This article was originally published in Entheoscope Magazine vol 1
For those immersed in the psychedelic scene, it can be easy to forget that psychedelics are but one of many classes of mind-altering substances. Current efforts to decriminalize psychedelics provide an invaluable foot in the door for future reforms to follow. However, the decriminalization of psychedelics cannot be the stopping point in the quest to formulate more equitable drug policy. In this essay, I’ll critically examine some arguments in favor of the decriminalization of drugs. Then I’ll make an introductory case that while decriminalization is a step in the right direction, it fails to adequately mitigate the immense harms caused by the global drug trade. I’ll wrap things up by making a case for why legal penalties that outlaw the use and trade of mind-altering substances should be abolished, before proposing my vision of what legalization would look like in a free and fair society.
Despite their potential benefits, the harms associated with drugs are numerous, and any government policy dealing with drugs must be carefully designed to serve the best interests of public health. The consumption of certain substances may result in addiction, which can lead to significant and irreversible physiological and psychological damage. Addiction often leads to tolerance after repeated use, requiring users to consume increasingly larger doses to achieve the same high. This vicious cycle can sometimes end in overdose, which occurs when the consumption of an excessive amount of drugs poses a sudden and serious health risk to the user. But an approach that prohibits drugs by appealing to potential dangers both limits personal autonomy and poses needless harm to nonviolent users, who bear the brunt of enforcement and criminal sentencing. A more progressive alternative allows for the decriminalization of drugs while still maintaining their illegality. Such a position may seem counterintuitive at first, and one might express skepticism at how drugs might be decriminalized while remaining illegal. The distinction is that decriminalization eliminates criminal penalties for use and possession, whereas legalization entails the removal of criminal penalties for manufacture and sale. This framework protects users while allowing the justice system to target wholesale manufacturers and distributors as the main progenitors of crime.
The decriminalization approach also addresses the racial disparities of the War on Drugs. Under prohibition, users and dealers of color are arrested and imprisoned at far greater rates than white people, despite being equally or less likely to use drugs or sell them (Rothwell, 2014). Racially charged enforcement has decimated communities of color and stifled upward social mobility. Decriminalization precludes the possibility of arrest for possession or personal use, eliminating the possibility that non-white drug users will be disproportionately punished. Furthermore, the effects of drug enforcement’s racial bias can be reduced if we rethink the way we prosecute young people - young men of color in particular - who may be inclined to sell drugs for lack of a better opportunity for economic gain. Thus, proponents of decriminalization argue that by overhauling the way the justice system addresses small-time pushers, we can mitigate the racial disparities of the War on Drugs without committing to full-on legalization.
Decriminalization maintains that we should reformulate drug policy such that use and possession is no longer criminal. If carefully crafted drug policy can effectively reduce the harms associated with drug abuse, then the problem is not the illegality of drugs, but the costly means by which we enforce prohibition. Yet decriminalization, while beneficial, is not enough. The immeasurable cost of the War on Drugs cannot be effectively diminished without rescinding the prohibition of manufacture and sale. I argue that legalization, in tandem with carefully constructed policy, provides the most beneficial solution for users and the general public.
At the crux of the decriminalization-but-not legalization argument is the claim that legalization will lead to a significant increase in drug abuse, or the use of drugs in a manner that is likely to cause harm. Opponents charge that legalization will empower traffickers to push more product, resulting in higher rates of addiction and overdose. However, I contend that this claim is speculative and unfounded. Although I concede that drug use may rise slightly in a society where drugs are legal, we mustn’t fall down the slippery slope of assuming that ordinary people like you and me will suddenly become addicted to heroin. This criticism fails to take into account the complex underlying motives and cultural systems that drive people to use or abstain from drugs in the first place. The circumstances that shape the choices individuals make regarding their use of drugs will not simply vanish if drugs are legalized, and any corresponding spike in drug abuse will not be as severe as opponents of legalization suggest.
Let us now examine the reasons why prohibition of manufacture and sale is not only harmful, but a futile endeavor. A recovering addict once described to me that his attitude towards recovery changed when his sponsor instructed him to put as much effort into getting sober as he had into sourcing drugs for his next fix. This anecdote might help us understand why the unique economy of drug markets makes the War on Drugs unwinnable. Because consumers of drugs are frequently addicted to the product, demand remains relatively stable regardless of cost or availability.
If a government seeks to reduce drug use, it must either reduce demand by implementing wide-spread and effective programs to treat addiction, or reduce supply by attempting to effectively suppress sale and manufacture. While the prohibition of sale and manufacture has certainly succeeded in increasing the cost and rarity of drugs, it has failed to lead to a corresponding decrease in demand. Economist Benjamin Powell notes that “because the demand for drugs is not price-sensitive, each ‘victory’ in the war on drugs enhances drug dealers’ revenue, making future decreases in supply all the harder to achieve” (Powell, 2013). Prohibition raises profit margins for traffickers while increasing harms for addicts, who are forced to negotiate risky situations and pay exorbitant prices in order to avoid the torturous symptoms of withdrawal.
The increase in the power and revenue of multinational drug trafficking organizations as a result of United States drug policy has directly contributed to the instability of foreign governments. As profit margins for drug traffickers increase, the extra cash is frequently used to purchase the goodwill of local officials. The corruption of police “results in tip-offs regarding potential raids, provision of armed protection for crops and refining laboratories, facilitation of smuggling routes, and the provision of weaponry,” all of which allow trafficking syndicates to flourish (Weiner, 2004). Additionally, any success in the suppression of drug production at a single source is negated by a phenomenon known as the balloon effect, in which “local squeezes simply [move] the industry elsewhere, spreading violence and corruption” (“Measuring Progress: Global Supply of Illicit Drugs”, 2003). The degradation of social institutions and the proliferation of drug related violence pose immense harms for residents of drug producing countries like Colombia (cocaine) and Afghanistan (heroin). Through its supply-side fight against drug consumption, US policy stokes the flames of instability in developing states around the world.
Earlier, I suggested that governments might be able to effectively reduce demand for drugs by creating public healthcare systems designed specifically to address abuse. I endorse the idea that drugs should be legalized with the aim of implementing harm reduction policy. As the name suggests, “harm reduction” is the umbrella term for programs that seek to reduce the harms associated with drug use. In a harm reduction facility, individuals seeking to administer drugs could do so under the supervision of a qualified physician using drugs manufactured in a lab and tested for adulterants. This concept is reality in Switzerland, where some drug users can receive methadone or heroin prescriptions from doctors to assist in safely managing and tapering off their addictions. Currently, over 70% of Swiss drug users receive therapy through a program which has “greatly reduced deaths while cutting crime rates”, according to public health officials (Nebehay, 2010). Experts report that new cases of addiction have fallen dramatically, and users no longer congregate at public parks to administer drugs (Knoll, 2016).
Full legalization, coupled with tightly enforced and insightful policy, shows an inkling of promise as an effective means of reducing harm to users and promoting the well-being of the general public. Governments such as our own should heed Switzerland’s example. As the world’s largest drug market, legalization in the United States presents an opportunity to undercut drug trafficking operations worldwide. In addition, individuals addicted to drugs would be finally able to receive proper treatment and care. The case for legalization is one rooted in the flawed economics of prohibition, but more importantly, in compassion for those upon whom the War on Drugs has wrought so much pain. If we are to work together to build a more fair and just society, we must acknowledge that the harms of prohibiting the sale and manufacture vastly outweigh any potential benefits. Decriminalization is a good first step, but it must not be our last.
This article was originally published in Entheoscope Magazine vol. 1