A Wiser Course: Ending Drug Prohibition

Part II Continued

The Costs of Prohibition

Prohibition's Failure to Limit Drug Use

Proponents of the "war on drugs" often eagerly declare that the draconian prohibitionist laws of the state and federal government are causing a decline in drug use. The evidence, however, tends to show that "the number of heavy drug users in the United States is undiminished." In addition, recent surveys show an increasing number of high school students using marijuana and lysergic acid diethylamide ("LSD"). Even proponents of the "war on drugs" candidly admit that "drug abuse cannot be entirely eliminated." Some experts have estimated that the government has spent close to $500 billion dollars over the past 20 years to enforce the prohibitionist laws against drugs, while during the same period use levels rose and the number of arrests and the amounts of drugs seized increased unabated annually. 750,000 people were incarcerated for violating the prohibitionist drug laws during a twenty-year period, costing an average of $25 billion annually and $61 billion for 1991 alone.

Although the vast majority of Americans polled stated that they would not take now-prohibited drugs if they were legalized, many people voice the concern that use would escalate sharply upon legalization. Implicit in the idea that use of drugs would rise upon legalization is the assumption that the current prohibitionist laws discourage many people from using them. The available evidence tends to show that Americans can and do voluntarily control their use of drugs.

The recent decline in middle class use of drugs as well as recent declines in alcohol and tobacco consumption have been attributed by many experts to factors (such as education, health and fitness awareness, and social pressures) other than the prohibitionist laws against drugs. Experts have recognized these other factors as the basis for the current levels of use of drugs (including alcohol and tobacco) rather than the existence of prohibitionist laws.

Indeed some observers have cited the prohibitionist laws against drugs as a significant factor leading to increased use and greater numbers of addicts than we would otherwise have:

"[T]he growth of addiction over the last four decades in the US had little to do with price reductions or, for that matter, with the growth of real income. The crucial factor in the spread of the drug habit has been the unrelenting pressure exerted by legions of street pushers in the continuing endeavor to widen the circle of the customers. In other words, the crucial factor in spreading the drug habit has been the super profits made possible only by governments' illegalization of the trade."[108].

It is impossible to prove the levels of post-legalization use of now-prohibited drugs, but reasonable extrapolations may be made by referring to similar experiences in this country and abroad.

Prohibition of alcohol in the United States earlier in this century is a basis for comparison, albeit an imperfect one. A review of alcohol consumption patterns during and after Prohibition shows that during most of the Prohibition era per capita alcohol consumption actually increased. After "Prohibition's repeal in 1933, consumption remained fairly stable until after the Second World War when, without any change in public policy, it began increasing." The prohibitionist laws, therefore, seem to have little impact on an individual's decision whether to use drugs.

Another useful example is the experience of the ten states that decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal consumption in the 1970s. There was no increase in the level of marijuana use in those states. Indeed marijuana consumption declined in those states just as it did in states that retained criminal sanctions against marijuana.

In 1976, the Dutch decriminalized marijuana consumption, although possession and small sales technically remained illegal. The level of use actually declined after decriminalization. Indeed marijuana use in the Netherlands is substantially lower than in countries waging a "war on drugs," including the United States and, at least until recently, Germany. Among Dutch youths aged 17--18, only 17.7% used marijuana at least once in their lifetimes, as opposed to 43.7% of Americans. Only 4.6% of the Dutch had used marijuana at least once in the past month, as opposed to 16.7% of the Americans. While indicating clearly that prohibitionist laws do not prevent the use of drugs, these statistics also tend to show that legalizing now-prohibited drugs, at least marijuana, does not inevitably cause an increase in use.

Under an exception to the British prohibitionist system, doctors may provide prohibited drugs to addicts. Dr. John Marks of Liverpool commenced such a program in 1982, and, to his astonishment, he noted that the number of new addicts decreased in Liverpool while in a nearby town operating under prohibition the rate of new addicts was twelve-fold higher. Dr. Marks attributed the decline in the number of new addicts to the fact that addicts received their needed drugs from his program for pennies, thus there was no longer any need for addicts to bring in new customers to raise enough money to support their habits.

Others addressing the issue of whether the levels of use of now prohibited drugs would escalate to overwhelming proportions after legalization (as many prohibitionists have predicted) have likened possible patterns of illegal drug use to patterns of alcohol use, with which we have a solid familiarity. They point out that Western cultures have handled alcohol consumption with tolerable skill for centuries and point out that most of the American population that drinks occasionally, or even every day, exercises moderation.

Indeed the available data indicate that the vast majority of the American population that uses now-prohibited drugs does so with moderation. According to United States government statistics, more than 75 million persons in the United States household population have used prohibited drugs. The National Institute on Drug Abuse estimates that close to 40 million Americans continue to consume these substances. Yet, only a comparatively minuscule number of deaths due to drug overdoses, 4,242, occurred in 1991 according to medical examiner data compiled by the Drug Abuse Warning Network.

Once the distinction between use of prohibited drugs and abuse is acknowledged, the available statistics show that the vast majority of Americans who use drugs do not abuse them. Based on our experience with American states' and foreign decriminalization of marijuana, it appears that decriminalization does not lead to greater levels of use nor to abuse. Likewise there is evidence to support the proposition that the decriminalization of the so-called "hard drugs" does not lead to increased rates of addiction. Perhaps most importantly, data analysis strongly indicates that social factors wholly apart from the criminalization of drugs account in the greatest measure for reduced rates of use. Based on the evidence, it would not be unfair to say that the predicted, post-legalization explosion in the use of drugs has been greatly overstated and that use in continued moderation would be the much more likely result. European countries, such as the Netherlands, have benefitted from an approach to drugs that focuses on "harm reduction" rather than draconian measures to enforce prohibition.


A Wiser Course: Ending Drug Prohibition
A Report of The Special Committee on Drugs and the Law
of the Association of the Bar of the City of New York
June 14, 1994

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