By Mihika Chechi
Within the United States Congress, the issue of drug legalization is not one that crops up often or, (when it does come up), extends far past the topic of marijuana. Even then, there is clear polarization on the two topics, evidenced by the fact that nearly every House Democrat voted for federal legalization of cannabis in December 2020 and almost all House Republicans voted against it.
So what are some of the arguments on both sides of the floor?
The Economic Arguments
Many contend that drug legalization would save the United States billions of dollars, including the United States Department of Justice itself. Studies from 1996, 2010, and 2018 alike find that the United States stands to save a considerable amount of money through drug legalization. Recent studies conclude that the savings could amount up to $106.7 billion in annual budgetary gains. The primary two sources cited for this effect are decreases in drug enforcement spending and increases in tax revenue.
Research by the Cato Institute estimates that state and local governments currently spend around $29 billion on drug prohibition annually, while the federal government spends an additional $18 billion. Without the need to enforce drug prohibition measures, billions of dollars would be saved for the government and, by extension, taxpayers. Additionally, researchers gauge that full drug legalization would yield $19 billion in state and local tax revenue and $39 billion in federal tax revenue.
However, many believe that drug legalization would result in prices dropping to abysmal levels. This occurred with the legalization of marijuana in several states; a mere three years after legalization, the price of marijuana dropped by over 67 percent, with experts predicting that further decline is highly likely. The reason for this phenomenon lies in the fact that prohibition makes drug production extremely expensive for the illegal industry, which is why consumers must then pay exorbitant prices to obtain the drugs.
There are some ways for states to combat this problem, however, as they can institute sales taxes, excise taxes, and cannabis cultivation taxes that encourage sellers to hike up prices so they maintain profitability.
The Use & Addiction Arguments
The aforementioned inflated prices of illegal drugs is one of the several reasons why illegal drug use is far less frequent than use of legalized drugs such as alcohol and tobacco. That’s part of the reason why recent studies reveal that wealthy teens display over double the national rate for taking stimulant drugs and experimenting with cocaine. Other factors, such as social stigma, criminal repercussions, and lack of accessibility, all influence the rate of consumption of illicit drugs.
Many assume that legalizing drugs would increase overall use and addiction rates. The findings of various studies on this topic have been conflicting, with some researchers concluding that marijuana legalization led to an increase in problematic use in several states, while others found no correlation between the two. The Drug Policy Alliance, in fact, found that teen use in states with legalized medical marijuana has actually dropped. This can be explained by the fact that drug accessibility for those under 21 drops when unlicensed street sellers become secondary to legal dispensaries that check for a valid ID. Additionally, experts find that, among teens, the “forbidden fruit effect” is one of the primary motivators behind teen drug use; the adrenaline rush associated with marijuana diminishes when it’s no longer an illicit substance (despite the fact that it’s still technically illegal for teenagers).
However, due to the conflicting nature of the studies, and the fact that the majority of them are limited to research on marijuana in a handful of states, it is extremely difficult to ascertain what the effects of legalization of all drugs will be on a national scale.
Part of the reason why existing studies are so conflicted is due to the stringent federal access policies barring researchers’ ability to legally study marijuana, by making it illegal for them to bring the drug on campus (even in states where marijuana is legal) or even to be present during its consumption. Even established researchers find themselves having to resort to camping out in a van outside marijuana users’ homes and then asking them to come out and undergo testing.
The Government Regulation Arguments
Launched on June 18, 1971, the ongoing War on Drugs, the United States’ global campaign of drug prohibition combating the illegal drug trade within the U.S., has been widely regarded as a failure. The opioid crisis that widely plagued America from the late 1990s to the 2010s is a prime example of this. Spurred by the deceptive assertions of pharmaceutical companies that opioids were a safe painkiller and that addiction was unlikely, prescription rates skyrocketed - and so did addiction and death rates.
Today, though prescription rates are on the decline, death rates are only increasing, with 10.1 million Americans reporting misuse of opioids at least once over a 12-month period. In contrast, the numbers for cocaine and methamphetamine, albeit still high, are only around 5.2 million and 2.6 million respectively. The ongoing opioid epidemic is a testament to the failure of the War on Drugs and of the government to regulate the drugs that are already on the market. Many also cite alcohol and tobacco as examples of the same, as alcohol-related deaths have risen and tobacco now kills an estimated 540,000 people per year, all due to the government’s inability to take action when these were first introduced to the market. People believe similar patterns will occur with other drugs upon their legalization, especially as the pharmaceutical industry remains a top spender in lobbying efforts to sway government regulations in its favor.
Optimists argue that the mistakes made by the government upon the initial introduction of these drugs to the market served as a lesson. Now, they argue, stricter regulations and policies (such as the requirement of all tobacco advertisements to display the federally-approved warning statement) are in place that would prevent profit-seeking pharmaceutical companies from exploiting the legalization of illicit drugs and protect the public. The positive effects of this are discernible in the fact that the national smoking rate has declined by nearly three-fourths in the past five decades. Additionally, since there is already a social stigma around many illicit street drugs, such as crack cocaine and heroin, it can be reasonably contested that the public would not be as open to suggestive media that paints them in a beneficial light.
So Should We or Shouldn’t We?
It’s clear that there are reasonable arguments on both sides of the issue; the government must analyze every possible impact of drug legalization, as well as ensure its own ability to regulate the drugs once they are on the legal market. While many more arguments both for and against drug legalization exist, from potentially solving the issue of racial disparity in drug-related incarceration to weakening the black market and drug cartels, it’s not likely the United States will move to legalize all illicit drugs anytime soon.