Punitive Drug Prohibition in the United States Term Paper

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Punitive Drug Prohibition

In contrast to the United States, many countries around the world are now using harm reduction instead of drug prohibition and are facing the facts that drug prohibition will not make drug use go away. This paper will discuss drug prohibition in the United States and in the rest of the world where it is permissive and where cannabis can be found in many cafes. It will compare drug polices and conclude which policy would best help the drug situation in the United States. It will also assess the economic affects of punitive drug prohibition.

This research is socially significant because drug use comes at a huge expense not only to the drug user, but also society as a whole. While most countries agree that drug use reduction should be a goal, there's a disagreement over the best way to accomplish this objective, punitive drug prohibition or harm reduction. This study is important because it seeks to identify which set of policies actually come the closest to achieving the desired results of decreasing drug use and lowering the social and economic impacts of drugs.

Section 2.0 contains a literature review and presents and hypothesis based on available research. It also formulates dependent and independent variables that are required to test the hypothesis as well as the type of methodology that will be used to conduct the study. Section 3.0 discusses the limitations of the proposed study and makes recommendations for additional research.



According to authors Levine and Reinarman, "Beginning in 1986, crack cocaine was portrayed as a drug that threatened the very fabric of American life...Politicians played on those fears to justify a nationwide law enforcement crackdown, but the use of crack cocaine was never widespread, and its addictive qualities were vastly exaggerated." As a result, existing drug laws with long mandatory minimum sentences were passed during a moment of extreme anti-drug hysteria that is almost unprecedented in our nation's history. The costs to taxpayers of current laws and policies have quadrupled in the past decade with no real reduction in supply or abuse. In contrast, other nations comparable to the United States have not experienced significant crack problems because they have stronger social and health programs, less poverty and inequality, and more humane and effective drug policies.

Levine states that no Western country and few Third World countries have ever had forms of drug prohibition as criminalized and punitive as the U.S. regime, and since the early 1990s drug policy in Europe, Canada, Australia, and elsewhere clearly has shifted even farther away from the criminalized end of the prohibition continuum toward harm reduction. Harm reduction moves drug policies away from punishment, coercion, and repression and toward tolerance, regulation, and public health. Some examples if harm reduction programs include needle exchange and distribution, methadone maintenance, injection rooms, heroin clinics, medical use of marijuana by cancer and AIDS patients, truthful drug education aimed at users and drug-testing services at raves.

The goal of harm reduction is to reduce the harmful effects of drug use without requiring users to be drug free.

The Dutch drug policy includes legalization of marijuana and treatment of heroin and cocaine users as patients rather than criminals. The intent of legalizing marijuana was to separate its sale from that of hard narcotics, especially heroin, so dealers pushing the first wouldn't try to lure young customers to the second. The policies on marijuana and heroin seem to have been more successful than those of the United States. Cannabis use in the Netherlands ranks lower than the United States, according to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs. Moreover, the United States claims a greater proportional rate of heroin addicts than Holland: 1 out of 353 compared to 1 out of 428.

Drug courts that originated in 1989 are the United States' attempt to liberalize its drug policy. However, court-mandated, drug-free treatment programs often do not produce drug-free people; the many defendants who fail to stop using drugs are usually sent to prison. In fact, many offenders that go to a drug court actually do more time than if they had gone through a traditional criminal court. Despite drug courts, the United States is still imprisoning a higher percentage of its population for petty drug crimes than any nation on earth: currently almost 500,000 out of America's two million prisoners. "The drug court system is punishment and correction masquerading as medical care; it is the illusion of benevolence."

There are at least twelve drug commission reports, stretching nearly a century, from the 1890s to 1989, that recommend gentle, humane approaches to dealing with drug users and abusers as a better alternative than America's war on drugs. Six of the reports were British, one was Canadian and five were American. Four of them focused on cannabis, three were devoted to opiates or narcotics, four looked at drug abuse and drug addiction in general, and one discussed drug use and AIDS.

Their major recommendations and findings include:

Possession and casual distribution of marijuana should not be a legal offense.

British-style morphine and heroin maintenance programs should be emulated.

Drug users themselves should help shape drug control strategies.

The spread of AIDS and the HIV virus is a greater danger to individual and public health than drug misuse.

Drug Crazy: How We Got Into This Mess and How We Can Get Out explores America's decades-long war on drugs and concludes that it has been an expensive folly that has only benefited professional anti-drug advocates and drug lords. Gray, the book's author, suggests possible solutions to our failed drug wars, based on the successful European model of a medically-based system of regulated narcotics prescriptions. He contends that drug war advocates have intentionally suppressed the success of such programs in Britain, Holland and elsewhere. And, here in the United States they've hidden reports that prove that marijuana is neither an addictive substance nor a stepping stone to hard drugs and findings that prescribing drugs to addicts is more effective than cold turkey methods.


The results of the literature survey reveal that decriminalization of drugs in the United States would be both economically and socially beneficial. As further proof, this study will conduct quantitative data analysis that compares drug usage rates (heroin, cocaine and marijuana) with countries that have harm reduction policies. It will also compare incarceration rates for drug use in the United States with countries that have harm reduction policies.

Because, a punitive system is thought of as a deterrent for drug use in the United States, this research will also explore the impact that deterrence has had on drug use in this country. This portion of the study will be a combination of quantitative and qualitative analysis.


Country-wide statistics for drug usage rates and incarceration rates for drug use will be obtained from available literature research as well as law enforcement statistics for the United States and from four countries that have harm reduction policies. To assess the effectiveness of a punitive system on drug use in the United States, this study will explore changes in drug laws over the past decade to determine if they've become more lax or more severe and will relate these changes to the decreases or increases in drug use.


The goal of this study is so demonstrate that drug policies in the United States have been less successful than harm reduction policies as evidenced by statistics involving drug use and incarceration for drug use between the two groups. Furthermore, it will show that incarceration in the United States is not achieving its desired goal of drug use deterrence.

In its comparison between the U.S. And countries with harm reduction policies, this study has a major limitation in that it cannot consider all causes of differences in drug use. For example, there may be many contributors to drug use that have nothing to do with drug policies, but are instead factors of diversity in social and economic conditions. Likewise, the study can show that tougher drug policies have not deterred drug use, but it cannot eliminate other variables in addition to drug policies that may contribute to drug abuse increase. For instance, it could be argued that although drug use increased despite tougher drug laws, that the increase would have been even greater if drug laws had been more lenient because of the wide-spread availability of drugs.

Clearly, further research will be needed to explore all factors that contribute to drug use, not just drug policies. And, given the ineffectiveness of drug policies in the United States, it would be useful to understand what types of policies would work in the United States because there's no guarantee that a policy applied in one country will have the same impact in another.


Gray, Mike. Drug Crazy: How We Got into This Mess and How We Can Get Out. New York: Random House, 1998.

In Defense of Dutch Drug Policy." 8…

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