorted or smoked. Drinking
is a common occurrence of daily life and substituting an alcoholic beverage
is really imperceptible to others until it is taken to an excess. Thus,
it becomes less evil because it is similar to our daily routine. Imagine
an individual that would inject alcohol to get their fix. This action
would appear to be far more insidious, but the same result would occur.
Given this, the inescapable conclusion is that the current laws are designed
to enforce a code of social behavior and moral decency. The individuals
in power at the time deemed Drug A to be acceptable and Drug B to be reprehensible.
This is the root of the problem. Strict social controls do not work in
an open society such as we have in America.
In the 1919, congress passed an amendment to the constitution prohibiting
the sell of alcohol. In this period of time, known as Prohibition, the
law was widely flaunted and an underground network of illegal bars, known
as speakeasies, sprang up to meet the demand for spirits. With the profits
being made from this thriving business, the criminal organizations that
supplied the alcohol became more powerful and more violent. Crime skyrocketed
due the warring factions fighting for control of the alcohol trade.
Eventually, the powers that be came to the conclusion that this type
of social control would not work. Prohibition was abolished in 1933. The
immediate result was legal competition for the distribution of alcohol.
Criminal organizations, begin highly inefficient in this area since they
were geared toward protecting their territory, lost power and eventually
It is inevitable that in the future, the government will come to the
same conclusion that was reached back in 1933. The process will require
a change in attitude in mainstream society and an understanding that the
current drug laws do more harm than good. However, there needs to be an
infrastructure in place to regulate the drug trade. The simple controls
that exist for alcohol and cigarettes are completely unacceptable for
the the substances in question.
Some organizations talk about a complete legalization of drugs. While
there is some merit to the complete free trade of drugs on the open market,
certain problems arise because of the special nature of these items. Of
particular note is the addictive nature of narcotics which makes demand
for them stable regardless of price fluctuations. Additionally, this solution
would be completely unacceptable for the majority of individuals that
are comfortable with the status quo. What is presented below is a compromise
that takes into account these two viewpoints and strives to build a solution
that would be everyone's best interest. The key to this solution is to
return to the days before the Nixon administration when drug use was a
simple public health issue. A) Remove the criminal element. B) Educate
First you begin by repealing existing drug laws allowing for their manufacture.
Drugs must be produced in the United States by domestic companies. This
will cut the ties with the foreign cartels that have caused so much destruction
in the past. It will allow us to be able to directly control the supply
and cost. They would be produced through licenses granted by the government.
The likely candidates would be the major drug manufacturers. It should
be a requirement that the organization under contract would be under certain
obligations, such as a prohibition against advertising for the products
in any media. They simply would provide a manufacturing function, nothing
Second, create a new classification for these substances, that of a Potentially
Lethal Controlled Substance. This classification would be necessary
for legal reasons. Drugs can be harmful, at the minimum they are as lethal
as cigarettes. In the worst case, they can be instantly lethal. The government
is not a "Pusher". They would rather you ate a Big Mac. But,
if you are going to get high, you need to assume the risks and be aware.
This would be a key point that would be emphasized in the accompanying
educational campaign. Decriminalization is not "Doper Heaven".
There are specific rules to follow in the procurement and use of drugs.
It should be a hassle to start, with the paperwork and such. Individuals
wanting to purchase PLCS need a prescription, a "PLCS Card"
if you will. It could be issued after either a medical exam or an education
course. They must know exactly what they are getting in for. Most people
would say, "well yea, they are going to play GameBoy during the lecture".
Perhaps. But, some might listen and change their minds. It would be more
than they receive currently.
The PLCS card grants the holder the right to purchase drugs at the market
price, posses and consume them in the privacy of their own home. In exchange
for this right, the user surrenders a certain level of anonymity. For
example, PLCS holders should be barred from public office, operation of
public transportation systems and infrastructure, healthcare, etc. They
also should also be required to attend regular education classes concerning
the use of drugs, etc. All associated educational costs could be financed
by the sale and taxation of drugs.
Once an individual has a PLCS card, the process to procure drugs should
be quick and easy. Any bar to the access of drugs will create a black
market. The exceptions to this are that the possession of the PLCS without
a card is a serious federal offense. Also, minors cannot get a PLCS card.
Giving a minor a PLCS should be reserved as the most serious of offenses.
Distribution to the public would be through a government controlled network
of outlets similar to the alcoholic beverage control systems in place
in many states. Distribution by commercial establishments would present
the image that drugs are harmless and as such would be generally unacceptable
to the effort. It is important that the purchase of drugs not be trivialized.
The effects of this policy should be quick and far reaching. First, criminal
enterprises that are supported by the drug trade will lose their financing.
In a highly competitive environment, there simply would not be enough
profit for them to exist. If an organization would survive, providing
a secondary distribution channel, the government could simply lower the
price of drugs through subsidies for a short period of time until the
organization went bankrupt. With no money to be made, the criminal organization
will leave the market, eliminating the turf wars and other criminal acts
required to distribute their products.
Second, the price of drugs will fall drastically. Addicts will be able
to get a fix at a much lower price, meaning that it is less likely that
they will turn to crime. Simple crimes such as muggings, and burglary
should show an immediate decrease. Over the long term, other crimes, such
as prostitution, should show a decrease as well.
Third, the load on law enforcement and the judicial system should be
drastically reduced. Police would be able to focus on the important violent
offences that have a direct impact on our lives. The result would be an
effective increase in the police force without an increase in cost. An
additional increase would be seen in the capacity of the judicial system.
Courts will no longer have to process the multitude of drug related offences
that it currently deals with. Further down the line, individuals in prison
for drug related offences will be drastically reduced, freeing up space
for far more serious criminals. States that have implemented early parole
systems to reduce overcrowding would no longer have to decide who is the
least dangerous to society.
Overdoses should be reduced. The reasoning behind this is twofold. First,
with manufacturers producing consistent quality products, users will know
what they are getting. Dosages will be known and guidelines could be set
to let people know about the possibility of overdose. Second, the current
drug producers have been know to put tainted products on the market. If
a batch was produced that might have fatal results, it would still be
distributed since there is no incentive in the current system to provide
a quality product. The reduction in drug related health incidents would
have a net positive societal effect as the users would require less medical
intervention. Since users are traditionally without financial means, medical
care is usually provided at the cost of the state.
40 billion dollars per year will be freed up for use in other important
programs. Part of this money would be required to bolster the health sector
to offset the effects of the drug policy. A large percentage of the rest
should be channeled to research into chemical dependency. Once medical
science finds a way to block addiction, then the drug problem will truly
become a thing of the past.
In any public policy scenario, there will always be a negative effect.
To fully explore any solution the drawbacks of a policy initiative must
also be examined. Here I present some of the foreseeable effects of a
national drug decriminalization effort.
First, drug use will increase at least in the short term. Drugs will
be cheaper and easier to procure. Long term usage will be related to the
success of the educational campaign. However, this solution should have
a minimal impact on the number of new users. Currently, anyone with the
desire to begin using drugs can find them. Decriminalization will have
little effect on this group.
There will also be a corresponding increase increase in DWI, impairment
related traffic accidents and other related public intoxication issues.
This will be the most serious effect of the plan. It strives to shift
the problem from the judicial system to the public health sector which
is far better suited to dealing with the problem. However, this should
be more than offset by the reduction in drug related crime, such as robbery,
burglary, mugging and homicides.
A black market for drugs will still exist, although in a much smaller
form. It will be created because of the limited restrictions on obtaining
a PLCS card. This market will cater to the individuals that one reason
of another do not have a PLCS card and for selling to minors. This would
be similar to the black market for cigarettes that exist to avoid high
state taxes. Fortunately, it should require a vastly reduced law enforcement
effort to keep these enterprises under control.
What I have presented is an balanced, rational, examination of a solution
to the current drug problem. Our current drug laws are based on the belief
that anything considered to be immoral should be illegal. However, what
is one person's wrong is another's right. Given this, it is sometimes
is in the best interests of society to look past what we have been taught.
Hopefully, this paper provided the insight that will allow you to make