Academic journal article Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table

Substance Abuse and the Criminal Law

Academic journal article Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table

Substance Abuse and the Criminal Law

Article excerpt


The harm that criminal laws against drugs do are frequently, but wrongly blamed on drugs. E.g: "You think drugs don't do harm. Tell that to the widow of the law enforcement officer who was killed while trying to make a drug bust." What the speaker does not realize is that drugs did not cause the death of that officer. Attempts at drug interdiction did. (4) Is the "war on drugs" worth it? I'm tempted to say "Ask the slain officer's widow"? But candidly that is not a fair question. Just as in a war that should be fought, soldiers will be killed, and on a big picture basis, their deaths may be worth it. But, I'm not sure that the war on drugs belongs in that category.

The fact that drugs such as marijuana, heroin, and cocaine are not legally available means that the only place one can purchase such items is from a criminal. If by the wave of a magic wand, we could eliminate the demand, no problem. Nobody wants drugs, the dealers are out of business, problem solved. The trouble is that the real world doesn't work that way. In the real world people want these drugs. As a result they buy them from the only available source: criminals. And frankly, if criminals are in the risky business of selling the drugs to make money, you can be sure that they won't be cheap.

Well what harm does this do? A brief, but incomplete, catalogue includes the death of DEA agents and other police officers (5), gang members killing each other (and innocent bystanders) in turf wars over drug territories (6), drug pushers trying to hook teenagers with "free samples" to ensure a continuing clientele (7), overcrowded prisons (8), populated substantially with drug dealers and users (9), and sky rocketing prison costs to ensure continued housing of drug dealers and other criminals (10), a substantial increase in crime by would be users who have to turn to prostitution, robbery, and even murder to obtain money to afford their drugs because of the inflated prices charged by criminals. (11)

So what should we do? Should we simply withdraw from the drug enforcement business and let the former criminals continue their marketing and hope that legitimate entrepreneurs will enter and perhaps drive out the criminals? Hardly. We need to be pro-active to prevent drugs from becoming (or remaining) a serious health problem. But we do need to eliminate, or at least reduce, the harm that comes from drugs being criminal.

My proposal is for the Government to go into the business of selling marijuana, cocaine, and heroin. The Government should sell these items at cost, thereby eliminating any likelihood of criminals being able to compete. I would not, however, simply allow anybody to buy the drugs. Potential purchasers would be given information regarding the drugs, including such things as the difference between smoking, and otherwise ingesting, marijuana. They would also be apprised of all of the potential bad things the drugs do (like impairment of depth perception and judgment). (12) Only after reading this information, and passing a test on it (similar to a driver's license test) would a person be allowed to buy the drug of his choice.

There is one further role that I would assign to Government: Negative advertising, as the Government currently does with cigarettes. Negative advertising has worked to reduce consumption. (13) With the money saved from the staggering costs of the war on drugs, the Government should be able to literally saturate the airwaves with negative drug messages. Hopefully, this will reduce the demand for drugs, though candidly nobody knows how much.

Of course, there is the possibility that these limitations on purchase may still leave room for the underworld peddler. I do not believe that there would be much room, however. The price differential would be so great that all but the most incompetent purchasers would still choose to buy from the government even if the user does have to pass what he/she may consider a stupid test. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.