Illegal drugs are an enormous problem in modern society. Humans have been using drugs for thousands of years, before present-day government structures existed. This was often done for medicinal or shamanistic purposes. But today, governments around the world have rendered many drugs illegal, in an attempt to curb their use. The United States is fighting a war on drugs which began almost 46 years ago, and was initiated by President Nixon in 1971. Although the war on drugs has benign intentions, it is very expensive and has not been an effective method of preventing drug use. It is time for us to try something else.
The U.S. government has spent an enormous sum of money on the drug war, but drug use is still very prevalent today. In 2010 alone, federal, state, and local governments combined spent over $40 billion on the war on drugs. And since the beginning in 1971, it has cost over $1 trillion. However, in recent years, drug use has grown, with an increase from 8.3 percent in 2002, to 9.4 percent in 2013. The number of people who abuse or are dependent on heroin more than doubled between 2002 and 2012. This may indicate a shift in drug preferences. Of the 17 countries included in a 2008 survey on drug use, the United States had the highest levels of marijuana and cocaine use. From all of this, it is clear that the war on drugs and current drug policies are not working. One potential policy change that can be enacted in an attempt to fix this is full legalization of all drugs. This would come with several other changes. The U.S. government can begin taxing the legalized drugs at a similar rate to alcohol and cigarette tax. They can also be grown and created inside the country and sold in shops.
One country that can provide insight into the potential outcomes of drug legalization is Portugal. After the end of a dictatorship in 1974, many Portuguese citizens returned to the country, and drugs came flooding into the country. It became a huge problem with no foreseeable solution, and in 2001, Portugal decided to decriminalize all drugs. Although this is different from legalization, it greatly decreases the penalties of drug use, and likely has similar effects. Now, when a person in Portugal is caught with less than a ten-day supply of a previously criminal drug, they are given obligatory medical treatment and may be referred to a treatment center. Although the outcomes resulting from this policy change have not been perfect, there have been significant benefits. The use of dangerous synthetic drugs such as synthetic marijuana has decreased substantially since decriminalization, and is now lower than the EU average. Portugal’s rate of drug related deaths is only 3 per a million people, compared to the EU average of 17.3 per million. This could be partially due to an increase in treatment. Finally, drug related HIV infection levels have decreased markedly since decriminalization in 2001.
With drug legalization in the United States, a public health viewpoint could be focused on. Police officers would work together with health officials to influence less drug use and increase treatment, without punishing anyone for using them. Several possible outcomes might occur in response to legalization. First, it is possible that overall drug use would increase, which would negatively affect citizens’ wellbeing. However, the government would benefit from tax revenue. Drug legalization with similar tax levels to alcohol and cigarettes is estimated to generate $46.7 billion per year, and decrease government expenditure by $41.3 billion per year. If drug use ends up decreasing, wellbeing will improve. The government will still obtain some tax revenue, and the decrease in government expenditure will still take place. This decrease in government expenditure may be partially due to a loss of jobs in law enforcement. However, it will be partially offset because new jobs will be created if drugs are made and sold in the country. Legalization may also reduce stigma against drug addicts, and influence more people to seek treatment. The illegal drug trade also fuels violence, because law enforcement reduces supply and increases the price, which makes it more profitable for criminal organizations to dodge the law. The graph below indicates that the homicide rate increased during prohibition and at the start of the war on drugs.
If drug legalization is attempted in the United States, it may end up as a huge failure. But the war on drugs has also been a failure, and something needs to be done. This could result in rampant drug use in the U.S. and other effects that cannot be predicted. But it may reduce drug use substantially, and will definitely save the government money. We will not know the outcome until we try it, and there is potential for it to be a big success.