Drug Legalization: A False Hope

Advocates of drug legalization believe that making high-quality drugs cheaply and widely available will eliminate the illegal drug market, regulate quality and price, and decrease law enforcement costs including arrest and incarceration. They predict that governments will spend less money on law enforcement, benefit from a new source of tax revenue and that drug-related crime will fall if drugs from marijuana to heroin become routinely accessible, more or less as are alcohol and tobacco. 

But unless these "reforms" make all illegal drugs available to any willing buyer there will be a large and destructive illegal market in these addictive substances. In fact, by reducing the legal and other pressures that reject illegal drug use, these "reforms" all will increase the use of illegal drugs and with this increase will come the harms caused by it. 

Moreover, legal drugs, i.e. alcohol and tobacco, provide poor models for legalization. The tax revenues reaped from these drugs are dwarfed by their social costs. The same would be true for marijuana and any other illegal drug.

Marijuana Legalization

In November 2012 Colorado and Washington State passed ballot initiatives legalizing marijuana, making the United States the first country in the world to legalize the commercial production, sale and use of marijuana. Since that time, Alaska, Oregon and the District of Columbia in 2014, and California, Maine, Massachusetts and Nevada in 2016, also legalized marijuana. This adds a third drug legal for adults, adding marijuana to alcohol and tobacco. These two drugs are the leading causes of preventable illness and death in the United States. Comparing the rate of use of these two drugs to the rates of marijuana use is revealing.

National household survey data show that among Americans 12 and older, 53% have used alcohol in the past 30 days while 25% have used tobacco. The percent who have used any illegal drug (including marijuana) is 10% with about 8% reporting using marijuana. None of the illegal drugs is less biologically attractive than alcohol or tobacco. The reason so many more Americans use these two drugs is that they are legal for adults and are widely available and promoted supported by well-established industries. Legalizing marijuana ensures that the percent of Americans using this drug will rise to the levels seen by these two legal drugs. Worse yet, it is important to note that over 60% of Americans who suffer from a substance use disorder for drugs other than alcohol have a marijuana use disorder.  

The Institute for Behavior and Health (IBH) has proposed a strategy for sustained and systematic annual collection, analysis and reporting of the health, safety, and other consequences of marijuana use and marijuana legalization. IBH is calling on the US Congress to designate the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) to establish an independent Scientific Committee to Monitor the Effects of Marijuana Policy Changes. This committee would assemble, analyze and report data on the effects of marijuana use and changes in marijuana policy, and recommend priorities for research in this area. The full IBH report on this strategy can be found here.