Economists are concerned with the impact that the sale of drugs has on both individual and economic freedoms and frame their argument from this perspective. Others argue that reliance on the criminal justice system has not produced significant results and that it is time to reframe the argument to focus on the education, prevention, and treatment of drugs.
From the economic perspective, there are apparent differences between government prohibition and legalization of drugs. It has been estimated that total government expenditures devoted to the enforcement of drug laws is well in excess of $26 billion. These figures are also significant in state and local law enforcement agencies with drug related incidents making up one fifth of the total investigative resources and drug enforcement activities. Approximately 25% of the total prison population, municipal, state and federal, is made up of drug law violators. In fact, ten percent of all arrests are for nonviolent drug offences with forty percent being for marijuana related possession and use (Millhorn et al., 2009). The United States rate of imprisonment for drug related offenses exceeds the rates of the majority or Western European nations for all crimes. This is of significant concern since most drug related incarcerations in the United States are for nonviolent crimes. Overall, many law enforcement efforts are not only of limited value but also highly costly and counterproductive (Millhorn et al., 2009).
Economists would further claim that one should support the legalization of drugs if it improves the situation of any one individual without worsening the situation of another (Trevino & Richard, 2002). It is believed that the legalization of drugs will lower drug prices and decrease the benefits of drug deals. While drugs are fairly inexpensive to produce, prohibition has driven the prices up this coupled with supply reductions can be correlated to inflated prices and drug related crimes. Proponents of prohibition argue that the legalization of drugs may increase the demand for drugs but many anticipate that this effect would not be significant (Trevino & Richard, 2002). The reduction in spending on the enforcement of drug laws coupled with the tax revenues associated with the sales would allow for a net economic benefit each year and these monies could be earmarked for drug treatment and education programs that have been proven effective in creating incentives for abstinence. Proponents of legalization also have argued that law enforcement resources will be freed up to target more serious criminal behaviors.
There is the argument regarding whether or not drug abuse increases violence and violent behaviors. Opponents of prohibition argue that since abuse of drugs does exist even with laws in place then an increase in violent behavior is to be expected when disputes cannot be resolved in traditional manners. When disputes occur over illegal substances they cannot be handled or resolved in traditional manners such as the court system as not only does that incriminate the individual but the court is not designed to address illegal matters. These matters are often then resolved in violence between the parties involved in the dispute. Furthermore it has been argued that many individuals do not commit crimes because they are using drugs but in order to meet the expensive costs of drug use (Trevino & Richard, 2002). If this argument holds true then the legalization of drugs would allow for the decrease in drug costs and therefore a decrease the incidence of drug related crimes. Further the quality of life in low income neighborhoods has been argued to be improved with the decrease in drug related crimes, homicides, robberies and burglaries. It is also hoped that individuals who have turned to drug sale and distribution as a career choice will pursue more legitimate opportunities instead.
Public health and medical professionals have generally taken a stance against drug legalization. This is based on the substantial empirical research that demonstrates that drugs including marijuana, cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamines are harmful to the health...
This includes damage to the brain, heart, liver, and other bodily systems. Public health professionals have also attributed drug abuse are a factor in the spread of sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV due to the increased likelihood that a drug user will engage in risk taking behaviors.
Further, if individuals truly utilize drugs as a part of rational decision making while understanding the potential ramifications of this choice. Some individuals claim that they enjoy the psychopharmacological effects of the drugs on their bodies while others believe that they have medicinal benefits, while others do so out of the desire to fit in socially. These are all voluntary actions and therefore in many aspects negate the concerns about the addictive qualities and potential negative health risks associated with their use. This argument is based on the belief that if individuals understand the risk and they still choose to use substances then they must be comfortable with the risks as well.
Proponents of drug legalization argue that there are many other harmful substances such as tobacco and alcohol yet these substances are not deemed illegal by the government. It is also argued that while drugs can cause health and social problems that this alone should not be the deciding factor in the legalization debate. While both sides of the argument have claimed that they can solve the drug problem, it is clear that neither prohibition nor drug legalization is without risks. Legalization will immediately increase the availability of drugs, decrease their costs, and remove the deterrent power of the criminal justice system. Experts assert that the risk of legalization may actually turn out to be smaller than most people believe and they believe that these risks will decrease the more alternatives are implemented.
There have been proposals for how such situations may be managed effectively including medicalization a process by which drugs could be placed into the hands of physicians to manage rather than the law enforcement or criminal justice system (Trevino & Richard, 2002). Presently in the United States, doctors can prescribe drugs such as cocaine, opiates, amphetamines, and depressants under specific circumstances. A doctor's ability to prescribe is significant limited and does not extend to some drugs such as heroin or LSD. When doctors are given the privilege of legally prescribing these substances, they are subject to significant legal monitoring and prescription regulations (Trevino & Richard, 2002). For example, they can provide prescriptions to maintain those that suffer from addiction. This method would provide many drug users with a legal source for procurement of drugs and therefore reducing the significance of the black market. While this is definitely one option, it is not clear that the benefits of this approach outweigh those of legalization. Medicalization can also result in an increased use of drugs of abuse and therefore there are negative aspects to this proposal as well.
The strongest arguments in favor of legalization are the moral ones which make it difficult to clearly frame the issue. Nonetheless these arguments claim that if one can tolerate alcohol and tobacco use then the prohibition of drug abuse should follow suit. While there are many positions on this debate that all have significant merit, it is difficult for one side or the other to ever truly prevail due to these underlying philosophical beliefs. At this time it does not appear that there is enough evidence to truly predict the outcome of the legalization of illicit substances. A few points are clear and should be considered: the legalization of drugs is likely to increase consumption if drug prices fall, these price reductions may not be as significant as has been predicted, and that whatever approach is implemented it may be important to look at the impact of these regulations on tobacco and alcohol oversight.
Public health campaigns have also been an important way to disseminate information regarding the potential negative consequences of drug use and what the current drug policies. It is believed that the dissemination of information may help persuade people not to buy drugs and therefore circumventing the development of other social issues. Current campaigns have exaggerated the dangers of drug use and as a result audiences have not been enticed to listen to the messages within. Revamping of the anti-drug campaign process may allow obtain more desirable results and reduce the use of substances (Miron, 2001).
The goal of both prohibition and legalization of drugs of abuse is to decrease drug abuse by whatever means necessary. Strong arguments exist for the continuation of prohibition, the restructuring of the current prohibition legislation, and some form of legalization of drugs of abuse. While one can easily identify the undesirable consequences related to prohibition and legalization, it is less clear which option is preferable. Much of the decision making is based upon one's moral stance in regards to drug consumption as well as the potential negative outcome of drug use. While legalization of drugs of abuse is a much debated issue one must also remember that there may…
Millhorn, M., Monoghan, M., Montero, D., Reyes, M., Roman, T., Tollasken, R., & Walls, B. (2009). North Americans' attitudes toward illegal drugs. Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment, 19(2), 125-141.
Miron, J.A. (2001). The economics of drug prohibition and drug legalization. Social Research, 68(3), 835-855.
National Institute on Drug Abuse (1998). The economic cost of alcohol and drug abuse in the United States. National Institute of Health Publication, 98-4327.
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2009, April). National household survey on drug abuse main findings, 1998.
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