International Analysis: The Pitfalls of Legalization?

Op-Ed by Robert DuPont —The Mark News

According to the pro-drug lobby – and with a boost from the media – Uruguay is leading the world by legalizing marijuana. The pro-drug lobby claims that prohibition is a failure and that all drugs should be legalized. Marijuana, the most widely used illegal drug in the world, is just the leader of this campaign. The strategy takes its precedent from the legalization of the sale of alcohol, but the policy is disarmingly simplistic and presents a terrible threat to public health and safety.

Alcohol and tobacco are the leading preventable causes of illness and death in the United States and the rest of the developed world. This is not because they are more dangerous than drugs that are currently illegal, but because they are legal and commercially produced and distributed.

Look at the numbers: In the United States, 52 percent of those aged 12 and older drank alcohol in the past month, and 27 percent used tobacco, but only nine percent used any illegal drug and only seven percent used marijuana. This indicates that prohibition is successfully deterring illegal drug use. While prohibition is not without real costs, and today’s drug policy can be improved, our balanced and restrictive drug policy is limiting the damage done by illegal drug use in the United States and around the world.

The promises of drug legalization are bogus. Legalizing marijuana would not stop the production, sale, or use of illegal marijuana. If marijuana were taxed and regulated, there would be plenty of marijuana grown and sold on the black market. Furthermore, normalizing marijuana use would increase demand in both the legal and illegal markets.

The tax bonanza promoted by legalization advocates is hard to take seriously. Legal marijuana sales would struggle to compete with black-market sales, which would continue to provide more potent products at lower, tax-free prices. To the extent that there would be tax revenues from legal marijuana, they would pale in comparison to the social costs. In the United States, the tax revenues from alcohol and tobacco are far less than their social costs. Is this an attractive precedent? I don’t think so.

The public has been led to believe that this politically potent movement is just about marijuana. It is not. Every argument made today in support of marijuana legalization is also being made – or will be made – for other illegal drugs.

The real drug-abuse challenge facing the world today is seldom recognized, let alone debated. It is rooted not in politics, but in biology. Drugs of abuse, including marijuana, target the brain’s reward system more intensely than natural pleasures such as food and sex. Drugs are addicting not because users experience withdrawal when they stop using them, but because they produce a brain reward that the once-addicted brain never forgets. That is why relapses to drug use are so common long after all withdrawal symptoms have passed.

To combat the rising demand for illegal drugs around the world, we must fashion more effective strategies to limit the use of drugs of abuse outside legitimate and controlled medical situations – strategies that are affordable and compatible with contemporary laws and culture. This is an enormous task, but one that can be completed with international cooperation and leadership. Drug use can be reduced by, among other things, implementing strong prevention strategies, increasing access to treatment, improving quality of treatment, and leveraging the criminal justice system to reduce drug use while also reducing recidivism and incarceration. Legalizing drugs, including marijuana, is absolutely not the new and better idea to reduce the toll of illegal drug use.

As for Uruguay, President José Mujica and his legislature have produced a media sensation. It is difficult to imagine that legalizing marijuana as envisioned in Uruguay’s proposed law could result in the reduction of Uruguay’s role as a country used for drug transit for Paraguayan marijuana and Bolivian cocaine. Monitoring the outcomes of this policy change is enormously important. Sadly, there is little doubt that the new law will encourage the use and sale of marijuana and other drugs of abuse both in Uruguay and in the international marketplace.

Having spent four decades working to reduce drug use and lower the devastating public-health costs of drug abuse, I struggle to understand why so many otherwise sensible and responsible people accept the drug legalization hogwash.

Robert DuPont was the White House Drug Chief (1973-1977) under former Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. He is the founding president of the Institute for Behavior and Health. 

6 Comments

  1. Jillian Galloway says:

    According to Robert DuPont, America is leading the world by arresting 700,000 people/year for using a far safer alternative to alcohol. Does this “logic” make sense to anyone?

    Even our own government – via the CDC – acknowledges that alcohol kills 80,000 people/year in the U.S. while marijuana kills no one. How then can people like Mr. DuPont justify forcing taxpayers to fund the enormously expensive and completely ineffective federal marijuana prohibition?

    Tax us if you must but do NOT spend OUR money on this failed and deadly policy that benefits NO ONE!

  2. Alejandro Camino says:

    As per over 30 years of illicit drugs combatting in Peru under support of the U.S., as well as in our neighboring countries, it has become quite evident that coca crop eradication is the best way to nurture the mafia business. Every campaign to eradicate coca in remote and difficult to access areas raises the price of cocaine and thus making the business more lucrative.
    Drug policy has been the best way to keep up the business, corrupt police and army teams, even politicians.
    It is therefore our perception that the current US sponsored drug policy seems to be financed by the drug business, what a paradox!!
    Since 8,000 years ago Peruvians have chewed coca leaves, and we never ever had a social drug problem. It was a key religious plant in the evolution of high civilizations in the Andes. Furthermore, it has been demonstrated by contemporary anthropological and medical research that coca leaf chewing contributes in nurturing our old tradition of hard work, social cohesiveness and cultural identity, social responsibility and mutual help, in addition to contributing to public nutrition and good health.
    Cocaine is to coca what vodka is to potatoe. Keep this in your minds!
    Furthermore Dr. Teobaldo Llosa MD and others have offered clinical demonstrations that coca chewing or coca leaf ingestion in other forms (such as coca flour) make a big contribution in fighting cocaine and coca paste addiction, a un-natural use of coca leaf, and a perversion which is not part of our ancient health traditions.
    Please review the recent literature on coca use as well as that of the impacts of current drug policy on the illicit market.

  3. We’ve tried Nixon’s politically motivated “War on Drugs” and it hasn’t worked. Hard drugs are bad news no matter what so the question America needs to ask itself is which is worse? The problems we have from them being illegal or the problems we would have from them being legal? What we have tried for the last 40+ years hasn’t worked. Legalize them, break the cartels and treat drug abuse and addiction as a medical instead of criminal issue.

  4. I beg to differ, I support cannabis (and cannabis only) legislation and you made some wrong points, for example, legalizing cannabis will NOT create a black market of cannabis for the same reason there is not a black market for alcohol or tobbaco, cannabis cant be used as a gateway drug if its on the shelves of normal pharmacies, the one and ONLY reason cannabis is currently a gateway drug is because the people who are selling it are the same people who sell cocaine and heroine. if it would be sold like tobbaco, it will act like tobbaco. also, if there is a need for something on the market (in this case, a recreational drug that doesnt cause headaches and fuck up your health), it will be sold, no matter what. now the country has to decide who gets the money, them, or the criminals. (the real criminals, the ones who also sell cocaine, heroine, prostitution etc.)
    also, the talk in the US is not to legalize every drug, but is to let the state decide which drugs it allows and which ones it dont, you cants regulate federal laws that collide with state laws, lets say for example there is a person thats fighting cancer, he sits in his home, smoking mariujanna. its helps him, suddenly the feds come in and arrest him, this is a violation of the Constitution, of human rights and of common sense. and if the person continues to smoke because it helps him. simply so. helps him. third timd he will go to prison for life?!?! criminals are not the ones smoking cannabis, but they are the ones who arrest us for doing something that does not violate any human rights, any common sense. rules are made to protect the people from violation of their rights, when the rules don’t protect anybody but VIOALTES the peoples rights, thats wheres the line between democracy and dictatorship. Thank you.

  5. The U.S. comprises 5 percent of the world’s population yet uses 60 percent of the world’s drugs. The failed attempt to prohibit these (non-patentable) drugs has been waged for 70 years and has cost us trillions of dollars.

    Prohibition has negatively impacted on the lives of all of us. It has stagnated the normal economy while allowing criminal enterprises to control an untaxed and thriving underground market that’s estimated to be worth (annually) well over three trillion dollars ( $300,000,000,000). By its emphasis on the eradication of marijuana we have also denied ourselves the miracle of hemp, which can offer us workable and logical solutions to a number of our society’s problems, be they medicinal, industrial or agricultural.

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