Decriminalization of Drugs Essential for Democracy

Alessandro Bruno

“The war on drugs has failed”. It has become a common refrain. And for good reason, given that the effects of the current and prevailing approach, at a global level, has only served to fill up prisons without making so much as a dent in the supply, let alone the demand, for narcotics, whether they be as light as marijuana or as ‘heavy’ as heroin and cocaine. And it’s not just the perpetrators of drug related crimes who suffer of course. The profits from the sale and trade of illegal drugs are such that the risks worth taking are huge; so huge that innocent and culpable alike are affected. Stray bullets from automatic guns can’t tell them apart.

It has become a matter of moral and practical necessity to decriminalize all drugs – not just cannabis, which is quickly being legalized. Most governments in the world, including those which like to praise themselves for their progressive and liberal approaches, maintain the so-called zero-tolerance policy to drugs. Yet, some of these same governments have plenty of historical evidence to suggest that not only does ‘zero tolerance’ fail, but that it spawns, and fuels organized criminality: after all, did prohibition work in the United States in the 1920’s? has prostitution been eliminated? And have athletes stopped enhancing their performance with special drugs? Not only is the concept of ‘war on drugs’ non-sensical, but, keeping them illegal is what the drug purveyors want most.

It’s the legal risk they take in importing and distributing cocaine, heroin and marijuana (add your drug of choice) that generates the profit. Moreover, while criminalizing drugs has surely absorbed exorbitant financial and human resources away from more productive pursuits, there is the ‘moral’ argument against drugs – that they are addictive – which is flawed.

Engaging in ‘addictive’ behavior is a quintessential aspect of being human. Pleasure is addictive. It’s also essential and its pursuit – which could be understood as ‘happiness’ in the US Declaration of Independence and several other quintessential documents inspired by philosophical conceptions of liberty and the elements of ‘liberal’ (in the literal meaning) society. Taking such an argument to its logical extension suggests that the ‘war on drugs’ is anti-American and anti-human.

There may well be a moral problem in eating too much, making frivolous purchases, consuming too much entertainment, listening to – or playing – too much music, and wasting time watching TV, consuming social media or reading comics. Others exercise too often or work too much. Anything that induces pleasure, physical or intellectual, can be justly described as addictive. Some might even describe the way millions of children read the Harry Potter series of books as evidence of addiction.

Of course, none of those excesses are regulated. Were they, someone would find a way to sell an alternative and illegal ‘solution’, which would surely generate a harmful environment around it.
The official description of the problem is “potential for abuse”. Yet, if that were truly a concern, then tobacco, alcohol and opioid substances, – and what of caffeine found in coffee, tea, colas, and many other soft drinks – proven to be several times deadlier (Source: Vox) should be immediately banned. Legal over-the-counter medications such as Tylenol, contain acetaminophen, which may well send more unsuspecting users to emergency rooms than any other substance (Source: Toronto Star). It’s true that illegal drugs kill. But, they do so far more because of their status as illegal than their chemical properties. The crime associated with the illegal drug market from individual robberies to gang violence is a direct consequence of the ‘war on drugs’.

Despite the considerable evidence urging for a complete philosophical and legal overhaul of the way society approaches the subject of narcotics, one country alone has had the courage to radically alter its approach: Portugal. Surely, Canada, Uruguay, individual U.S. States a few EU member States have legalized, to one extent or another, the sale and production of cannabis/marijuana for medical and recreational use. But, no one else has decriminalized the use of drugs altogether.

Portugal experienced a sharp rise in the use of heroin and other narcotics after the end of the Salazar dictatorship in 1974. Youth saw the use of drugs, perhaps, as one of the ways to experience the newly established political freedom. But, during the 1980’s, use of heroin was relatively more widespread than its European counterparts. Addiction became a problem, as did the crime associated with the sale of illicit substances in a repressive legal context. As in the U.S. today, the mere possession of drugs led to prison sentences. By 2000, the Government re-discovered ethical and practical reasons to legalize the possession of all drugs. The ethical case stemmed from the basics: everyone adult is free to use and abuse their bodies as they wish. After all that’s the principle that allows States to permit the sale and consumption of alcoholic and riding motorcycles.

The notion of punishing those who would use substances, which can cause harm, with jail sentences makes little sense. If drug addiction is a problem – and there’s no doubt that it is – it is a medical one, not a legal one. Therefore, societies should put their resources on treating and controlling addiction rather than trying, and failing, to prevent it through draconian legal methods. Surely, some would observe that addicts would end up costing taxpayers money (in government subsidized health systems). Legalized drug sales would generate tax revenue; the very revenue, portions of which would be used to pay medical treatment of addicts. And, note, making drugs illegal, does not make them go away. They just get brushed under the proverbial carpet, while fueling an illegal market and all the violent crime associated with it. Indeed, this crime ends up costing taxpayers considerably more than it would to treat drug addicts, because some 30% (or more, depending on country; it happens to be 47% in the US -wikipedia) of jail inmates are there for drug related crimes.

The solution to the drug problem starts with decriminalization: drug users are not criminals. The legalization of the marijuana market shall eventually and inevitably drive societies toward that realization.


Alessandro Bruno

Alessandro Bruno

Alessandro Bruno, born in Naples, (BA and MA in International Relations, University of Toronto). Alessandro is a research analyst and writer in various business sectors and international politics. He was a Programme Officer for the UN in North Africa and a senior for one of the first international sustainable investment...
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