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close this bookIllicit Drugs: Social Impacts and Policy Responses (UNRISD, 1994, 19 p.)
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Decriminalization and legalization are not generally advanced as strategies to reduce drug consumption, but rather as possible ways to reduce the harm to society from drug abuse, particularly from drug-related crime and violence. Decriminalization proposals are a response to a belief that neither supply suppression nor demand reduction efforts will be successful in reducing drug abuse, and that the continued existence of a prohibition rme imposes unacceptable costs on society.

Legalization (officially authorizing currently illegal behaviour) and decriminalization (removing some penalties or at least “looking the other way”) may occur at the user, producer or trafficker levels in the drug chain, and may range from complete abandonment of controls to the selective relaxation of absolute prohibition. Most arguments in favour of some kind of liberalizing policy concentrate on decriminalizing or legalizing consumer drug use; a few advocate the same policies for drug production; hardly any are in favour of removing penalties for drug trafficking. Most proposals for drug use decriminalization focus on marijuana, several on cocaine, a few on heroin, while some would legalize all but crack cocaine. Another variant of the liberalization approach is medicalization, which allows those who need a certain drug to obtain it legally. Such a policy would obviously have to distinguish between different kinds of drugs and their effects both on the individual and on society.

Beyond reducing systemic crime, the proposals for legalization appeal to larger moral goals, such as enhancing public health and safety and invigorating a sense of community. An outright preference for unfettered freedom to consume psychoactive drugs is hardly ever advanced. Rather than favouring unqualified personal drug liberties, most proposals are meant to address the most feared consequence of prohibition policies and their implementation: drug-related crime. Accordingly, controls (regulation and taxation, perhaps similar to those for tobacco and alcohol in the United States) are called for, sometimes with the suggestion that tax proceeds from the legitimate sale of drugs be dedicated to consumer anti-drug education and to drug-related public services (for instance hospitals that care for infants who are born with an addiction to drugs).

If drug use were decriminalized in consuming countries, there would be no crime tax for traffickers, smugglers and pushers to reap and therefore no reason for them to carry out turf wars, assault police, terrorize neighbourhoods and undermine countries’ institutional integrity. A possible parallel situation is that of the crime syndicates in the United States after the prohibition on alcohol consumption ended in 1933: organizations associated with the production and sale of alcohol faded away, went into other criminal pursuits or invested their resources in legitimate businesses. With decriminalization, savings from a cutback in law enforcement expenses could be spent on other programmes, such as drug education and treatment. In terms of health, clean drugs, clean needles and a humane environment could reduce the incidence of drug-related HIV transmission.

A mix of decriminalization in consuming countries, combined with legalization of the coca-cocaine industry in producing countries, could eliminate the huge profits traffickers reap from their industry and at the same time rapidly reduce drug-related violence. In Bolivia, where drug-related violence has largely been avoided to date, legalization might have adverse economic effects in some sectors, as the price of coca would fall to roughly the equivalent of other agricultural crops. However, there is widespread and growing support in the country for legalization of coca (as opposed to cocaine). It is believed that legalization would help promote alternative coca products.

The primary opposition to the liberalization of drug policies is based on the belief that drug use would increase if the penalties on it were removed, and therefore that the adverse social, political and economic effects that societies endure would be as great or worse than those suffered under the present prohibition rme. There is also fear that children would be more exposed to drug use if the social stigma attached to it were removed. Finally, there are concerns about the practical difficulties of legal distribution of drugs to so many users (in the United States alone, there are eight million regular users of cocaine and heroin).

Increased drug abuse does not, however, appear to be the inevitable result of the liberalization of drug laws. In several Latin American countries, for instance, the easy availability of cocaine at low prices has not given rise to any substantial cocaine abuse problems. In Amsterdam, where both cannabis and cocaine are easily available, the use of both drugs is significantly lower than in the United States, where drug use penalties are severe.