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One of the most seemingly logical arguments for legalization of all drugs is the examples of regulated sales and use of alcohol and tobacco. As we college students know, alcohol is easy to obtain (even for underage consumers), and socially acceptable to use, even though excessive amounts can kill. Although we know alcohol can be harmful, we feel that there is a social standard for acceptable use, and even if we don’t like it we tolerate it. Those who fear legalization argue that currently illegal drugs- heroin, for example, would become just as ingrained in our society, just as widely acceptable, as beer and cigarettes.
In his article “In Defense of the Drug War,” John Hawkins cites some alarming statistics relating alcohol to crime. “In 2004 and 2005, 39% of all traffic-related deaths were related to alcohol consumption and 36% of convicted offenders “had been drinking alcohol when they committed their conviction offense.”
He goes on to insist that legalized drugs would spur an explosion of substance-driven chaos and crime. Interestingly, Hawkins cites statistics that are completely opposite of what I have read elsewhere pertaining to usage rates during the prohibition and in other countries after legalization or decriminalization, but he is also a far-right conservative citing numbers from Ann Coulter’s book.
The meaning of all of these conflicting statistics begins to clear up when we examine the context of the precedents used by supporters of the drug war. I followed Hawkin’s links from some of his statistics and I came to a page on justthinktwice.com that has a compilation of stories of legalization and decriminalization gone wrong, and I noticed a trend. Most of these failed attempts did little or nothing to ensure a legal, safe supply of drugs, they merely lessened or did away with penalties for possession. Also, in the case of European nations, neighboring countries kept their prohibition laws, turning the more liberal country into a drug hub, as is the case in the Netherlands. Another example from this site which clearly demonstrates the shortcomings of decriminalization is the “Swiss Experiment,” during which drug sales and use were allowed in a certain park in Zurich. Thousands of drug users congregated in the park and the surrounding neighborhoods became riddled with crime. Taking away penalties for drug use only solves part of the drug problem because the drugs being legally used are still being illegally manufactured, smuggled, and sold by criminals. However, even some of these decriminalization policies have been shown to reduce the overall harm to a nation from drugs, such as in Portugal. Since the nation’s total decriminalization of all drugs, drug use has dropped and so have new HIV infections, and twice as many addicts now seek treatment. The Portugese have realized that treating addicts, or at least providing them general health services such as clean needles, costs much less and has much greater possible benefit than incarceration. What we need in this country is to go beyond decriminalization and totally legalize and regulate the manufacture of drugs, saving tens of billions of taxpayer dollars per year and eliminating the dangerous underground drug culture.
As for the argument that after legalization drug use would explode, I see only circumstantial evidence. The justthinktwice.com page warns of huge increases in marijuana use where it is legally allowed or tolerated, but in reality marijuana use has been increasing everywhere, and less so in countries where it is legal or decriminalized. Another factor to consider is the honesty of the people surveyed- they’re much more likely to admit that they use drugs in a place where they will not be persecuted for it. Here in America we have some of the most restrictive drug laws in the world, yet also some of the highest rates of drug abuse, proving that prohibitive drug laws really do not stop people from doing the drugs that they want to do.