With marijuana laws changing at a breakneck pace in the US at the state level, whether it be full recreational use (indeed as I write this, New Mexico just legalized it) or at the very least decriminalization, it’s a good time to revisit our national drug policy.
Drugs are not an easy thing to deal with, especially considering the wide variety of them from the relatively harmless psilocybin (mushrooms) to the extreme camp of narcotics like meth. Our approach for a long time has been criminal, though the most virulent form of it dubbed the “War on Drugs” began roughly under the Nixon administration as both a way to suppress the left at the time and strengthen his “law and order” persona (this was later confirmed by one of his aides).
Understandably it’s quite controversial, however, one of my more removed opinions is that all drugs should be decriminalized, such as in Portugal, or even straight-up legalized as Ryan Cooper has suggested. Not because everyone should have free access to drugs with total autonomy, but because criminalization is simply not an effective way to control these substances, and part of the reason is that most drugs are just too easy enough to produce and distribute regardless of legal status.
Prohibitionists among the old temperance movement were correct in saying that alcohol is a terrible scourge on society. To this day, excessive use harms others, including who don’t even drink, and kills more than 95,000 Americans a year. Meanwhile, prohibition’s results, while certainly not the ideal, were actually more muddled than you think. Taxing and regulating is thus the best route to take with varying levels of each depending on how harmful the drug is. While we shouldn’t go back to outright banning alcohol again, we could certainly stand to reform our alcohol taxes to make them more progressive in relation to consumption, and research does show this curbs imprudent drinking. Likewise, cannabis and others like psychedelics and hallucinogens, while not entirely benign drugs either, should also fall into the standard tax and regulate regime. One caveat is to structure regulations so these drugs don’t become corporatized with advertising acutely restrained or even banned.
Harder drugs like heroin and cocaine would be entirely confined to controlled environments such as state run pharmacies/treatment centers where prescriptions or other methods are used to control access. Supervised injections have actually provided positive outcomes, and as mentioned earlier, Portugal’s experiment replacing criminal solutions with treatment have had great success. As Ryan Cooper notes too, yes drug consumption likely goes up in a full legalization scenario, but therapy, education, and medical services come a long way to subdue this. Nicotine is by far one of the most addictive substances on the planet, yet we’ve managed to plunge the number of adult smokers from nearly half about 70 years ago to less than a fifth today.
We’ll have hiccups along the way for sure. With that said, shifting away from criminalization would be a hell of a lot more pleasant than the “destroy and arrest” route we’ve been on for the past half century. An even grander benefit on top of all this would involve breaking the hegemonic power that drug cartels currently possess, helping reduce violent crime not only in the US but also across Central and South America.