Legalization - An Outline Of The Issues
marijuana drug drugs people
In the United States legalization of drugs almost invariably refers to the legalization of marijuana rather than, for instance, heroin and cocaine. Use of "hard drugs" like these is relatively limited, and most Americans consider them to be highly addictive and damaging to one's physical and mental health. Marijuana's situation is different. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), in 2003 more than three-quarters of all current drug users (75.2%) were using marijuana, and more than half of all current drug users used only marijuana and no other drugs. "Current drug use" is defined by SAMHSA as drug use in the thirty days before a person participated in SAMHSA's annual Household Survey of Drug Abuse. Some studies have suggested significant harm from marijuana use, including effects on the heart, lungs, brain, and social and learning capabilities. Others have found little or no harm from moderate marijuana use. Regardless of what the research says, marijuana is generally thought of as a relatively mild drug, an opinion supported by government initiatives in Canada, where marijuana possession has been decriminalized in many localities, or in the Netherlands, where marijuana sales are tolerated in "coffee shops."
Based on SAMHSA data from its 2003 National Survey, 14.6 million people (age twelve and older) had used marijuana or hashish within a month of the agency's survey; twenty-five million had used these drugs in the past year; and 96.6 million people had smoked marijuana or hashish at some point in their lives. The increase in lifetime users between 2002 and 2003 alone was 1.67 million people.
Not all of these current and past users can be assumed to favor legalization, but Gallup polling data for selected years from 1969 to 2001 show public opinion increasingly favoring the legalization of marijuana. (See Table 11.1.) In 1969, 84% of the public opposed legalization, and 12% favored it. By 2001 those opposed had shrunk to 62% of the public, while 34% were in favor. In that year, 34% of the adult population (eighteen and older) represented 77.4 million people. Trends, if they continue, suggest that by about 2010 those who favor legalization of marijuana will be in the majority. Gallup surveys of public opinion regarding decriminalization of medical marijuana use when prescribed by a physician were 73% in favor in 1999.
It is with the support of this population that a number of initiatives and referenda attempting to legalize marijuana for medical purposes or to decriminalize possession of modest quantities have appeared on state ballots (to be discussed in more detail below). The pro-legalization constituencies express themselves through activist organizations, e.g., Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), Hemp Evolution, and state-level organizations. Some legal reform organizations, notably the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), advocate reforms. A number of groups specialize in advocacy for the medical uses of marijuana. By contrast there are no large organizations that promote the legalization of drugs like cocaine and heroin, showing that "legalization" really refers to marijuana legalization.
A Sliding Scale
Many of those who advocate legalization wish to reform a national policy they see as using the criminal justice system to solve a public health problem. Instead of arresting and incarcerating people for drug possession, authorities should send them to treatment. Instead of eradicating coca crops in Colombia, the government should deal with socioeconomic problems or educational deficits that lead adults and youths to turn to drugs. Another viewpoint comes from those who advocate legalization on libertarian or constitutional grounds: the government has no right telling adults what to consume. These two positions result in a range of approaches on a sliding scale.
A basic first step, advocated by the ACLU, for instance, is decriminalization (Ira Glasser, Executive Director, ACLU, in Testimony before the Criminal Justice, Drug Policy and Human Resources Subcommittee of the House Government Reform Committee, June 16, 1999). The ACLU argued that current drug policy produces harm in various forms—harm to individuals who must get drugs in
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|Note: Sample sizes vary from year to year; the data for 2001 are based on telephone interviews with a randomly selected national sample of 1,017 adults, 18 years of age and older, conducted Aug. 3-5, 2001.|
dangerous circumstances and suffer from abuse with-out treatment, harm to individuals who cannot use drugs in medical contexts, and harm to society by incarcerating large numbers of people. Criminalization of drug use, according to the ACLU, has curbed neither drug use nor the availability of drugs but has, instead, eroded liberties and imposed unnecessary costs on society.
Pharmaceuticals are strictly regulated by requiring doctors to prescribe them. Legal recreational drugs (tobacco and alcohol) are subject to regulation as well but are not prohibited; their mere possession will not land someone in jail. One expression of drug legalization is the call to substitute regulatory management for prohibition in drug use, providing the public limited access to some drugs. The legalization of syringe exchange programs would be an example of such regulatory approaches—as might be provision of heroin to addicts under controlled conditions. Those who advocate a regulatory system (e.g., the ACLU) stop well short of what an unbridled free-market approach might produce.
Opponents of legalization envision an environment in which brightly packed and machine-rolled joints would be sold in drug stores alongside cigarettes, with the result that lung cancer rates, slowly decreasing as tobacco use declines, would take off again. Almost no one advocates replacing a system in which marijuana is prohibited with one where it is promoted on billboards. But such an outcome is at least possible under some implementations of drug legalization.
According to Gallup data cited above, about six out of ten people were against legalization of marijuana in 2001. The majority's views are expressed in a massive institutional system that has been fighting the war on drugs with billions of dollars yearly for many decades at home and abroad.
Somewhat more than half of all federal expenditures on drug control are dedicated to controlling the trade in drugs, and substantially more than half of all drug-related expenditures within the criminal justice system are included. Federal funds on drug control are expended by dozens of agencies; these funds flow to states, then to lower levels of government. The war on drugs has become a well-funded institutional habit, not likely to yield rapidly to a slowly changing public mood.