The Case for Narcotics Legalization and Decriminalization

 The following was my research paper for my criminal justice research class. We had a list of topics to choose from and it was a toss up for me between this and gun control. I stuck with this topic as it is one I’m pretty passionate about. For the record, I’m not passionate about ending prohibition on drugs because I am or want to be a pot head – not even close. I have zero interest in doing drugs; however, the Drug War has made the issue of drugs far more dangerous, as I point out below.

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The Case for Narcotics Legalization and Decriminalization by Reagen Dandridge Desilets is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

The Case for Narcotics Legalization and Decriminalization

Reagen Dandridge Desilets

Trident Technical College

13FA CRJ126 Crim Justice Research Methods (W01)

October 25, 2013


In the “Land of the Free” there are more laws on the books regarding how a person may live, attempting to mitigate the number of perceived mistakes a person can make. The questions that remain are do these laws truly help curb the use and abuse of narcotic drugs and, have these laws truly helped society as a whole? If yes, then does the individual liberty sacrificed make it worth it and, if not, what needs to be considered to make positive changes? Looking at current statistics regarding drug abuse, prosecution and incarceration rates related to drug use and sales, as well as an attempt to find solid statistics regarding the number of violent crimes related to drug use and sales, a determination can be better reached. Should the current prohibitions be kept in the criminal justice system or is it time to consider other ways to dealing with the issue of drugs?

The Case for Narcotics Legalization and Decriminalization

Ever since the Drug War began in the 1980s (Winning the War on Drugs: A “Second Chance” for Nonviolent Drug Offenders, 2000) the United States has seen huge numbers of people in the criminal justice system. In 1997, the United Nations reported over 14 million prosecuted, over 1.6 million incarcerated, and 3.8 million on probation or parole (United Nations, 2001). The Bureau of Justice Statistics found that from 1994 to 1997 the recidivism rate for released prisoners was an astounding 67.5% (Langan & Levin, 2002). More recently it has been reported that the United States has the highest incarceration rate on the planet (Hartney, 2006) and Harvard Law Review found that African Americans are disproportionately represented in the prison population compared to outside prison populations (Winning the War on Drugs: A “Second Chance” for Nonviolent Drug Offenders, 2000). When looking at stark numbers alone, it is alarming to see such high rates of people in the system, the disproportionate representation, and when digging deeper, the questions begging to be answered are “Is it worth it?” and “Can it be better?”

“Is it worth it?” Considering everything that is sacrificed for the Drug War, ranging from individual liberties and the emergence of a dangerous black market (Ostrowski, 1989), this is a question that that is well worth answering. Also, nearly half of the federal prison population and over 17% of state prison populations are for drug related offenses (The Sentencing Project, 2012). So, do the effects of drug laws make all this worth it? PLoS Medicine published findings from the World Health Organization regarding drug use that was documented in 17 different countries around the world (Degenhardt, et al., 2008). They found that prohibition had no effect on the number of people using drugs. They also noted that wealthier countries had higher drug usage rates and that the United States had some of the highest legal and illegal drug usages compared to other first world countries.

Another study tested the hypotheses that imprisonment and increasingly harsher sentences have a deterrent effect and found that it does not (Spohn & Holleran, 2002). They compared drug offenders that were imprisoned and released and those that were on probation. They found that the drug offenders that had been incarcerated indeed had the highest rates of recidivism and recidivated far faster than those that had been on probation, or even of those offenders with varying degrees of drug involvement or no connection to drugs at all.

What are some of the other effects of the drug war aside from increased incarceration rates and high recidivism? The emergence of a black market and the dangers associated with it are another side effect of the drug war (Ostrowski, 1989). CATO looked at the previous alcohol prohibition and compared it to today’s Drug War. The rates of murder and assault with a firearm during the prohibition of the 1920s and early 1930s showed an upward trend until the end of prohibition. After prohibition was repealed there was a drastic drop in those rates. 1933 shows the highest rate at 16 per 100,000 just before prohibition was repealed, suggesting that perhaps the trend would have continued upwards so long as prohibition was enacted. By 1935, the rate was less than 14 per 100,000 and by 1943; it was under 10 per 100,000. Street crime is an inevitable result of a black market so crime rates overall increase with prohibition. In the 1980s, the war against rising crack-cocaine markets are blamed for an increase in the homicide rates (Cole, 1996). Another study on crack related violence in New York City showed that a large number of homicides were systemic; the highest of systemic homicides being territorial disputes (Goldstein, Brownstein, Ryan, & Bellucci, 1989). These points suggest that crime driven by black markets, as opposed to crime related to drug use and abuse, are a higher concern.

CATO also points to individual cases that show the dangers of a black market to include innocent people being killed by stray bullets in a turf war shoot out and drive by killings, as well as a policeman being killed while guarding a drug witness, and gang warfare in Los Angeles (Ostrowski, 1989). The effects of black markets also reach foreign governments’ affairs including a coup d’état in Panama orchestrated by Noriega, Colombian drug wars, and more. Mexico’s notorious drug war and gun prohibition has resulted in over 60,000 drug related deaths (Rueda, 2013). Corruption is rampant as well, especially in foreign areas where bribes to control certain, more profitable drug areas lead to dangerous confrontations as well as law enforcers selling out and joining in the trade instead of stopping it (Skolnick, 1992).

Individual liberties are sacrificed as part of the War on Drugs (Ostrowski, 1989). The question that prohibitionists need to consider is not “Will prohibition stop drug abuse?” but “Do the laws themselves cause more harm than good?”  Indeed in the nineteenth century drug use was not banned and many now banned plant and plant products, such as opiates, were readily available in grocery stores without a doctor’s prescription. Yes, there were those that would become addicted; however, many others did not, such as is the case today with legal drug use. Now, because of prohibition, those that would use it without abusing it, including those using for medicinal purposes, cannot easily attain any form of drug without jumping through hoops and spending the extra money on doctors and pharmacists.

Economically, when something is mandated, the price will go up as supply is affected (Ostrowski, 1989). This theory alone was thought to help curb the illegal drug trade; however, that is not the case (Reuter, Kleiman, & R., 1986). What ends up happening is increased gang war to corner a market, as well as other, more dangerous, drugs emerge (Drunker, 1999) (Skolnick, 1992). The more drugs are intercepted, the more creative smugglers will get, making drugs more difficult to detect (Skolnick, 1992). It has been shown that 60% of the costs of the War on Drugs are to deal with crime and the black market, verses 30% on drug related illness, death and 10% on health care costs (Zeese & Lewin, 1999). There is an enormous drain on criminal justice tax dollars to find, arrest, prosecute, and punish drug offenders, even nonviolent offenders (Winning the War on Drugs: A “Second Chance” for Nonviolent Drug Offenders, 2000) (Ostrowski, 1989).

As far as addiction, there is some evidence to support the “forbidden fruit” theory that when something is banned, it makes it more desirable for others to want to try (Ostrowski, 1989). In addition when someone does become addicted, prison and prisonization (Dobbs & Waid, 2004) is what they get as opposed to help dealing with addiction. Prison is a proven failure at stopping drug abuse (Spohn & Holleran, 2002). Drug offenders come out of prison true criminals as they have to become so in order to survive prison, a process called prisonization as mentioned above, even if their only “crime” was drug possession (a “no victim-no crime” situation).  They learn new, more dangerous ways of getting what they want instead of learning to deal with their addiction.

“Can it be better?” What can be done to improve this situation? Based on the above information, it would seem that legalization or outright decriminalization would be the answer. There was a drop in murder and assault rates with guns after prohibition ended in the 1930s (Ostrowski, 1989). We know that prohibition does not curb substance use and abuse (Degenhardt, et al., 2008). We also know that the drain and cost on tax payers to boost the criminal justice sector to deal with prohibition violations is extreme (Ostrowski, 1989) (Reuter, Kleiman, & R., 1986) (Zeese & Lewin, 1999) (Winning the War on Drugs: A “Second Chance” for Nonviolent Drug Offenders, 2000). We know the violence and quality control dangers that the black market presents us with (Ostrowski, 1989) (Spohn & Holleran, 2002) (Cole, 1996) (Goldstein, Brownstein, Ryan, & Bellucci, 1989) (Rueda, 2013). We know that the prohibitive laws regarding drugs has caused there to be a dramatic sacrifice in individual liberties. So what can be done to help those that are suffering from drug addiction if prohibition doesn’t work and makes things worse?

It has been suggested that moving the issue of drugs and drugs abuse to the health sector instead of the criminal justice sector (Drunker, 1999) (Macleod & Hickman, 2010) (Skolnick, 1992). Harm reduction is a program used by other countries to help addicts deal with the more dangerous aspects of their drug use; however, it is frowned upon and not allowed in the federal drug program (Drunker, 1999). It is seen as “condoning drug use” instead of being seen as way to mitigate complications from drug abuse For example, clean needles could help curb exposure to diseases such as HIV/AIDS and hepatitis, but it is not done for fear of encouraging drugs abuse. It has also been suggested that prevention should be a better focus instead of criminalization, such as seen with tobacco and alcohol (Macleod & Hickman, 2010). There are scores of campaigns, both private and public, that tackle the idea of preventing abuse of those two substances seen worldwide. Why not do the same for drugs?

Part of proper education for the purpose of prevention is to not overstate the effects of drug use such as has been done in the past with marijuana (Macleod & Hickman, 2010) (Skolnick, 1992). Evidence based programs are vital to a proper campaign and teaching others of the dangers that do exist with various substances, from marijuana, to harder drugs, to alcohol and even tobacco (Macleod & Hickman, 2010). Overstatement can lead to the inference that indeed there is no harm at all (Skolnick, 1992). Many can control the ways and conditions they use any substance, others cannot and it’s an important distinction to make in an education campaign.

There are a few models of legalization or decriminalization to consider. In an unrestricted market, it has been proposed that in one swoop, smuggling, organized crime, and street violence would almost immediately decrease or, in some instances, disappear altogether (Skolnick, 1992). A second option would be the cigarette model where only the age is restricted. Next is the alcohol model where it is more regulated, and the last model is the prescription drug model in that it would have to be issued through health care service providers.

CATO also suggests four paths for legalization and decriminalization as follows (Ostrowski, 1989):

  • Option A: Decriminalization (new British system) – Government-controlled distribution through clinics only for short-term maintenance; criminal penalties for unauthorized sale and use.
  • Option B: Decriminalization – Government-controlled distribution through clinics for long-term maintenance; criminal penalties for unauthorized use and sale.
  • Option C: Decriminalization (old British system) – Government-controlled distribution; availability by prescription from any physician for treatment or maintenance; criminal penalties for non-prescription sale and use.
  • Option D: Legalization (British and American systems prior to 1914) – Distribution, sale, and use regulated on a par with the alcoholic beverage industry; alcoholic beverage industry; nonprescription use by adults permitted.

CATO points out that under the American way of criminalizing drug use, it created a violent black market in Britain within only a few years (Ostrowski, 1989). They had to come up with a new way of dealing with drugs (the new British system). However, when considering this, think about alcohol: how many people would go to a hospital to get some liquor and have to see a psychiatrist in the process? It just isn’t very practical and would not be cost effective. These are things that need to be added to the discussion when trying to shape public policy regarding drug use and abuse.

In conclusion, it would seem the evidence is there to suggest that the failures of the Drug War far outweigh any benefits. It is time to open the discussion and create positive action to move the issue of drugs away from the criminal justice system and instead offer help to those suffering from addiction and other health issues related to drug use and abuse. The first step is to change the laws, decriminalizing drugs, to curb or altogether halt dangerous black market activities and restore individual liberties. Next would be harm reduction and rehabilitation efforts for current addicts. Finally, engaging in an evidence-based education campaign with the aim of prevention should become a top priority.


Winning the War on Drugs: A “Second Chance” for Nonviolent Drug Offenders. (2000, April). Harvard Law Review, 113(6), 1485-1502.

Cole, T. B. (1996, March 6). Authorities Address US Drug-Related ‘Arms Race’. JAMA, 275(9), 672-673.

Degenhardt, L., Chiu, W.-T., Sampson, N., Kessler, R. C., Anthony, J. C., Angermeyer, M., et al. (2008, July). Toward a Global View of Alcohol, Tobacco, Cannabis, and Cocaine Use: Findings from the WHO World Mental Health Surveys. PLoS Medicine, 5(7), 1053-1067.

Dobbs, R. R., & Waid, C. A. (2004). Prison Culture. Encyclopedia of Prisons & Correctional Facilities, 720-24. Thousand Oaks, CA, USA: Sage.

Drunker, E. (1999). Drug Prohibition and Public Health: 25 Years of Evidence. Public Health Reports, 114(1), 14-29.

Goldstein, P. J., Brownstein, H. H., Ryan, P. J., & Bellucci, P. A. (1989). Crack and Homicide in New York City: A Conceptually Based Event Analysis. Contemporary Drug Problems, 16(4), 651-687.

Hartney, C. (2006, Nov.). US Rates of Incarceration: A Global Perspective. Retrieved October 25, 2013, from National Council on Crime & Delinquency:

Langan, P. A., & Levin, D. J. (2002, June). Recidivism of Prisoners Released in 1994. Retrieved from Bureau of Justice Statistics:

Macleod, J., & Hickman, M. (2010). How ideology shapes the evidence and the policy: what do we know about cannabis use and what. Society for the Study of Addiction, 105(8), 1326-1330.

Ostrowski, J. (1989). Thinking about Drug Legalization. Cato Institute Policy Analysis, No. 121.

Reuter, P., Kleiman, & R., M. A. (1986). Risks and Prices: An Economic Analysis of Drug Enforcement. Crime and Justice, 7, 289-340.

Rueda, M. (2013, February 8). The 10 Most Violent Cities in the World. Retrieved October 12, 2013, from ABC News:

Skolnick, J. H. (1992). Rethinking the Drug Problem. Daedalus, 121(3), 133-159.

Spohn, C., & Holleran, D. (2002, May). The Effect of Imprisonment on Recidivism Rates of Felony Offenders: A Focus on Drug Offenders. Criminology, 40(2), 329-358.

The Sentencing Project. (2012, Dec). Trends in U.S. Corrections. Retrieved October 25, 2013, from The Sentencing Project:

United Nations. (2001, June). Sixth United Nations Survey of Crime Trends and Operations of Criminal Justice Systems, covering the period 1995 – 1997. Retrieved from United Nations:

Zeese, K. B., & Lewin, P. M. (1999). The Effective National Drug Control Strategy 1999. Retrieved October 9, 2013, from Common Sense Drug Policy:

Zimring, F. E., & Hawkins, G. (1997). Crime Is Not the Problem: Lethal Violence in America. New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press.


2 thoughts on “The Case for Narcotics Legalization and Decriminalization”

  1. Also wanted to note after it was pointed out to me that I did not get a chance to cover the relation between racial disparity in prison and prohibition. I will try to cover that on another paper or do it solely for this site. I have more papers to do as Spring Semester has started already, so it won’t be anytime soon. Likely this summer I’ll have the time for it. Feel free to comment on it!

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