Why legalization isn’t the answer

Although it hardly enjoys the status it did 20 years ago, drug policy remains important. American society loses nearly $200 billion in social costs every year — from reduced productivity to increased health care costs, from accidents to premature illness and death, drug use is expensive. And it destroys minds and breaks families apart in ways that no dollar amount can capture.

So what, if anything, can we do about drugs?

Unfortunately, well-meaning observers — Ron Paul comes to mind — too often try to frame the drug policy debate as a simple dichotomy: “legalization and regulation versus a costly, ineffective drug war.” While such simplifications make for good sound bites, they mask the fact that there are much more effective and sophisticated ways to deal with drugs. A balanced and nuanced approach based on evidence, common sense, public health and public safety has been shown to produce results. What does this approach look like? Here are some of its elements:

(a) Community-based prevention that focuses not only on preventing drug use among school kids, but also on changing ill-conceived local laws and ordinances that promote underage drinking, smoking and marijuana use (so-called “environmental policies”);

(b) Early intervention and detection of drug use in health settings — after all, prescription drug overdose is now the leading cause of accidental death in this country, and health professionals need to be better equipped to deal with this epidemic;

(c) Evidence-based treatment, including methadone and buprenorphine, as well as 12-step programs;

(d) Recovery-based policies that don’t penalize people for past drug use and instead facilitate full and productive participation in society;

(e) Smart law enforcement that combines credible threats with modest sanctions.Through drug courts, for example, offenders are offered the chance to get their record cleared if they successfully complete treatment. Through testing and sanctions programs, probation violators are given modest jail stays that are swift and certain, rather than uncertain, distant, and severe. Such measures have yielded stellar results in localities where they’ve been implemented: less crime, lower rates of recidivism and substantial cost savings.

Drug legalization sounds tempting — advocates argue that it would rid America of violent underground markets, while taxes on newly legal drugs would lead to public budget windfalls. But a close and honest analysis reveals that legalization is, at best, a very risky proposition.

Research uniformly reveals that under legalization, the price of drugs would fall substantially, thereby increasing consumption. Any taxes gained on legal drugs would be quickly offset by the social costs resulting from this increased use: witness how today society receives about $1 in alcohol and tobacco tax revenue for every $10 lost on the social costs of those two legal drugs. Increased drug use means increased costs, including those borne by American businesses as they deal with a high workforce, greater absenteeism and less productivity.

Furthermore, there is no guarantee that drug legalization would significantly diminish the underground market. In a legal market, where drugs are taxed, the well-established illegal drug trade has every incentive to remain. The drug trade is so profitable that even undercutting the legal (taxed) market price would leave cartels with a handsome profit. Drug legalization would also do nothing to loosen the cartels’ grip on other illegal trades such as human trafficking, kidnapping, extortion and piracy.

What about criminal justice costs? Wouldn’t legalization at least decrease these? Surprisingly, legal drugs — especially alcohol — cause more arrests every year than illegal ones. Legal drugs are more available and therefore more abused. Driving while intoxicated, public drunkenness, and liquor law violations result in over 2.5 million arrests every year. That isn’t to say that current drug policies are not costly to the criminal justice system. They are. But that is precisely why we need smarter enforcement policies — not legalization, which would likely compound current costs.

In order to save America from losing trillions down the road in social costs, it makes sense to devote our time and resources now to stopping drug use before it starts, intervening on early use, treating addiction, and enforcing our laws justly and smartly. Drug legalization is not the magic bullet it is often claimed to be. Let’s move beyond unhelpful simplifications and dichotomies, and come together behind strategies that will lead to a safer and healthier America.

Reproduced with permission from Kevin Sabet. Dr. Sabet is an assistant professor at the University of Florida and a resident of Massachusetts.