Decriminalization Research Paper Sample

Type of paper: Research Paper

Topic: Drugs, Law, Crime, Enforcement, Policy, Criminal Justice, Society, Business

Pages: 10

Words: 2750

Published: 2020/12/02

Illicit Drug Decriminalization, Legalization, and Stricter Control Policy

The global illicit drug industry is estimated to be worth $320 billion in annual sales, representing 0.9% of the global GDP, with the Americas representing close to 50% of the global drug market. Europe, Asia, Oceania and Africa represented 33%, 11%, 5% and 4% of the total retail sales respectively. The US market is estimated to be worth be worth $111 billion between 2002 and 2012, with marijuana representing up to $40.6 billion in sales, compared to cocaine, heroin and meth, which were estimated at $28.3 billion, $27 billion and $13 billion respectively. The costs imposed on the health care system and the rest of the society is even more telling of the difficulty that the drug trade presents. It is estimated that drug-related deaths among young Americans are higher than deaths from firearms, suicides, and school violence combined. The non-medical use of illicit drugs killed upwards of 38,000 Americans in the year 2006, which makes mortality due to illicit drugs second only heart disease. The costs to society stem from lost productivity among drug users, drug-related crime and increased demand for health care, with the total, direct and indirect costs of illicit drug abuse amounting to $52 billion and $128 billion respectively. The size of the market and costs correlates with countries and regions that have implemented stern drug criminalization laws. There is a possibility of failures criminalization policy and/or enforcement, but drug assessing the effectiveness of drug policy and possible alternatives is characterized by imperfect information.
Criminalization policies remain the most dominant policies across the world, a policy that was first adopted in the Harrison Narcotics Act of 1914 and championed by the 1988 UN Convention. These laws and/or policies criminalized the cultivation, purchase, and/or possession of psychotropic substances and narcotic drugs for personal use. Through the years since, billions of dollars have been invested in the war against drugs. In the United States, for instance, upwards of 1.8 million drug-related arrests were made in the year 2007, compared to 1.4 million DUI arrests and 1.3 million assault-associated arrests. Criminalization and strict regulations have result in reduced demand as well as demand for illicit drugs (US Drug Enforcement Administration, 2010; Donohue, 2012). In the United States, for instance, the rates of casual and chronic drug use have reduced. Between 2001 and 2008, illegal drug use among teenagers reduced by up 25% while the use of marijuana and the overall use of hard drugs by youths reduced by 25% and 50% respectively.
The workforce drug testing data indicates that methamphetamine and cocaine use among job applicants and employees has reduced by up to 38% between 2006 and 2008. Considerable progress has also been made by the reduction of the crack cocaine epidemic, and the disruption of South American drug supply chains. The success on the supply side front is evidenced by the declining purity and rising prices of cocaine according to samples taken from seized drugs. According to US Drug Enforcement Administration (2010), the average purity of cocaine on the streets has reduced by 42% between 1998 and 2008, while the price of the price has risen by 104.5% during the same time. This is clearly indicative of supply-side bottlenecks i.e. the effectiveness of the law enforcement efforts. While these gains are by all counts selective and limited, they point to the potential of drug criminalization and multi-pronged enforcement of the law in reducing drug use and addiction (Lyman, 2011; US Drug Enforcement Administration, 2010).
It is clear that considerable law enforcement resources have been invested in the war against illegal drugs, but according to the US Drug Enforcement Administration (2010) and Lyman (2011), these investments are incomparable to the direct and indirect costs of drug use to the individual and society. Psychotropic substances and narcotic drugs were criminalized because they are addictive, mind-altering and are associated with considerable external costs that are imposed on society. It helps to restrict the free movement of illicit drugs and drug proceeds, which helps protect society by cutting off supplies. During the year 2013, purity and price data collected by the DEA indicate that the price of cocaine and methamphetamine rose, even as the purity of the same went down. This is in part because of the difficulty that trafficking organizations face in moving their products within the US, which in turn forces them to charge more for even inferior products (International Association of Chiefs of Police, 2013; Donohue, 2012). However, the seemingly unabated expansion and profitability of the drug trade has fuelled the increasingly forceful debate to explore alternative strategies, which has yielded tentative policy changes in countries such as Portugal, the Netherlands, and Uruguay.

Perhaps one of the strongest arguments in favor of decriminalization and even legalization of drugs is the fact that the current policies have created economic conditions that render the drug trade immensely profitable and thus impossible to defeat. Criminalization only serves to create a supply-side vacuum that have been filled by organized criminal groups, with financial profits helping fuel further crime, including terrorism and money laundering rings. According to the International Association of Chiefs of Police (2013) for instance, the Colombian and Mexican drug trafficking cartels generate, launder and remove upwards of $18 billion a year and $39 billion from wholesale drug sales. Even if law enforcement agencies are incapable of cutting off supplies through the restriction of movement within any single country, the existence of lawless countries and territories across the world serve as breeding grounds that would ultimately ensure that drugs supplies persist. The Colombian civil war, corrupt or weak law enforcement in parts of Mexico and the long and porous border between Mexico and the US are a perfect illustration of the fact that the drug problem id beyond the capacity of the US’ law enforcement agencies. The United States had a similar experience with the prohibition of alcoholic beverages in the 1920s, which resulted in the emergence of powerful organized criminal groups (Lyman, 2011; Donohue, 2012).
According to Donohue (2012), it is possible to destroy the profitable economic model by legalizing the drug trade, which will in turn draw in more players on the supply side enough to whittle down profits. In addition, while there is potential for local governments to generate revenues from regulating the trade, legalization would also result in massive savings in law enforcement resources that can be invested elsewhere. Further, legalization has found support based on its promotion of individual autonomy and rational decision-making on the part of the consumers and other economic agents. According to this perspective, however, harmful drugs are to abusers and the society, governments must stay out of the decisions of whether or not to use drugs (Donohue, 2012; Murkin, Rolles, Kushlick, Powell, & Steven, 2014). While this is not a justification of the detriment that drug use causes to individuals and the society, but it is based on the philosophical conviction that governments must not take on the role of the moral police. Donohue (2012), lends even more emphasis to this assertion by arguing that alcohol and other legal drugs have just as much harm to individuals, in the same way that marital infidelity and premarital sex do (including spreading HIV/AIDS), but it would be wrong for governments to criminalize them. Drug abuse is a moral failing, and attempts by governments to forcefully prevent or suppress it amounts to a crime against the liberty of the drug user.
There is empirical evidence in favor of the effectiveness of legalization and decriminalization of drugs. According to Murkin, Rolles, Kushlick, Powell, & Steven (2014), Portugal, which decriminalized the possession of small quantities of drugs in 2001, has seen unqualified improvements in its drug situation. The country has lower drug use than the EU average, with drug use among adolescents and populations aged below 24 declining. Lifetime drug use by the general population also reduced since the decriminalization, along with the levels of problematic and injective drug use, as well as the rates of drug use continuation also decreased. Other notable benefits have included reductions in drug-related health problems (e.g. due to sharing of injection needles), drug-related deaths and homicides, and drug-related criminal activities also saw a reduction in years following the decriminalization. These outcomes are consistent with theoretical predictions that individuals are likely to make rational decisions that would ultimately serve society’s best interest as against governments. Any gains from drug decriminalization experiments prove that governments are not as efficient in making moral judgments as individuals are, especially when they have the freedom to make such decisions.
The qualified gains made by Portugal, the Netherlands and elsewhere show that decriminalization and legalization of drug use create opportunities to ensure safe and controlled drug use. According to the World Health Organization (2014), even without decriminalization/legalization of illicit drugs, countries must not criminalize drug users in order to control the costs associated with drug use. Drug users fear seeking help from the police and health care facilities, a nd instead expose themselves to the risk of disease nd drug-related complications that contribute to high drug-related mortalities. Effectively, governments should work toward laws and policies that decriminalize injections and/or other use of drugs to minimize the risk of inceration, clean syringes and needles, and opioid substitution therapy for opioid-dependent populations. The high mortality and drug-related complications are a consequence of a system that pretends the drug problem exists, which has in turn in the failure to provide for the needs of the drug users, including the provision of clean injection needles/syringes.

Opposition to Legalization

The case for increasing decriminalization and stricter drug controls begins by attacking the morality and the possible financial savings from decriminalization. The illegal drugs are dangerous and mind-altering, which not only rules out the justification for rational decision-making on the part of the users. In addition, by regulation drugs, society would have accepted that that it is proper to profit from other people’s addiction. While it is easy to look to the growing drug trade and blame its effects on a system that criminalizes moral failings, tobacco and alcohol have proven just as harmful to individuals and society, despite the fact that they are legal. Alcohol use accounts for 100,000 American deaths yearly and costs society more than $200 billion (which higher than the revenues generated from taxation). Proponents of decriminalization and liberal drug policies are quick to point at the failure of the prohibition in the 1920s, but ignore the fact that it was not until a few decades ago that that stern laws were enacted to combat the rising drug menace. Prior to 1914, there were hardly any laws against the use of hard drugs, and, even though, the supply was small and unsophisticated compared to the modern situation; drug use grew considerably. In fact, by the close of 1900, it was estimated that at least one in 200 Americans were addicted to either opium or cocaine (US Drug Enforcement Administration, 2010; Lyman, 2011).
While Portugal’s liberal drug policies have been largely successful, other European experiments have exposed the vulnerabilities of decriminalization. The US Drug Enforcement Administration (2010) points to the fact that marijuana usage among 18-25 year-olds in the Netherlands actually increased following the decriminalization, with heroin addiction levels almost tripling, despite the reduction in unsafe drug use. Tighter controls (including zero tolerance by-laws by municipalities) were responsible for the improvements. other governments have made distinctions between drug users and suppliers, reflected in the penalty reductions for possession and use of drugs, coupled with harsh punishments for drug dealers/pushers. In fact, penalties for drug-related offenses increased across Europe. The United Kingdom’s experimentation with controlled heroin prescription to addicts resulted in the emergence of a youthful drug culture, who abandoned the government program and sought supplies from illegal channels.
Decriminalization with create a sense of permissiveness in society (which is largely to blame for nicotine addiction) that in turn reduces the perception of risk, making the incidence of drug abuse to increase. Risk perceptions associated with drug use are important to the initiation and continued drug use prior to the addiction stage. Perceptions of the potential harm from marijuana and other hard drugs use was a critical deterrent, and these perceptions are less pronounced with liberal drug policies (Murkin, Rolles, Kushlick, Powell, & Steven, 2014; US Drug Enforcement Administration, 2011). Diminished perceptions of risk and increased permissiveness due to the reclassification of drugs such as cannabis and marijuana also helped to increased usage. For instance, in Switzerland, drug liberalization rendered the country into a choice destination for drug users from elsewhere in the world. The country saw an overall increase in the demand for decriminalized drugs, coupled with heightened levels of crime, leading to the termination of the program. In addition, there is evidence that there are up to 1.7 million problem opiate users in the EU, with the levels of cocaine usage across the EU, reported to be rising.
US Drug Enforcement Administration (2010) argues that criminalization of drug laws does amount to governments making moral judgments for the people, but this is not unlike any other laws. All laws codify collective moral judgments and in some religiously conservative countries such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, laws exist that criminalize pre-marital sex and infidelity. The expectation that Congress will pass laws that make moral judgments flows from the constitution (the collective will of the people) and thus it does not in any way diminish the individual liberties any more than those individuals submit themselves to the collective good of the society. In addition, the possibility of free markets serving to reduce the profitability of the drug industry and breaking it up as argued by laissez-faire proponents such as Friedman is also undermine not only by the fact that this has not been the case in the tobacco and alcohol industry, but even most importantly, market failures will result in equilibria that is hurtful to society (Lyman, 2011; Donohue, 2012). It is evident that the indirect and opportunity costs imposed on society far outweigh the costs incurred by the individual drug users, which means that there will always be disproportionately high external costs that result in the over-production and consumption of drugs than it is socially acceptable. This possibility is even worsened by the fact that the addictive and mind-altering characteristics of these drugs renders society’s collective welfare at the mercy of individuals with diminished decision-making capacity.

Alternative Policies

While liberal policies appear extreme and uncertain, there are numerous other policy alternatives that blend criminalization with measured legalization coupled with the imposition of strict controls over the access to, and use of drugs. With regard to the demand side, some local authorities have also practiced prohibitions tempered with limited war on drugs. Tempered prohibition means that governments do not deploy draconian law enforcement strategies, but instead focus more on the provision of educational programs to eliminate information asymmetries and foster good decision-making on the part of the drug users. On the other hand, containment policies mostly comprise of taxation, advertising restrictions, sales restrictions and age-based sale restrictions. In many countries, even those that have, or are still experimenting with decriminalization, the applicable policies have remained stern on the part of suppliers. The production, possession nd distribution of controlled drugs remains a heavily-punished offense across the world.


Drug abuse is is far from a victimless, personal decision, but one that has devastating and lasting outcomes for both the abusers, their communities and society as a whole. While criminalization has attained qualified success in minimizing demand and disrupting the supply side, the sheer size and sophistication of the lucrative industry have ensured that it not only survives, but thrives. It is clear that while decriminalization in liberal policies have attained measurable success in Europe, it is clear that this approach is riddled with vulnerabilities that could be easily exploited by traffickers and drug users alike. Other than the grudging acceptance on the part of all parties that more should be done, there is no conclusive evidence that decriminalization holds the key to the problem (US Drug Enforcement Administration, 2011; US Drug Enforcement Administration, 2010). It is worthwhile to experiment with different approaches to combatting the problem, but given the complex nature of the drug trade, drastic changes in policies are unlikely to yield any meaningful results.


Donohue, J. J. (2012). Rethinking America’s Illegal Drugs Policy. Yakle Center for the Study of Globalization, 141-57.
International Association of Chiefs of Police. (2013). The International Drug Evaluation & Classification Program-7 Drug Categories. Washington D.C.: International Association of Chiefs of Police.
Kilmer, B., Everingham, S., Caulkins, J., Midgette, G., Pacula, R., Reuter, P., et al. (20). How Big Is the U.S. Market for Illegal Drugs? New York: RAND Corporation.
Lyman, M. D. (2011). Drugs in Society: Causes, Concepts, and Control, Sixth Edition. Washington, DC: Anderson Publishing, ISBN: 978-1-4377-4450-7.
Murkin, G., Rolles, S., Kushlick, D., Powell, M., & Steven, A. (2014). Drug decriminalisation in Portugal: setting the record straight. Brussels: Transform.
US Drug Enforcement Administration. (2010). Speaking Out Against Drug Legalization. Washington, DC.: US Drug Enforcement Administration.
US Drug Enforcement Administration. (2011). Drugs of Abuse. Washington, DC: US Department of Justice.
World Health Organization. (2014). Consolidated guidelines on HIV prevention, diagnosis, treatment and care for key populations. Geneva: WHO.

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