Drug Legalization: Time for a Real Debate

By Stares, Paul B. | Brookings Review, Spring 1996 | Go to article overview

Drug Legalization: Time for a Real Debate


Stares, Paul B., Brookings Review


Whether Bill Chnton "inhaled" when trying marijuana as a college student was about the closest the last presidential campaign came to addressing the drug issue. The present one, however, could be very different. For the fourth straight year, a federally supported nationwide survey of American secondary school students by the University of Michigan has indicated increased drug use. After a decade or more in which drug use had been failing, the Republicans will assuredly blame the bad news on President Clinton and assail him for failing to carry on the Bush and Reagan administrations, high-profile stand against drugs. How big this issue becomes is less certain, but if the worrisome trend in drug use among teens continues, public debate about how best to respond to the drug problem will clearly not end with the election. Indeed, concern is already mounting that the large wave of teenagers - the group most at risk of taking drugs - that will crest around the turn of the century will be accompanied by a new surge in drug use.

As in the past, some observers will doubtless see the solution in much tougher penalties to deter both suppliers and consumers of illicit psychoactive substances. Others will argue that the answer lies not in more law enforcement and stiffer sanctions, but in less. Specifically, they will maintain that the edifice of domestic laws and international conventions that collectively prohibit the production, sale, and consumption of a large array of drugs for anything other than medical or scientific purposes has proven physically harmful, socially divisive, prohibitively expensive, and ultimately counterproductive in generating the very incentives that perpetuate a violent black market for illicit drugs. They will conclude, moreover, that the only logical step for the United States to take is to "Iegalize" drugs - in essence repeal and disband the current drug laws and enforcement mechanisms in much the same way America abandoned its brief experiment with alcohol prohibition in the 1920s.

Although the legalization alternative typically surfaces when the public's anxiety about drugs and despair over existing policies are at their highest, it never seems to slip off the media radar screen for long. Periodic incidents - such as the heroin-induced death of a young, affluent New York City couple in 1995 or the 1993 remark by then Surgeon General Jocelyn Elders that legalization might be beneficial and should be studied - ensure this. The prominence of many of those who have at various times made the case for legalization - such as William F. Buckley, Jr., Milton Friedman and George Shultz - also helps. But each time the issue of legalization arises, the same arguments for and against are dusted off and trotted out, leaving us with no clearer understanding of what it might entail and what the effect might be.

As will become clear, drug legalization is not a public policy option that lends itself to simplistic or superficial debate. It requires dissection and scrutiny of an order that has been remarkably absent despite the attention it perennially receives. Beyond discussion of some very generally defined proposals, there has been no detailed assessment of the operational meaning of legalization. There is not even a commonly accepted lexicon of terms to allow an intellectually rigorous exchange to take place. Legalization, as a consequence, has come to mean different things to different people. Some, for example, use legalization interchangeably with "decriminalization," which usually refers to removing criminal sanctions for possessing small quantities of drugs for personal use. Others equate legalization, at least implicitly, with complete deregulation, failing in the process to acknowledge the extent to which currently legally available drugs are subject to stringent controls.

Unfortunately, the U.S. government - including the Clinton administration - has done little to improve the debate. …

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