Pubdate: Mon, 27 Apr 2009
Source: Daily Free Press (Boston U, MA Edu)
Copyright: 2009 Back Bay Publishing, Inc.
Author: Lauren Finch


Some Say Legalization Could End the Drug Wars

The deadly and seemingly hopeless drug-related violence along the
Mexican-American border has some drug legalization proponents full of

The violence is both proof that the United States drug prohibition has
failed and an opportunity to renew the legalization debate, drug
legalization proponents said. Support for drug policy reform is
growing as people learn of the economic and social benefits of
throwing out criminalization, legalization proponents claimed, while
drug prohibition advocates continue to warn that a permissive drug
policy is dangerous.

There's a reason that you don't see Mexican alcohol or tobacco wars,"
Libertarian Party spokesman Donny Ferguson said. The Libertarian
Party's official platform supports drug legalization. "When you make
something a criminal matter, such as drugs, it creates a black market
and fuels gang crime."

With legalization, the world "would be much safer," Ferguson

Money Talks

There is money to be made from legalization, according to California
Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco), who proposed in February to
legalize and tax marijuana in order to help bridge his state's $42
billion deficit.

The Marijuana Control, Regulation and Education act, the first of its
kind, would "legalize the possession, sale, cultivation, and other
conduct relating to marijuana and its derivatives by persons 21 years
of age and older," according to the proposal. The bill, which proposes
a $50 per ounce tax on marijuana sales, would also generate over $1.3
billion in tax revenue for the financially troubled state, Ammiano's
spokesman Quintin Mecke said.

California is one of 13 states where medical marijuana is legal, and
one of 13 states where marijuana has been decriminalized. Efforts to
decriminalize marijuana on the federal level have not gone far -- in
the legislature, Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), with eight cosponsors
including Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), introduced a bill last year that
would decriminalize marijuana on the federal level, but the bill was
cleared when a new session of Congress convened and has not been

The federal government is missing out on a viable tax revenue source
by criminalizing not just marijuana, but all drugs, Harvard University
senior economics lecturer Jeffrey Miron said.

The amount of tax revenue collected, it certainly isn't going to solve
all the country's economic problems and budget problems," Miron said.
"But we would certainly get a nontrivial amount of tax revenue and we
would save a lot of government expenditure that we're currently
spending now on police and prisons and judges and so on."

The enticement of substantial tax revenue can only help the passage of
Ammiano's bill, Mecke said.

The economic reason happens to be one additional reason for it, but by
no means is it the only reason why we're considering it," Mecke said.
"Money talks, but people are also in tune with the fact that
[attitudes about drugs] have changed."

But while Ammiano's bill might represent a "natural evolution of drug
policy," Mecke said he does not think it will lead to the eventual
legalization of all illicit drugs. Ammiano's bill meanwhile is
expected to be heard this fall, and has received much support already
from other legislators, Mecke said.

As far as social issues, there's a strong conservative element
regarding any change to things," Mecke said. "Especially in regards to
alcohol, cigarettes, other things that are considered to be vices, the
country is not particularly progressive."

The Al Capone Example

America already has an example of the violent results of prohibition,
Jack Cole, executive director for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition,
a Massachusetts-based coalition of former law enforcement members that
supports drug legalization, said. Al Capone, the notorious
Chicago-based crime boss who made his money bootlegging and smuggling
alcohol during the Prohibition Era in the 1920s and 30s, lost much of
his power when with his imprisonment at Alcatraz and the repeal of

 From a law enforcement perspective, we realize that when we ended the
alcohol prohibition, the next morning Al Capone and all his smuggling
buddies were out of business," Cole said. "They were off our streets,
they were no longer out there killing each other for that corner on
the market they had."

Drug abuse should be treated as a health issue instead of a criminal
matter, Cole said. The dangerous overcrowding of the American prison
system is a direct result of this philosophy, he said.

We would like to look at this from a more compassionate perspective
and try to help people, instead of trying to destroy their lives and
remove any hope they had for a future [by incarcerating them]," Cole

But, contrary to popular belief, legalization would not create more
drug addicts, or even users, Boston University health law, bioethics
and human rights professor Leonard Glantz said. According to a 2007
Zogby poll, 99% of respondents would not try illicit drugs even if
they were legalized for fear of the associated health risks, not the

We assume that people don't do things because of the laws against it,
but that's really not all that true," Glantz said. "I don't think the
fact that there's a law against murder is what keeps you and your
friends and family from murdering people."

Cole, who spent 12 years as an undercover narcotics officer with the
New Jersey State Police, said the War on Drugs, the drug prohibition
campaign first introduced by President Richard Nixon, is a complete
policy failure, and has actually created more drug users.

Examples of sensible drug polices abound, Cole said. Portugal
decriminalized, not legalized, the use and possession of illicit
drugs, including cocaine, heroin and marijuana, in 2001, the first and
only European Union member to do so. Since then, the total number of
drug-related deaths has decreased from 400 in 1999 to 290 in 2006, and
the number of new HIV cases caused by needle sharing dropped from
almost 1,400 in 2000 to about 400 in 2006, according to a report
released in April by the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank
based in Washington, D.C.

In comparison, the total number of drug-related deaths during drug
prohibition has risen, Cole said. According to the Centers for Disease
Control, the number of accidental overdose deaths in the United States
has steadily increased since the 1970s, when the War on Drugs was conceived.

If there's any way you're going to judge policy, it should be if we're
saving lives," Cole said. "Something is very wrong with what we're
doing here with this War on Drugs. Everything is getting worse."

Collateral Damage

Everything is indeed getting worse for countries that must deal with
the high U.S. demand for drugs, Miron, a Harvard economics lecturer,
said. Black markets promote devastating violence for Latin American
and Asian countries, where most of America's illicit drug supply originates.

[Legalization] would be significantly beneficial for these other
countries," Miron said. "[They] would all be able to focus much more
on using their police resources to deal with insurgent groups, they
would have more revenue available for other sensible spending
projects, and they would not have their countries disrupted by violence."

Criminalization has many unintended, but destructive consequences
because drug use is such a complicated issue, Glantz, a Boston
University health law, bioethics and human rights professor, said. It
is difficult for U.S. policy to not appear hypocritical, he said.

If we don't make alcohol illegal, then what is our standard for
illegality?" Glantz said. "The reason alcohol is legal is because the
vast majority of people in legislature like to drink it. That's the

And while social acceptance of some drugs, such as marijuana, might
seem to override criminalization at times, such legal limbo is "a very
bad thing," Glantz said.

Illegalization gives cops these options to selectively enforce drug
laws in populations," Glantz said. "The danger of that is that it
allows selective prosecution, so you wouldn't be surprised to find
more black kids being prosecuted for more marijuana law violations
than white kids."

Pandora's Box?

But for some, like Drug Free America Foundation spokeswoman Lana Beck,
legalization of drugs would be absolutely "devastating" for this
country. Drug Free America Foundation is a national and international
nonprofit drug policy and prevention organization based in St.
Petersburg, Fla.

America would be plagued by "increases in teen pregnancy, crime,
prenatal damage to unborn children, mental disorders and birth
defects," not to mention "many more addicts," Beck warned.

Legalizing drug use would be exactly the same as letting anyone get a
loan," Beck said. "When there were no regulations on the banks and on
our economy . . . the economy failed because people take advantage."

Legalization would not, as its proponents claim, reduce violence
either, Beck said. Black markets continue to exist even among legal
trades, and the very nature of drug use encourages violent behavior
because of the user's impairment, Beck said. Sexual assault is
"frequently facilitated by substance abuse," and drunk driving remains
a dangerous consequence of a drug that is legal, Beck said.

Not to mention, any tax revenue generated from legalized drugs would
be unethical, Beck said.

We would be agreeing that it's acceptable for society to profit from a
person's addiction," Beck said.

Despite what critics say, the War on Drugs has been and continues to
be effective at reducing drug use in the U.S., Beck said. Drug use in
the U.S. has declined about 50 percent since the late 1970s, according
to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. And even though it is
painfully obvious for Beck the consequences of legalization, the media
have become frighteningly biased in favor of it, Beck said.

More and more, everyday people . . . rely on what they read in the
papers and on the Internet," Beck said. "And if the media is putting
out that drugs are OK, or this is a movement that needs to happen, I
think people could believe that. Is it scary? Yes."

No Matter What, Education Is the Key

No matter the legal status of drugs, substance abuse will continue to
be a problem and drug policy a double-edged sword, a manager of a
Boston drug treatment facility, who wished to remain anonymous because
she is not authorized to speak on behalf of her facility, said.

If I thought legalization would stop all the [substance abuse], I
would be totally for it," she said. "But it won't."

Education about drug use and abuse, currently lacking, would be the
most effective approach, no matter if the policy is prohibition or
legalization, she said.

I'm not saying that we should or we shouldn't [legalize drugs]," she
said. "We need to pay attention more to the education around substance
abuse before you talk about the legalization of anything. Education is
the key." 
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