Should Illicit Drugs Be Legalized?

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Boyce JPEGIt is my belief that illicit drug use in the USA should be decriminalized, if not outright legalized. I will explain the difference later in this post.

I believe this, in part, because the US policy on this issue has been such a dismal failure, while decriminalization policies in other countries seem to have been much more successful.

Let’s look first at the American Experience.

According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA), in 2013 an estimated 24.6 million Americans, aged 12 or older, (9.4% of the US population) had used an illicit drug at the time of the study. That was up from 8.3% in 2002.

Much of that increase was due to marijuana. However, the use of Methamphetamine was higher in 2013, with 595,000 users in that year, compared to 353,000 users in 2010.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration the number of people aged 12 or older who received treatment for heroin use in 2013 was higher (526,000 patients) than it was a decade ago.

According to the National Institute On Drug Abuse there were a little more than 9,000 deaths from overdoses of addictive drugs in 2001 and around 23,000 such deaths in 2013. In particular, the deaths from overdoses of prescription pain killers went from about 6,000 to almost 18,000 deaths in that same period.

How would you rate the success of America’s war on drugs? If I was in charge, I would fire the Generals and come up with a better plan.

Portugal has a better plan.

In 2001, the Portuguese government, after many years of waging a fierce war on drugs, flipped its strategy almost entirely: It decriminalized them all.

Under the drug program started by Portugal in 2001, if someone is found in the possession of less than a 10-day supply of anything from marijuana to heroin, he or she is sent to a three-person Commission for the Dissuasion of Drug Addiction, typically made up of a lawyer, a doctor and a social worker.

The commission recommends treatment or a minor fine; otherwise, the person is sent off without any penalty. In fact, in a vast majority of times, there is no penalty. Portugese leaders are careful to note that they did make use of addictive drugs legal. They decriminalized their use and offered an assertive treatment program to users.

Fourteen years after decriminalization, Portugal has not been run into the ground by a nation of drug addicts. In fact a study done by the Cato Foundation found the following:

“Judging by every metric, drug decriminalization in Portugal has been a resounding success. It has enabled the Portuguese government to manage and control the drug problem far better than virtually every other Western country.”

Back in 2001, Portugal had the highest rate of HIV among injecting drug users in the European Union—an incredible 2,000 new cases a year, in a country with a population of just 10 million.

The Cato Institute found that, by freeing its citizens from the fear of prosecution and imprisonment for drug usage, Portugal has dramatically improved its ability to encourage drug addicts to avail themselves of treatment. The resources that were previously devoted to prosecuting and imprisoning drug addicts are now available to provide treatment programs to addicts.

Drug use of all kinds has declined in Portugal. Lifetime use among seventh to ninth graders fell from 14.01% to 10.6%. Lifetime heroin use among 16-18 year olds fell from 2.5% to 1.8%. HIV infection rates among drug users fell by an incredible 17%, while drug related deaths were reduced by more than half.

Switzerland has a similarly innovative program. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Switzerland’s HIV positive rate was soaring and was the highest in Western Europe. 1,000 drug users gathered daily in Zurich’s infamous Platzspitz park, dubbed “needle park.”

Then Switzerland tried a new approach. They focused on harm reduction. They started providing drug addicts with free methadone and clean needles. They offered safe injection rooms, showers, beds and hygienic conditions under medical supervision.

The number of drug injectors with HIV has been reduced by over 50 percent in 10 years. Overdose mortality among injectors has been reduced by over 50 percent in the decade.

Our war on drugs is pretty much a total failure. Other nations have had considerably more success with programs that focus on treatment and harm reduction.

We should fire the Generals running our war on drugs and try better programs.

Boyce Hinman

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4 thoughts on “Should Illicit Drugs Be Legalized?

  1. I remember reading an article about drug addiction in Great Britain. Addicts can appear before a panel and if acknowledged as an addict can go each morning to a local pharmacy and get their fix. The article stated that over a 10 year period over 50% stopped drugs altogether. That seems to me to be a much better success rate than we have here in the US.

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  2. I have, for a long time, been an advocate for legalizing drugs for all of the reasons mentioned in your perceptive commentary. An additional benefit of legalizing drugs is to collect taxes on those drugs to support rehabilitation programs. The waste of billions of dollars and the horrendous loss of lives because of the present policy of the United States has done NOTHING to curtail the use of these drugs! It is time for a more controlled approach to this situation. Put the sale of these drugs under the control of the FDA or create a similar agency to oversee its distribution, sale and collection of taxes.

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    • Hi John,
      Yes, I think narcotics should be legalized and tightly regulated. That might result in US businesses making the drugs. Their products could be tested by the Federal Drug Administration which should be able to recall drugs found to have hazardous impurities. Given the state of our government, probably not all such impurities would be caught, but now things are worse. There is no real way to test, or force a recall of drugs made by foreign drug gangs. Also we might find that the legal manufacturing of narcotics in the US, would force the drug gangs out of business.

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