Most arguments in favor of prohibition don’t pass the smell test anymore, yet some of the more entrenched positions remain. Here is some perspective on these arguments, and why they’re plain wrong.
1. Prohibition doesn’t inhibit drug use, just our ability to prevent drug abuse.
Legal or not, people will continue to use drugs. Prohibition makes it socially acceptable to treat drug users as criminals, and to prevent people with substance abuse problems from accessing treatment for fear of legal repercussions. Decriminalization and legalization would promote compassion and allow people to receive treatment for substance abuse problems when they need it.
In many cases, prohibition can prevent reasonable dialogue about drugs. The widely-used DARE program was generally considered a failure due to its abstinence-only approach and hyperbolic anti-drug rhetoric. In contrast, anti-tobacco campaigns have drastically reduced tobacco use through science-based education and restrictions on use and advertisement. The best way to reduce drug use is through evidence-based education, harm reduction, and regulation, none of which can be effective as long as drugs remain illegal.
2. If you’re worried about dangerous drugs, start with your medicine cabinet.
There is no doubt that drugs can be dangerous, but that is not a valid reason to make them illegal. In the U.S. more than half of drug overdoses involve prescription drugs, and more people die every year from overdosing on pain killers than from heroin and cocaine combined. Alcohol alone is one of the leading causes of preventable death in the United States, yet you never hear anyone argue that we should outlaw pain killers or alcohol. History shows us that making drugs illegal creates criminal enterprises, and prohibition exacerbates the very real dangers of impurity, violence, and poverty. Education and harm reduction strategies are much more effective ways to reduce the dangers of drugs than prohibition.
3. “Protect the children”... by locking them up?
The biggest risk to a teenager who chooses to use drugs is not addiction, but being caught and introduced to the criminal justice system. No one is arguing that kids should have access to drugs, unless it’s for specific medical purposes. Rather, the best way to prevent youth drug abuse is through science-based education, and smart restrictions on access and advertising. Sensibly regulating access will be part of any legitimate drug legalization policy, but locking up youth over drugs is just counter-productive.
4. Prohibition doesn’t reduce crime, it institutionalizes racism.
Drug violations are the most common reason for arrest in the U.S. The vast majority of these arrests (82%) are for possession, not sale or manufacturing. While studies have consistently shown that drug use is distributed relatively evenly across racial demographics, the vast majority of people in jail for drug-related offenses are people of color. More than four decades of the War on Drugs has systematically criminalized certain populations while doing very little to reduce violent crime.
Aaron Juchau is an intern with the Drug Policy Alliance.