Legalization of Drugs

Potential legalization of the production and use of illegal drugs is a controversial issue in many countries around the world. Often, different drugs have different legal status. In the United States common substances like alcohol and cigarettes are legal with certain age limitations. There are other drugs, such as Ritalin and Valium, that are only available with a prescription. On the other hand, cocaine use is only allowed as a medicine in certain types of medical operations, but not as a recreational drug.

However, some people think that the legal status of certain drugs should be changed. The debate is usually focused on whether some currently illegal drugs should be made legal, at least in certain cases. In addition, the vast majority of people that advocate drug legalization actually argue for legalizing only marijuana, not all drugs. There are also people who think in the opposite direction, that some currently legal substances, for example tobacco, should be prohibited as they have an adverse effect on health.

One of the main arguments for legalizing drugs is that people should be free to consume whatever they want, even if it is harmful to them, as long as others are not affected. However, opposers of drug legalization believe that the government has the right and responsibility to prohibit drug use, as it does with other types of behavior that are considered immoral, like public nudity and prostitution.

An important issue in the debate is how to measure and compare the total harm caused by the prohibition or potential legalization of drugs. For example, many people fear that legalizing drugs would lead to a sharp increase in the number of drug users. On the other hand, prohibition is said to have a strong restrictive effect on drug use, while at the same time it is also seen as the root of other drug-related problems such as black markets, violence and corruption. The illegal status of some drugs also contributes to the low social status of drug addicts and an increased spread of blood-born diseases like HIV/AIDS and hepatitis by needle sharing.

The fact that most drugs are illegal and are therefore traded on black markets is the reason why drugs are so expensive, which actually helps hold down their use. Despite the fact that drugs such as cocaine and heroin are merely agricultural products like flour or coffee, their prices are boosted by illegal trade. If drugs are legalized, this would help limit the black markets and therefore lead to lower drug prices. The lower prices would automatically make drugs easily available to a bigger group and thus increase drug use. One solution to this problem offered by some legalization advocates is to eliminate the black markets, while at the same time keeping drug prices high by imposing high taxes. However, similar attempts with currently legal drugs, such as alcohol and tobacco, have shown that high taxes actually lead to increased smuggling.

Another argument used by people who favor legalizing drugs is that they would only be legally available to adults. This solution, however, is also considered unrealistic as adults can easily make drugs available to minors, too, intentionally or unintentionally. Legalization advocates also point out that far more deaths are caused by alcohol and cigarette consumption than by illegal drugs such as cocaine and heroin. Yet this argument does not take into account the fact that the number of people that use alcohol and cigarettes is way above the number of illegal drug users. In addition, the statistics for drug-related deaths only includes cases of direct, severe effects of drug use (such as death from overdose), while the figures for cigarettes and alcohol figures also include indirect effects (such as deaths caused by drunk drivers) and effects of long-term use (such as deaths from lung cancer).

Another important question in the drug legalization debate is how one can rank drugs by the harm they cause. Different drugs act differently, they have different effects on users and are dangerous in different ways, which makes them very difficult to compare.

Another argument in favor of relaxing drug policy is that there are successful experiments with legalization in certain countries, such as the Netherlands, which is known for allowing cannabis use in special coffee shops. In addition, legalizing drugs is expected to free or add new financial resources to the government, by imposing taxes on drugs or by spending less money on drug law enforcement, while focusing on solving other problems.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

Prohibition versus Legalization: Do Economists Reach a Conclusion on Drug Policy?
Thornton, Mark.
Independent Review, Vol. 11, No. 3, Winter 2007
Legalizing Marijuana: Drug Policy Reform and Prohibition Politics
Rudolph J. Gerber.
Praeger, 2004
Drug War Heresies: Learning from Other Vices, Times, and Places
Robert J. Maccoun; Peter Reuter.
Cambridge University Press, 2001
Would Legalizing Drugs Serve America's National Interest?
Eldredge, Dirk Chase; McCollum, Bill.
Insight on the News, Vol. 14, No. 34, September 14, 1998
Marijuana, Heroin, and Cocaine: The War on Drugs May Be a Disaster, but Do We Really Want a Legalized Peace?
Maccoun, Robert; Reuter, Peter.
The American Prospect, Vol. 13, No. 10, June 3, 2002
The Case for Drug Legalization : We Need to Make Drugs a Controlled Substance Just like Alcohol
Johnson, Gary E.
The World and I, Vol. 15, No. 2, February 2000
Legalize Drugs Now!
Cussen, Meaghan; Block, Walter.
The American Journal of Economics and Sociology, Vol. 59, No. 3, July 2000
The Hidden Costs of America's War on Drugs
McNamara, Joseph D.
Journal of Private Enterprise, Vol. 26, No. 2, Spring 2011
"Sending the Wrong Message": Did Medical Marijuana Legalization in California Change Attitudes about and Use of Marijuana?
Khatapoush, Shereen; Hallfors, Denise.
Journal of Drug Issues, Vol. 34, No. 4, Fall 2004
An Extensional Approach to Drug Legalization
Levinson, Martin H.
ETC.: A Review of General Semantics, Vol. 60, No. 2, Summer 2003
After Prohibition: An Adult Approach to Drug Policies in the 21st Century
Timothy Lynch.
Cato Institute, 2000
Drugs and Drug Policy in America: A Documentary History
Steven R. Belenko.
Greenwood Press, 2000
Librarian’s tip: Part XIII "The Debate over Drug Legalization"
Latin America's Legalization Push: As Drug Violence Rages, Mexico Takes the Lead on Policy Reform
Moraff, Christopher.
The American Prospect, Vol. 20, No. 6, July-August 2009
Drug Decriminalization in Portugal
Gillespie, Nick.
Reason, Vol. 41, No. 3, July 2009
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