Friday, April 17, 2009

The Decriminalizing Drugs Dilemma

With violence over drug trafficking in Mexico receiving so much attention these days, debates are resurfacing about legalizing drugs as one answer to the problem. As William Bradley writes in the Huffington Post:

One way to cut the Mexican drug cartels down to size is to legalize drugs in America. After all, the end of Prohibition against liquor in the US was a huge setback for America's organized crime groups. Mexico's ambassador to the US suggested the legalization of marijuana last week. But Obama is not going to move to legalize marijuana, much less cocaine or heroin.

Some have argued that a widespread legalization of drugs would diminish the severe violence now prevalent in parts of Mexico, or the high levels of gang violence seen in the U.S. during the 1980s and 90s. By legalizing drugs, drug costs would drop substantially and lessen the violent drug trade, but in turn increase access to drug consumption, largely because of the reduced cost. There are some examples for comparison.

In the Netherlands, where marijuana use is very much decriminalized (at least for adults), drug violence is substantially lower, and marijuana use does not appear to serve as a gateway drug to harder drug use any more so than in the U.S., where marijuana is obviously not legal for the general public.

The danger lays in knowing that if hard drugs became as accessible as alcohol, or say marijuana, there would need to be policies enforced and institutions established equally across communities before legalization occurred. A robust infrastructure that supports drug prevention, intervention, and rehabilitation would need to be created not just in Beverly Hills and Manhattan, but also in South Central L.A. and Harlem.

When communities are burdened with poverty and lack viable pathways to higher education, employment, health care, and so on, increased access to drugs can have terrible ramifications. Afghanistan is an extreme example where all these problems now manifest simultaneously.

The country does not enforce drug laws. In fact opium sales contribute to over half of Afghanistan’s GDP, so there is de facto legalization. But because the country is fraught with so many problems, not only is drug production rampant, so is consumption. According to a 2-part NPR story on drug use in Afghanistan, 1 in 12 Afghanis abuse drugs, primarily because opium and heroin are relatively cheap ($1/day) and help them escape temporarily from the reality of life. From
Part 1:

The soaring rates of drug abuse are driven in part by Afghanistan's widespread unemployment and social upheaval under the Taliban and the U.S.-led war, begun in 2001. Another factor is the flood of returning Afghan refugees from Iran, many of whom became heroin addicts there.

And fueling it all is an overabundance of opium and heroin in Afghanistan, the world's largest cultivator of poppies in the world.

The addicts say that heroin is a cheap way to forget their miserable existence.

Part 2, we see that the country lacks an adequate infrastructure to help cope with the extensive drug abuse. Not surprisingly, cultural mores discourage female addicts from seeking help and rehabilitative organizations are less available for women.

Most female addicts in Afghanistan are not allowed by their husbands, fathers and brothers to leave the family home to seek hospital care. They must rely on weekly mobile clinics…

Afghan men have more drug treatment options. Some three dozen clinics and hospitals across the country cater to them.

The excessively punitive approach the United States now has in its war on drugs is obviously problematic. Prisons are packed with non-violent drug offenders; children are stripped of parents, and the financial costs are exorbitant (listen
HERE). Legalization of lower-end drugs, such as marijuana, is a possible option. Policy makers must know, however, that legalizing marijuana will result in drug traffickers taking greater measures to stimulate new markets of addicts for harder drugs that are still illegal.

As seen in the Afghanistan example, legalizing drugs is loaded with problems when the legalized drugs are hard drugs, and in particular for communities that lack resources. Given the extensive stratification that exists in the United States by way of class, gender, race, etc., we would be foolish to think that similar problems do not exist here now and could not expand if policy measures shift without accounting for all the details.

(Photo courtesy of NPR)

(Note, excellent related article: Portugal's drug decriminalization 'bizarrely underappreciated: Greenwald, by Rachel Oswald)

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  1. "What If Marijuana Were Legal? Possible Outcomes"

  2. "Portugual Health Check" - The decriminalization of drugs, even hard drugs. BBC World Service (2 June 2009)