World Leaders Urge Decriminalization of Drugs

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A movement to decriminalize all but the most dangerous illegal drugs is gaining traction in Europe and Latin America. In the near future, that sensible approach to related policy is unlikely to find substantial political support in the United States. In the long run, however, politicians may come to understand that the “war on drugs??? has been lost. Imprisoning people for these crimes diverts criminal justice resources from other crimes while having little impact on drug use.

Global recommendations on drug policy

The Global Commission on Drug Policy has released a report urging nations to regulate, rather than criminalize, many narcotics that are used recreationally. These substances would be available in the marketplace but would be subject to standards governing their production and sale, as are alcohol and tobacco. While the Commission recognizes that some substances may be too dangerous to decriminalize, it suggests that a regulatory model be applied to as many drugs as possible.

The Commission is comprised of prominent figures that include former presidents of Brazil, Switzerland, and Mexico. Notably, George Schultz is a member of the Commission. Schultz was the Secretary of State during the Reagan years, when the United States became a world leader in the war against drugs. Schultz deserves credit for recognizing that the harshly punitive drug policy implemented during the Reagan administration has been a disaster.

The Commission concluded that criminalizing narcotics has not reduced demand. It does, however, promote criminal violence and gangs. A regulated marketplace would minimize the violent crime that is associated with illegal trafficking. At the same time, rechanneling resources from prisons to prevention and treatment programs is a less expensive and more effective approach to problems associated with drug use.

Drug policy in the United States

Punitive drug policy in the United States has produced overcrowded prisons at enormous expense to taxpayers. Growing prison budgets prevent states from allocating resources to other budgetary needs where funds may be used more productively. The increase in prison populations that the war on drugs produced has not reduced the supply of or demand for narcotics in the United States.

Fortunately, the American public is beginning to rethink this policy. Mandatory minimum sentences, a popular response to trafficking for the last four decades, are a significant cause of the prison overpopulation crisis. They also assure harsh sentences regardless of an offender’s individual circumstances. Attorney General Eric Holder has called for reform of mandatory minimum sentencing on the federal level. Whether politicians, who in the past were fearful of being portrayed as “soft on crime,??? will have the courage to give judges the discretion to impose fair sentences for these crimes remains to be seen.

Several states and cities have taken a less punitive approach to marijuana use. Despite the Drug Enforcement Administration’s efforts over many decades to demonize marijuana and its users, the public increasingly recognizes the hypocrisy of treating people as criminals because they use a drug that is more benign than alcohol. Two states have legalized the recreational use of marijuana while twenty others have enacted laws that permit the medical use of marijuana. Some city governments have directed officers to write civil citations rather than making criminal arrests for personal use possession offenses involving marijuana. While marijuana possession remains a federal offense, the Justice Department under the Obama administration has not interfered with state reforms of marijuana laws. President Obama has, in fact, questioned the wisdom of enforcing federal laws that prohibit marijuana use.

While the public is beginning to take a more enlightened approach to policy with regard to marijuana, it may be years away from supporting the decriminalization of other recreational substances. Public opinion has been shaped by years of political rhetoric in support of the “war on drugs.??? Questionable claims about societal harms that decriminalization would produce are deeply entrenched in public opinion. If decriminalization is implemented successfully in other countries, however, the American public may become more willing to recognize that the criminal justice system is not the best mechanism for addressing narcotic dependence.

Will decriminalization of drugs also decriminalize violent crime?

Those who argue in favor of decriminalizing mind-altering substances do not support decriminalization of violent crime. If narcotic use leads to violent criminal behavior, the criminal justice system will address those crimes just as it does now.

The policy change advocated by groups like the Global Commission on Drug Policy recognizes that dependent individuals are already a part of society. Addressing their addictions through the criminal justice system has failed. Treating addiction as an illness and diverting resources from incarceration to treatment saves money while helping people cope with problems rather than warehousing them. If users commit violent crimes, however, they should be treated the same as anyone else who commits a violent crime.

If drugs are decriminalized, will crime rates go up?

Opinions differ as to the probable consequences of decriminalizing certain mind-altering substances. By definition, there would be a reduction in drug offenses simply because it would not be a crime to use or to sell them in a regulated market. Logic dictates that the violence associated with drug gangs and armed dealers would also be reduced, simply because their role as suppliers would be largely eliminated.

Others argue that making drugs freely available will increase the numbers of addicts. They worry that addicts will commit crimes in order to obtain the money they need to buy drugs. That may be true, although public education may provide at least a partial solution to that concern. Tobacco is an addictive drug, but public education has reduced tobacco use. In addition, while alcohol is also an addictive drug, there is little evidence that alcoholism produces a significant increase in crime rates. On the whole, there is good reason to believe that any increase in crime that results from decriminalization would be more than offset by a decrease in violent crime that currently results from the illegal nature of distribution.

Texas has not decriminalized drugs, but in 2007 the state government shifted its resources away from prison construction and began to divert nonviolent offenders to treatment programs. As its prison population fell, so did its crime rate. While there may be other explanations for the declining crime rate, the Texas experience provides some evidence that reducing incarceration rates will not inevitably lead to rising crime rates.

The bottom line is that current policy has failed, both in the United States and in other nations that have adopted a “war against drugs.??? Now more than ever it is time to explore more effective and less costly options. The policy changes outlined by the Global Commission deserve serious consideration in the United States. Voters need to tell their elected officials that being “smart on crime??? does not mean they are being “soft on crime.???

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