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Is Legalization A Realistic Alternative To The War On Drugs? Essay, Research Paper

For years, the issue of legalization has been an increasingly controversial subject. Millions of dollars are spent annually in the War on Drugs causing many to wonder if this fight is cost-effective or if an alternative such as legalization would be more realistic than current efforts in drug prevention. Opponents state that with legalization would come an increase not only in availability, but also with everything associated with that availability. This includes suffering of users and their loved ones, death of users and innocent alike, increases in health-care costs, cost to employers, drug-related crimes, and increases in various other social, economic, and emotional costs. On the other hand, advocates argue it is pointless to continue to ignore the presence of drugs in society. They feel society must acknowledge the now-illegal narcotics as it has with alcohol and tobacco. Legalization would result in purity assurance, labeled concentration of the product, obliteration of pushers, obliteration of drug crime, savings in expensive enforcement, and significant tax revenues. Both sides of the controversy are confident with the credibility and effectiveness of their respective arguments, making it necessary for society to ask itself whether legalization of narcotics is a realistic alternative to current prohibition and the war on drugs or if legalization would result in more negative consequences than positive.

The United States government’s current position on narcotics is prohibition. The cornerstone of drug prohibition in America came with the Harrison Narcotic Act of 1914. The Harrison Act restricted the use of opiates, such as morphine, heroin, and cocaine, to medicinal purposes. Strong evidence suggests that the law was instituted in order to prevent casual or non-medical users, frequently called “dope fiends” from obtaining the drugs outside of medical practice. The American experience with drugs at the end of the 19th century demonstrated the serious problems that can be caused by the general use of a wide range of legally available drugs. These problems were judged unacceptable by Americans of that day. Prohibition was the result of nonpartisan public outcry over the negative effects of unrestricted drug use. (Trebach 41-44)

The most important question in regards to legalization is how it would affect use and abuse in this country. Advocates of legalization such as Steven Duke and Albert Gross argue that those who do not use under prohibition will not use under legalization. Duke is a law professor at Yale University, and Gross is a lawyer from San Diego, California. They are greatly respected advocates for legalization, their greatest fame stemming from their co-authored book, America’s Longest War. The key argument made by advocates Duke and Gross is that “the major reasons why people desist from smoking and drinking – health, social stigma, morality, aesthetics – are also applicable to the drugs currently labeled ‘illegal’” (120). Whether Americans choose to avoid recreational drugs in the first place or to quit using or abusing them is linked to the quality of their lives and their perceived prospects for a rewarding life without drug use or abuse. As Duke states, “illegal-drug use has been reduced dramatically in the past few years among white middle and upper classes-but hardly or not at all among ethnic minorities, who largely inhabit out inner cities. Many of those users see nothing but a bleak future before them” (121). Having little to lose by drug abuse, they feel no regrets about summarily losing it. In sum, the drug market is already saturated with a combination of legal and illegal drugs. Proponents of legalization feel that virtually everyone who now wants to get high already does so, and while legalization may significantly alter market shares among the now legal and illegal drugs, it is unlikely to create a dramatic increase in demand for narcotics. As Michael S. Gazzaniga, professor of neuroscience at Dartmouth Medical School, puts it, “There is a base rate of drug abuse, and it is [presently] achieved one way or another” (121). Gazzaniga and those who share his views place their argument heavily upon the point that legalization would not cause current non-users to begin to use. (Duke 118-125)

A secondary point made by legalization proponents on this issue is that while the cheaper prices of narcotics under legalization may cause an increase in consumption, these lower prices would deter people from using alcohol. No longer deterred by high prices or criminalization associated with narcotic use, users would use cocaine over alcohol because while both produce similar psychological effects, alcohol is responsible for more annual deaths than all narcotics combined making narcotic use or abuse the lesser of two evils. The argument made by legalization advocates is that getting current alcohol abusers to switch from abusing alcohol to abusing narcotics would be all-in-all beneficial to society. (Duke 119-120)

Controversially, legalization adversaries such as Robert DuPont argue that the inevitable result of legalization would be increased drug use, along with increased addiction and death rate. DuPont, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University and former director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, provides evidence in pre-prohibition experiences as well as more current experiments with legalization. DuPont states that since the main goal of legalization would be elimination of the black market, drug prices under the system of legalization must be kept much lower than they are now. When most commodities become cheaper, more people use them and those who used them before use more of them. This has been proven true with narcotics and other “pleasure drugs.” For instance, when crack was introduced in the mid-1980s, the price of cocaine dropped significantly, and the number of users nearly tripled as a result. New York authorities supported DuPont’s research, stating “the reduced prices also accompanied increases in the numbers of both new users and abusers of cocaine” (DuPont 127). Several studies show that the price of cigarettes-our most addictive drug-has a measurable impact upon consumption. It is not a difficult concept to grasp: the higher the price, the less tobacco smoked. (DuPont 126-132)

Since there has never been an experiment in the United States regarding the effects of legalization of drug usage, no conclusions can be drawn without some uncertainty. However, as William J. Olson has researched, it is possible to look to experiments overseas or other pertinent events in American history. Olson, a senior fellow at the National Strategy Information Center, uses the Platzspitz Park experiment as an example. In 1987, in Zurich, Switzerland, the city government set aside Platzspitz Park as an experimental laboratory, decriminalizing drugs within the park, making them available without legal consequences. Health care and clean syringes were provided for addicts and it was hypothesized that the experiment would lead to a reduction in crime, better health care for addicts, and containment of the problem to a defined area. Instead, drug-related crime increased, drug dealers from other nations brought their business to Zurich, and the health care system was overwhelmed as drug users were in constant need of resuscitation. Zurich is a perfect example of the failure of decriminalization and legalization. The Netherlands provides another great example, as they have chosen not to enforce their anti-drug laws, exhibiting tolerance in hopes that the people will learn for themselves. As in Zurich, the Netherlands has become populated with drug lords and addicts, making it the most crime-prone nation in Europe. Furthermore, Dutch efforts to license legal heroin use quickly ran aground amid huge increases in crime and overdose deaths, despite many efforts of treatment and information programs. The consensus legalization opponents have come to is if legalization will not work overseas, there is nothing to say it will work in the United States. While it is not completely comparable, precedence can be found in the prohibition of alcohol. Alcohol usage and rates of liver disease declined significantly during Prohibition. Following repeal of the 18th Amendment, the number of drinkers in the United States increased by sixty percent. The conclusion drawn by legalization adversaries is that if the prohibition on narcotics was repealed, the use and abuse of now-illegal drugs would soar as well. Other evidence in the United States can be found in the vast social experimentation during the 1960s and 1970s. This led to a great push for non-enforcement of existing anti-drug laws. The cumulative message caused an explosion in use, followed by a crime wave, increased social violence, and skyrocketing health care costs. (Olson 112-117)

Legalizing the use of a drug that was previously illegal is also likely to have an impact on consumption besides the effects of increased availability. While legalizing drugs is not a statement that drugs are good, it is no longer a statement that drugs are not bad. Legalization can easily be interpreted as removal of condemnation and equating once-illegal drugs with the “harmless” legal drugs: alcohol and tobacco. (Olson 113-114)

If drugs are legalized, consumption will naturally rise. An increase in availability will undoubtedly result in an increase in use, and no longer saying narcotics are illegal would be like saying narcotics are not harmful. The opponents of legalization adequately defend their case on this issue with statistics and proven fact while advocates again try to equate optimism with factual evidence. If trends of narcotic use after legalization would resemble trends already proven in use of alcohol and tobacco, than use would unquestionably rise with legalization. Too much evidence points towards a rise in use to believe that just because people do not use now then they will not use in a decriminalized and legalized society. Under legalization, prices will drop and availability will increase leading to an unquestionable increase in use.

Whenever a change in law in debated, the affect of that change on the crime rate is almost always a key topic. Theodore Vallance, a professor emeritus at Pennsylvania State University and the author of several books on what he considers the failures of prohibition, is among the most respected proponents of legalization. His extensive research in the crimes committed by drug users has revealed many intriguing statistics. Explaining the affects of legalization on the criminal system, he has divided those affects into three main categories. The first of these categories centers on the decrease of predatory crime that would occur outside of prohibition. Secondly, territory wars between rival drug dealers would become obsolete under legalization. Often viewed as the most important, the third of these affects is since possession and use of narcotics would no longer be a crime, corruption in the system on drug-related issues would be nonexistent. Vallance states that of the millions of lawbreakings that occur each day, most are committed by the estimated twenty million users of illegal drugs who are responsible for well over one million annual arrests. For instance, the average heroin addict requires $10,000 every year to sustain his habit, and more than three quarters of these addicts reportedly obtain these funds by committing predatory crimes such as muggings, burglaries, and occasional associated killings. In Miami, a survey of 356 heroin users showed that they admittedly committed nearly 120,000 crimes combined. That averages out to about 337 crimes per person annually, making it more of a full-time job than a way to make ends meet every now and then. Interviews of 500 cocaine hot-line callers showed 45 percent of them reporting stealing, forgery, or fraud, in order to support their habit. Vallance claims drug prohibition, like liquor prohibition, makes it profitable for criminal organizations to supply them and leaves addicts with no source of supply but criminals. As he puts it, “It is the prohibition which generates the crime, not only the crimes committed as rival gangs compete for market turf, but also the corruption of law enforcement, prosecutors and judges” (Vallance 136). It cannot be refuted that most of the crime associated with drugs derives from the fact that they are illegal. The proponents’ argument is making all drugs legal would define most of these offenses out of existence. More significant to is the fact that drug-related crime would lose its motivational base: the violent crime associated with defending turf and getting money to support habits, plus the corruption of police, courts, and other public officials. Vallance and his fellow advocates of legalization are extremely confident that legalization of narcotics would cause a great reduction in the crime rate. (Vallance 133-138)

Gerald W. Lynch and Roberta Blotner are among the prime opponents of legalization.

Lynch is the president of John Jay College of Criminal Justice, a unit of the City University of New York (CUNY). Blotner is director of CUNY’s substance-abuse prevention programs. Their biggest argument is in great opposition to Vallance’s, as they argue legalization would lead to an increase in violent crimes such as murder, child abuse, and suicide. The most widely abused drugs in our society are tobacco, alcohol, and prescription drugs, which combined account for about 85 million addictions nationwide. In comparison, crack, heroin, and other hallucinogens each account for an average of one million addictions. Furthermore, a total of 1 550 people in the United States die each day as a result of alcohol or tobacco use, while only 20 die each day due to overdoses or homicides related to illegal narcotics. As many as 80 percent of violent crimes involve alcohol and drugs. This data clearly show that the drugs which are most available are the most abused, the most dangerous, and the most costly. A number of studies have demonstrated the undeniable relationship between drug use and homicides, automobile deaths, child abuse and sexual abuse. According to recent pharmacological research, certain drugs, especially cocaine, have the tendency to cause violent behavior. Many experts, including Lynch and Blotner, think that unless there was free access to unlimited quantities of drugs, there would still be a black market even after legalization. Drugs, regardless of whether they are legal, would still cost money. Since many addicts cannot maintain jobs because of the effects of their use, they would continue to engage in stealing and prostitution to pay for drugs and would continue to subject their families and friends to abuse. (Lynch and Blotner 139-144)

While there have not been any narcotic legalization experiments in the United States, international experiments support Lynch and Blotner in their claim that legalization would not lead to a reduction in crime. The aforementioned failed experiments in Switzerland and the Netherlands are evidence of the effects legalization would have on crime. The Netherlands became the most crime-prone country in Europe as a result of their experiment, and the Zurich crime rate soared to an all time high. While there is impossible to be positive whether results would be the same in America as in these European countries, there is absolutely no indication that it would be any better. (Olson 112-117)

Drug legalization would not eliminate crime. Proponents of legalization state their case strongly, but optimism never equals factual evidence. While the increased availability and lower prices would probably make predatory crimes less necessary at first, increased availability would indubitably result in an increase in use. An increase in use would mean users would be going through what little income they already had at an increasingly rapid rate meaning predatory crimes would eventually become a quick and logical alternative to addicts. The effects of narcotics such as cocaine, heroin, and marijuana are proven to make addicts more violent and, in some cases, suicidal. Increase in use would mean an increase in violent, homicidal or suicidal addicts. Just because legalization would redefine some crimes, those crimes would still be committed. Legalization would undoubtedly lead to an increase in crime.

Proponents of legalization do not understand why narcotics are labeled as illegal when, as they claim, narcotics are no more harmful than legalized drugs. Benson B. Roe, professor emeritus and former chair of cardiothoracic surgery at the University of California at San Francisco, states that, “since drugs cannot be eradicated from society, and since drugs are no more harmful than many legal substances such as alcohol or tobacco, most illegal drugs should be legalized” (107). In Roe’s line of work, he came across many destroyed heart valves in infected intravenous drug users. Deciding to ascertain what proportion of serious fatal drug-related disease this group represented, he spoke to the San Francisco Coroner. The coroner reported that “infections from contaminated intravenous injections were the only cause of drug-related deaths [he] had seen except for occasional deaths from overdoses” (108). He confirmed the inference that clean, reasonable dosages of heroin, cocaine and marijuana are pathologically harmless. As Roe reports, it is frequently stated that illicit drugs are bad, dangerous, destructive, or addictive, and that society has an obligation to keep them from the public. But nowhere can be found reliable, objective scientific evidence that they are any more harmful than other substances and activities that are legal. The prevailing complaint put forth by legalization advocates is that “why certain (illegal) substances are singularly more evil than legal substances like alcohol has not been explained” (108). In the eyes of these advocates, legislation has never successfully addressed the complex question of “right” and “wrong” outside of making some drugs legal while leaving others illegal. Although it is widely known that the nicotine found in most tobacco products is probably the most addictive harmful substance in our society, no one has suggested making it illegal even though tobacco kills more people every year than any illicit drug. Roe’s last point is that illegal drugs have gotten a bad wrap as “poisonous” when in actuality, “there is little medical evidence of long term ill effects from sustained, moderate consumption of uncontaminated marijuana, cocaine, or heroin” (109). As legalization proponents state, narcotics do not cause the adverse long-term effects of diseases or disturbances like alcohol, tobacco, and even caffeine do. (Roe 107-111)

Those who strive against legalization such as Doctor James A. Inciardi refute proponents claims that narcotics are relatively harmless by citing factual scientific evidence. Professor Inciardi is director of the Center for Drug and Alcohol Studies at the University of Delaware. He has performed extensive clinical and scientific research to discover the truth about narcotics such as marijuana, cocaine, and heroin. (Inciardi 165)

While many marijuana addicts claim that smoking just a few “joints” daily is less harmful than regularly smoking as many cigarettes, Inciardi has found that “the respiratory burden in smoke particles and absorption of carbon monoxide from smoking just one marijuana ‘joint’ is some four times greater than from smoking a single tobacco cigarette” (Inciardi 166). Additionally, it was found that one “toke” of marijuana delivers three times more tar to the mouth in lungs than one puff of a filter-tipped cigarette. Marijuana deposits four times more tar in the throat and lungs and increases carbon monoxide levels in the blood fourfold to fivefold. With these statistics, marijuana is unquestionably more detrimental than tobacco (Inciardi 166-168).

Cocaine, commonly referred to as an “all-American drug” has few of the life-threatening side effects associated with other pleasure drugs. Snorting cocaine gives the user a twenty minute high which is immediate, intensively vivid, and sensation enhancing. The user has no hangover, no lung cancer, and no holes in the arms or burned-out cells in the brain. With all these positives to cocaine use, it is easy to wonder why it is looked down upon. As Inciardi describes cocaine highs, “the euphoric lift that comes from but a few brief snorts is short-lived and invariably followed by a letdown. More specifically, when the grandiose feelings begin to wane, a corresponding deep depression is often felt, which is in such marked contrast to users’ previous states that they are strongly motivated to repeat the dose and restore the euphoria” (168). This leads to chronic, compulsive use. When chronic users try to stop using cocaine, they typically fall into a severe depression, which only another dose of cocaine can bring them out of. This becomes a constant chronic cycle. The physiological consequences of cocaine use include increased temperature, heart rate, and blood pressure. In terms of numbers of overdose deaths, cocaine ranks higher than any other drug-legal or illegal. (Inciardi 168-169)

Heroin is a highly addictive drug. As Inciardi states, “for the addict, it becomes life consuming: it becomes mother, father, spouse, lover, counselor, and confessor” (171). Because heroin has depressant effects, a portion of the user’s day is spent in a semi-stupefied state. Collectively, these attributes result in a user more concerned with drug-taking and drug-seeking than health, family, work, relationships, responsibility, or anything else. Heroin slowly dominates the user’s life and then eventually takes it. (Inciardi 171-172)

Regardless of what legalization advocates argue about how narcotics are no worse than legal drugs, one cannot turn their back on the fact that now-illegal drugs are harmful to the user and the user’s loved ones. Although more people die each year of complications pertaining to alcohol or tobacco, one must take into account the varying degree in use between legal drugs and narcotics. What legalization advocates fail to acknowledge is that the only reason statistics about alcohol and tobacco users are greater than statistics on narcotics user is because there are more legalized drug users than illegal drug users. The data supplied by legalization proponents is not objective and is therefore preventative for one to draw a concrete conclusion.

With many people criticizing the cost-effectiveness of the war on drugs, a question arises as to how legalization would affect funds used for programs involving drugs. As Dr. Jefferson Fish reports, billions of dollars are spent annually in the war on drugs. Government organizations ranging from Washington to local police forces are funded with millions upon millions of dollars to work towards drug prevention. Prisons are overcrowded with criminals convicted of drug use and possession. Fish states that under legalization the funds put towards to war on drugs would be freed-up to be put towards more deserving causes such as rehabilitation programs for addicts or those with drug abuse problems. The annual costs of healthcare and loss of productivity to employers are estimated at $600 billion for alcoholism, $60 billion for tobacco-related ailments, and only $40 billion for users of illegal drugs. Advocates for legalization such as Dr. Fish argue that because narcotics do not produce healthcare and productivity costs on the scale of those produced by alcohol and tobacco, the funds moved from drug-prevention would be better spent deterring the use of alcohol and tobacco. (Fish 539-541)

Opponents of legalization argue from the other side of the spectrum, stating that legalization would cost the government and the American taxpayers more than prohibition. Doctor Ethan Nadelmann, a professor at Princeton University, has done extensive research on this particular issue. His argument is that alcohol and tobacco, the drugs that are legal for adults, cause more harm than do all currently illegal drugs combined, indicating legalization of cocaine, heroin, and marijuana would only cause an increase in those costs. As Nadelmann puts it, “The net costs to society would rise substantially under legalization. The human costs of legalization would be paid be those most vulnerable to addiction: the young and the disadvantaged” (303). Also, while legalization advocates claim narcotics do not produce health and productivity costs on the scale of those produced by alcohol and tobacco users, they fail to acknowledge the higher level of health and productivity costs per user by narcotic users compared to alcohol and tobacco users. (Nadelmann 299-310)

As discussed previously, the increase in availability under legalization would lead to an increase in use. More users means more abusers, and more abusers means more money is going to be needed for costs stemming from healthcare and loss of productivity. The drug problem in the United States in costly to the American taxpayer, and while legalization may allow cost cuts in policing against narcotic use, money is still going to be needed for drug prevention for the youth of this country and for the healthcare of drug users. Legalization is not the cost-effective answer to the war on drugs.

In addition to all aspects of legalization previously discussed, each side of the legalization argument has further statements as to how legalization would affect society as a whole. Advocates of legalization have three main points on benefits for society. The first is that legalization would bring about drug purity assurance. The vast majority of drug-related deaths come as a result of contaminated needles or overdoses: two things legalization would take measures to prevent. In addition, marijuana is, strictly medically speaking, actually safer than most processed foods. In its untampered form, marijuana is one of the safest therapeutic substances. Under legalization, marijuana would remain untampered and would not pose the negative side effects it does today. The second point made by legalization proponents is that Legalization would lead to a decrease in alcohol abuse. Substance abusers would turn to the “less-harmful” narcotics over the “more-harmful” alcohol. Death rates would drop, as people are less likely to kill themselves on narcotics than alcohol. Probably the most important of these three points is the third one where legalization advocates state that drug users would be more willing to seek help in a system of legalization. People would be more willing to get drug intervention if it didn’t mean they would have to admit to committing a felony in order to do so. Also, pre-natal babies would receive proper care, as mothers would not fear becoming criminals by seeking proper pre-natal medical care. These three points, if met under legalization, would serve to benefit society. (Roe 107-110)

The opponents of legalization also present three points as to how legalization would affect society. Drug abuse is not a victimless crime, and herein lies the first of their three points. Job productivity and effectiveness is greatly decreased when the worker is under the influence of narcotics or other drugs. An increase in use under legalization would mean a decrease in productivity and effectiveness. The second of these points is that families are destroyed by drug use, and the increase in use would inevitably mean an increase in destroyed families. Thirdly, while prenatal medical care to babies of drug-using mothers can benefit them and make their lives slightly better, no amount of prenatal medical care can make up for having a baby affected by drug use. Unquestionably, these three results of legalization would be utterly detrimental to society. (Olson 112-117)

It is common belief that the war on drugs has been a failure, but legalization is not the answer to this problem. There is no catchall positive that could possibly arise from legalization. Use will undoubtedly rise as prices drop and availability increases. Crime will eventually increase, as narcotics users will need means of supporting their habit. The American people will have to pay more as a result of losses sustained by legalization. It is absolutely risible for advocates of legalization to defend their argument stating that since alcohol and tobacco are already such a problem, then adding narcotics to the list of legal drugs would not complicate matters. The fact of the matter is that legalization would be making a bad problem worse. There is no reason for heroin, cocaine, and marijuana to add to the problems already caused by alcohol and tobacco. Legalization is not a step towards prevention because it lacks the elements of education, intervention, and provisions of positive alternatives and training. The laws we have in place today were put there for a reason. Prohibition is not the problem. Prohibition did not cause widespread drug use; widespread drug use caused prohibition. Laws are made for the purpose of restricting behavior that is not good for mankind. Prohibition was put into effect for the good of society. Legalization would prove utterly detrimental to society and drug prevention.


Duke, Steven B., and Albert C. Gross. “Legalizing Drugs Would Not Increase Drug Abuse.” The

War on Drugs. Ed. Stephen P. Thompson. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1998. 118-125.

DuPont, Robert L. “Legalizing Drugs Would Increase Drug Abuse.” The War on Drugs. Ed.

Stephen P. Thompson. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1998. 126-132.

Fish, Jefferson M. How to Legalize Drugs. New York: Jason Aronson Incorporated, 1998.

Inciardi, James A. The Drug Legalization Debate. New York: Corwin Press, 1999.

Lynch, Gerald W., and Roberta Blotner. “Legalizing Drugs Would Not Lead to a Reduction in

Crime.” The War on Drugs. Ed. Stephen P. Thompson. San Diego: Greenhaven Press,

1998. 139-144.

Nadelmann, Ethan A. “Drug Prohibition in the United States: Costs, Consequences, and

Alternatives.” Drugs, Crime, and Social Policy. Ed. Thomas Mieczkowski. Boston: Allyn

and Bacon, 1992. 299-319.

Olson, William J. “The Legalization of Drugs Would be Harmful to Society.” The War on

Drugs. Ed. Stephen P. Thompson. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1998. 112-117.

Roe, Benson B. “The Legalization of Drugs Would Benefit Society.” The War on Drugs. Ed.

Stephen P. Thompson. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1998. 107-111.

Trebach, Arnold S. Legalize It? Debating American Drug Policy. Washington, D.C.: American

University Press, 1993.

Vallance, Theodore. “Legalizing Drugs Would Lead to a Reduction in Crime.” The War on

Drugs. Ed. Stephen P. Thompson. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1998. 133-138.

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