The Benefits of Decriminalization

America’s war against recreational drugs is an example of good intentions gone terribly wrong. While this country squanders billions of dollars annually on the efforts to stop illegal drugs, trafficking and use continue. The cumulative costs to society are high and widespread. Decriminalization would save states and the federal government millions per year and decrease violent crime by a substantial amount. Americans are deprived of civil liberties, which may be the most egregious of drawbacks to the current marijuana laws. Decriminalization would not increase marijuana use, as proved by evidence provided by comparing use among persons in Europe and 10 states which have relaxed their marijuana laws. The only sensible, rational and moral solution is to decriminalize marijuana use on a federal level.

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Decriminalization implies different meanings to different people. Legally speaking, decriminalization “treats the possession of small amounts of marijuana (such as 1 ounce) as a civil, rather than a criminal, offense.” (Suellentrop, 2001) To some, it means simply legalization, which takes the profit, thus the crime out of the drug trade. “Legalization, as opposed to decriminalization, would create a legal, regulated market for marijuana, presumably with age limits and quality controls similar to those placed on alcohol.” (Suellentrop, 2001) One interpretation involves three steps. The first is to make drugs such as cannabis legal under restricted circumstances but not as controlled as it is now. Secondly, sound reasoning should prevail in substance abuse policies. The third aspect is to manage our tax money more wisely and discontinue wasting billions of dollars on criminal law enforcement techniques. A study found that the State of Massachusetts would save approximately $24.3 million upon decimalizing marijuana. (Miron, 2002) These funds should be diverted into treatment and abuse prevention. Varying degrees of decriminalization are often confused with total legalization. Alcohol is legal, for example, but it is not legal to operate a car under its influence or to sell it to those less than 21 years of age.

Decriminalization would reduce violent crimes. Over half of the prisoners in jail are there for drug ‘crimes.’ This causes overcrowding which results in the early release of dangerous, violent criminals. This creates more of a public safety problem than does drug use. It is illogical from a societal view and inhumane to individuals who are marked as criminals for life for the activity that causes no harm to others. Those who are addicted receive little or no therapeutic help in prison. Instead of imprisoning people that need help, rehabilitation programs are a much more effective method to treat the problem, but a rehabilitation system will not succeed if drugs continue to be illegal. Drug abusers will hardly seek help from the same government that tosses them in jail for the same thing. The hypocrisy of the drug war is apparent to even very young children. All illegal drugs combined account for about 4,500 deaths in this country per year, while tobacco is responsible for murdering 400,000 people annually and alcohol ends 80,000 people’s lives every year. Legislators will not ban smoking because they indicate regulation regarding what adults do in privacy, including what they can put into their bodies, is clearly unconstitutional and an infringement on personal liberties. Our code of law is founded upon a principle of presumptive rationality. Rational adults should be allowed to make personal choices as long as those actions cause no harm to others. The U.S. government is unequivocally unjustified in choosing this particular personal freedom to ignore at such a colossal cost to society. (Fu, 2006)

Though the measure was defeated, the Republican Governor of New Mexico, Gary Johnson, pushed to decriminalize the possession of less than one ounce of marijuana such as 12 other states had previously done. (Suellentrop, 2001) “Since 1973, 12 state legislatures — Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, and Oregon — have enacted versions of marijuana decriminalization. In each of these states, marijuana users no longer face jail time (nor in most cases, arrest or criminal records) for the possession or use of small amounts of marijuana. Internationally, many states and nations have enacted similar policies.” (NORML, 2002) Marijuana use did not increase among youths in those states that decriminalized in the 1970s. “Johnston, O’Malley, and Bachman (1981) use data from Monitoring the Future, an annual survey of U.S. high school seniors, to see whether the changes over time in marijuana use differed across states that did or did not decriminalize during the 1970s. They find little evidence of any difference.” (Johnson, et al. 1981)

A rare study conducted in America that could be related to a study conducted in Europe enabled comparisons to be made among drug use tendency between countries. The Monitoring the Future study found that 41 percent of all tenth grade students in the United States had used marijuana in their lifetime compared with the European School Survey Project on Alcohol and Drugs (ESPAD) showed that only an average of 17 percent of tenth grade students in European countries had ever use the drug – with a high degree of variability among countries (some were as high as 35 percent in the United Kingdom). However, “all the participating European countries had a lower rate of lifetime cannabis use than did the United States.” (Bjarnason, 2001) These statistics on usage alone suggest the failure of prohibition to keep the drug out of the country as the numbers of users continue to grow despite the threat of imprisonment and use continues for longer life periods. Increasing drug seizures and arrests during the 1990s did little to persuade Americans stop using the drug either by preventing access to it or dissuading users from partaking for fear of the consequences.

Other countries, such as the Netherlands and England, have demonstrated that a reduction in the prohibition can lead to very positive results in terms of both health and safety of its citizens. “The available evidence indicates that the decriminalization of marijuana possession had little or no impact on rates of use.” (NORML, 2002) By bringing lower-level drugs such as marijuana and other Class C drugs within the context of the law, prices are stabilized and reduced, distribution points are available yet closely monitored, client base remains restricted to a higher degree and law enforcement is freed to pursue more harmful and dangerous crime. In addition, by shifting the focus off of the lower-level drugs, the citizenry ceases to view the use of such substances as a form of resistance and use levels have been seen to drop over the long term. “It has been demonstrated that the more or less free sale of [marijuana] for personal use in the Netherlands has not given rise to levels of use significantly higher than in countries which pursue a highly repressive policy.” (NORML, 2002)

Concerns over legalization center around the questions of who, what, where and how these drugs would be distributed, which are questions that have been satisfactorily answered in other countries as well. The Netherlands allows for cafes and coffee houses with special licensing permits to distribute marijuana and doctors have the ability to work with patients who are addicted to heroin. Company employees are not fired for having inhaled at lunch, but are able to readily find counselors if they find they have become psychologically addicted to marijuana’s effects. Prohibition laws in the United States prevent this type of activity, ensuring that people who use drugs have no hope of living a productive life once discovered regardless of past and current drug activity or lack of any other type of criminal activity. Policies that work to decriminalize drugs, reducing the severity of punishments, or to reduce harm, shifting the focus back to treatment and education, can also be used to help reduce the negative effects of the war on drugs.

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Works Cited

  1. Bjarnason, Thor. “Press Release Issued by the State University of New York at Albany.” Monitoring the Future. New York: State University, Albany. (2001).
  2. Fu, Edward. “Should Drugs be Legalized?” Drug Policy News. Drug Policy Alliance. (2006). Web.
  3. Johnston, Lloyd D., Patrick M. O’Malley, and Jerald G. Bachman “Marijuana Decriminalization’s: The Impact on Youth, 1975-1980,” Monitoring the Future Occasional Paper #13. (1981).
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