Why Drug Legalization Just Won’t Happen

re-posted from atlantapost.com

America outpaces every country in the world in the number of people it incarcerates. Many of those responsible for the ballooning prison population are low-level drug offenders. Since the majority of prisoners are characterized as non-violent offenders, critics of drug prohibition assert that because the “war on drugs” has been such a failure and has forced states and the federal government to spend billions of dollars on drug interdiction at the expense of other priorities such as education and infrastructure; the question becomes, why has the government not seriously considered legalizing drugs given the perceived benefits of legalization such as regulating consumption and taxation of the drug economy to name a few?

Several states such as California and Oregon have recently decriminalized marijuana use, but none have gone so far as to legalize drugs. Cook County officials in Chicago are taking steps to decriminalize marijuana possession as well. In total, about twelve states have decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana, and 16 states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical use of marijuana since 1995. The states that have decriminalized marijuana possession each have disparate laws governing drug policy. As a result, this creates quite a bit of confusion for those attempting to interpret drug policy.

To understand this debate it is instructive to delve into a little history on various efforts to legalize drugs and to examine the arguments for and against drug legalization and then conclude with what many believe is the single most salient reason why drugs have not been legalized—drugs are too profitable and too many people jobs depend on the drug economy.

The Harrison Act of 1914 and the marijuana tax act of 1937 were some of the earlier laws on the books, which made drugs illegal.
Key laws, which govern drug policy, now include the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) of 1970. This act has been amended at least a dozen times or more. The Food and Drug Administration and the Cosmetic Act are additional extant acts, which govern drug policy. These acts govern herbal preparations, and the laws regulating alcohol and tobacco.

The debate surrounding legalization of drugs is convoluted but those against drug legalization assert that marijuana has proven to be a gateway drug and cite the fact that there is a relationship between marijuana use and addiction to harsher drugs such as crack and heroin. Other arguments against decriminalization include:
The belief that once drugs are legalized, usage will increase
Decriminalization sends conflicting messages to impressionable young people.
Legalization would expand the use of drugs and increase addiction.
It would de-stigmatize illicit drug usage.
Legalization would make harmful addictive drugs more affordable, available and accessible.
Crime, violence and drug usage go hand-in-hand.

Counter arguments include: the drug war has been a complete failure. An Op-Ed in the Economist captures the arguments for drug legalization:
Legalization would not only drive away the gangsters; it would transform drugs from a law-and-order problem into a public health problem.
Governments would tax and regulate the drug trade and use the funds raised to educate the public about the risks of drug taking and to treat addiction.
Legalization offers the opportunity to deal with addiction properly.
By providing honest information about the health risks of different drugs, and pricing them accordingly, governments could steer towards the least harmful ones.
Prohibition seems even more harmful, especially for the poor and weak of the world.

The pro and con arguments regarding drug legalization pale in comparison to the money argument, which posits that legalization has been hampered by the fact that too much money is being made off drug enforcement to legalize drugs. Harvard Professor Henry Blodgett contends that legalizing drugs would help the government reduces its expenditures by $41.3 billion a year on enforcement and prohibition. Another byproduct of legalizing drugs according to Blodgett is that drug legalization would yield tax revenue of $46.7 billion annually. Given the contentious debate surrounding lifting the debt ceiling and reducing the deficit, legalization would seem to be an excellent strategy for the neoliberal conservatives who champion free market policies and zero government spending.

The United States budget deficit was $1.29 trillion for fiscal year 2010. Consider that $48.7 billion in 2008 was the cost of drug prohibition; $6.5 billion spent from 2000-2005 to disrupt international drug trafficking; $6.2 billion in 2007 to imprison drug offenders; $3.4 billion in 2009 spent on drug treatment and treatment research; $2 billion from 2005-2009 spent on counternarcotics programs in Afghanistan; $1.7 billion from 1998-2010 spent to influence adolescents with the media; $268 million in 2007 spent on aviation units in conternarcotics operations; and $74.8 million in 2007 spent on installation of wiretap devices for drug investigations.

The above spending illustrates the fiscal commitment made to drug prohibition. If drug were legalized, judges, prosecutors, attorneys, and police officers to name a few groups would potentially lose their jobs. Too many agencies and livelihoods are tied to drug prohibition. Finally, throw in asset forfeiture; the ability of agencies to confiscate assets allegedly acquired as a result of crime and it becomes very obvious that profits from drug prohibition are the most salient reason why drugs have not been legalized.

Byron E. Price is an Associate Professor of Political Science in the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University and the author of Merchandizing Prisoners: Who Really Pays for Prison Privatization?

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