Click the headings below to reveal explanations of the benefits of legal regulation
We should regulate drugs because they are dangerous, not because they are safe. We know criminalisation does little to deter use, while legal regulation means governments can control availability and ensure drugs are clean and of known strength, so consumers know what they are taking and have clear information on health risks and how to minimise them.
Most illegal drug use is non-problematic1 (see graphic below), but all drug use carries risks, and however risky a drug is, those risks are increased when it is produced and supplied by criminal profiteers. Indeed, prohibition pushes the market towards riskier, more potent (and profitable) products like crack cocaine, leads to use of contaminated products of unknown strength, encourages high-risk using behaviours, and pushes consumption into high-risk environments.
As the UNODC has stated,2 ever-increasing drug law enforcement spending has reduced budgets for proven public health interventions like prevention, harm reduction, and treatment, harming health in the process.
1 UNODC (2010) '2010 World Drug Report', p. 123.
2 UNODC (2008) '2008 World Drug Report', p. 216.
The legal regulation of drugs would bring about a dramatic reduction in crime at all levels. Dependent users of illegal drugs (but not legal ones) commit crimes to fund their drug habits because illegal drug prices are hugely inflated by prohibition*. Legally regulating the supply of certain drugs to problematic users – on prescription or at prices that do not necessitate fundraising-related offending – has the potential to immediately and dramatically reduce property crime and street prostitution.
Most street drug dealing would disappear and there would be significant reductions in turf wars, gang violence and gun crime. The largest single profit opportunity for organised crime would be greatly diminished, and with it the largest single source of police corruption.
The best available evidence suggests that prohibition and aggressive law enforcement measures are actively counterproductive, unintentionally generating increases in violence and crime.
* Prices of illicit substances rise for many reasons: the increased risk involved in sourcing and dealing the substance means dealers need to make it worth their while so markup the price extremely; the risk in growing or manufacturing the drug makes it relatively scarce which when met with high demand drives up price; and the lack of regulation means that street powders are often bulked up by other things so one must buy more to get what they want.
Prohibition has gifted a $320 billion global market to violent criminal profiteers. Moving towards legally regulated markets will reduce a key source of criminal profits. These profits fuel much of the cartel-led violence and corruption which undermines security and development around the world, in particular in Central and Latin America.
The extent and power of illegal markets in some regions has created situations comparable to armed conflict zones. The longer the conflict continues, the harder the process of post-drug war reconstruction becomes.
Many state institutions are actively weakened by the corruption and violence that the current approach has created. Even imperfect regulation of drugs would be far better than no regulation at all, and reducing drug-related corruption and violence would help create an environment more conducive to institution-building in the longer term.
Rather than protecting the young and vulnerable, the war on drugs has placed them at ever greater risk – from the harms of drug use, from criminalisation, and from the dangers of being caught up in the violence and chaos of the drug trade. A market legally regulated by responsible government authorities, combined with redirection of enforcement spending into proven health and prevention programmes for young people, is a better way forward.
- For those young people who do use drugs, criminalisation only serves to further marginalise them, while the criminal control of drug production and supply maximises the dangers associated with drug use – through the sale of risky products, consumed via risky methods in risky environments.
- Effective legal regulation can limit children’s access to drugs better than a market controlled by criminals. For example, in many US states kids find it easier to buy cannabis than beer because of age restrictions.1
- It is not the job of the criminal justice system to send messages on public health, and when it has tried to, it has proved ineffective. Legal regulation, and the control it gives us over availability, packaging and vendors provides far more effective opportunities to send a message to users about the dangers of drug use. Savings from enforcement budgets could also help fund much-needed drug risk education.
- The UN convention on the rights of the child calls for the protection of children, not punishment and criminalisation. The war on drugs neither prevents drug use nor protects children, and the human rights and health approaches implicit in the wider UN discourse should provide guidance on how policy should develop instead.
For more on how legal regulation would protect the young and vulnerable, see Transform's chapter in the book 'Children of the Drug War'.
1 National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University (2009) 'National Survey of American Attitudes on Substance Abuse XIV: Teens and Parents', p. 13.
By prioritising law enforcement goals above all else, human rights have been marginalised in the war on drugs. This has led to widespread and systematic abuses in the treatment of drug users and of others in drug law enforcement more generally. Drug policy, like all policy, should protect, respect and guarantee the exercise of human rights.
Policing and military actions are currently rarely subject to human rights scrutiny and accountability. In many countries, this lack of oversight has created a culture of impunity in which torture, enforced disappearance, rape, executions and other serious violations can become normalised as a way of exercising public authority. The militarisation of policing also tends to increase abuses and further reduce accountability of enforcers.
As conflict situations intensify, the ability of citizens to exercise their rights are progressively undermined. Civil and political rights, economic, social and cultural rights, indigenous and environmental rights have all suffered to varying degrees.
Legal regulation has the potential to help foster a culture where people who use drugs are not subject to discrimination, and other groups most negatively impacted by current policy – such as women, young people, and indigenous and ethnic minority communities – are less likely to be marginalised.
All policy should be grounded in reality and adapt to changing circumstances, but this has not been the case with the war on drugs. Prohibition and its legal structures remain based on puritanical principles aimed at promoting abstinence, principles that are traceable back to the temperance movement in the US. As a result, this model has remained dogmatically unbending, despite the fact that the social landscape has changed beyond recognition in the half-century since the UN drug conventions were drafted.
Unlike the straitjacket of prohibition, a legal regulatory regime could develop a range of responses to the risks that different drugs present. Different models would be piloted and tested, with policy development and implementation based on evidence of effectiveness. Essentially, once control of the drug trade is restored to governments, regulatory frameworks could be changed and updated in response to changing circumstances.
It is important to recognise that models of regulation would not be rolled out for all drugs overnight. It is likely that certain drugs would be legalised and regulated first (probably cannabis) and other drugs phased in over a number of years. Initially, the default position would be to err on the side of stricter regulation, which could then be relaxed only if evidence suggested such a move would be more effective.
Drug law enforcement is extremely poor value for money. It is hugely expensive, fails to deliver its stated goals, and creates additional harms and costs to society, including undermining legitimate business and economic development. The costs of regulating and enforcing any new system of legal drug control would be significant, but relatively tiny compared to current enforcement spending.
Reinvestment of scarce resources into alternative policing priorities or health and social programmes would help deliver the outcomes we all seek. For those who require it, drug treatment conducted within communities has been recognised as being vastly more cost-effective than prison or other punitive measures. One estimate is that every dollar spent on community-based drug treatment results in a return of $18.50 in benefits to society.1
Regulation of drug markets also creates opportunities for generating revenue through taxation. A speculative report by Harvard economist Jeffry Miron estimated that legally regulating drugs in the US would yield roughly $46.7 billion a year in tax revenue, and would save approximately $41 billion a year in government expenditure on the enforcement of prohibition.
1 Justice Policy Institute (2008) 'Substance Abuse Treatment and Public Safety', p. 2.