The Lure of Legal Drugs

In 2001 Portugal, facing one of the most serious drug problems in Europe, decided to decriminalize drug possession, including marijuana, cocaine, and heroin. People caught with small quantities of drugs were no longer sent to prison; they were sent to rehab. Since then, drug use in the country has declined, along with the HIV infection rate from addicts sharing dirty needles. And the number of people seeking drug treatment has soared. Portugal’s drug liberalization has helped re-assimilate problem drug users into society. Meanwhile, in the U.K., the perfectly legal drug khat is being blamed for the continued isolation of the country’s Somali immigrant population. Watch this space for a future discussion of drug decriminalization in the U.S. [%comments]


Momentum on this issue is shifting. The war on drugs was founded on bad science and the evidence in favor of legalization is mounting. People are starting to wake up and marijuana legalization is fast becoming a realistic goal.


A good write up of Portugal's drug situation:


Prohibition is doing exactly what it is supposed to do, increase violence by driving the market underground instead of setting disputes legally in courtrooms and with advertising.


If I've said it once, I've said it a million times (and I'm gonna keep on saying it). I don't use any illegal drugs, and the only legal drugs I use are OTC medication according to direction, and caffeine (I don't drink alcohol either). I think people who need mind altering drugs as a crutch are morons. But I do not believe that it is any of my business if they want to get high, and I certainly don't think they should be punished with jail time.

Will there be some negative social costs to legalization? I'm sure there will be. Will it be the Mad Maxx post-apocalyptic wasteland that many of the drug warriors imply? No. Not even close. Those social costs i mentioned are mitigatable in large part. Prohibition didn't work for alcohol, and it isn't working for illegal drugs.

Cue the drug warriors to start sputtering in 3...2...1..


What's worse, the WHO published a study last year that concluded that "drug use [...] is not simply related to drug policy, since countries with stringent user-level illegal drug policies did not have lower levels of use than countries with liberal ones." If prohibition doesn't do what it's supposed to then why bother?


Note that decriminalizing is quite different than legalizing. For one, the latter means a tax base for the government, and it is easy to control distribution and outlets (and information that helps those who need it get help).
The Khat issue has nothing to do with it being legal. Go to other European countries where it is illegal and there are Somalis (and other Africans from that region) and you see Khat. The difference is no VAT tax, higher prices to the consumers, involvement of gangs, and much harder to prevent underlying crimes (since users will not report to police). Khat and the "mushrooms" (not sure what they are, but that is what they call them in the UK) are how many of those immigrants cope with their situation in those countries. In case you did not notice, other relatively new immigrant groups tend to be isolated and suppressed (and burning cars in France).


This proves what I've started to suspect, if drugs were legalized very few people would want to do them. If you look at alcohol, who wants to be a homeless alcoholic bum waking up in the gutter? Not very many people. But how many people might imagine using drugs whenever they wanted: living like an outlaw, being dangerous and romantic? Having fists full of money, living in mansions, having expensive cars? Quite a few. It's exciting and adventurous. If drugs were legal, drug addicts would just be pathetic losers not romantic outlaws.


"The Lure of Legal Drugs"

Decriminalization does not equate to legalization. I'm all for decriminalizing drugs, but legalization is a different ball game.


I'm willing to bet that this issue is not as simple as either side makes it out to be. The idea that the war on drugs has worked is a crock. The idea that we can know in advance the social costs of how legalization will affect our society is a crock. Each country has a unique legal and cultural structure, and we should be careful comparing how Euro area countries have reacted with how America would react to legalization. Another question, who pays for rehab in these countries? Is it the taxpayer or the addict? Irrespective of your position on these issues I think there is only one right answer here. If you are irresponsible enough to get yourself on addicted, you should pay the price to rehab, not society.


"The idea that we can know in advance the social costs of how legalization will affect our society is a crock."

If only there was a period of time in the United States where it prohibited some other widely available, potentially dangerous drug and then after let's say a decade or so reintroduced the drug. We could look back on this time and see if the dreadful things that the supporters of this policy warned would happen actually did. We could also look back and see what lifting of this policy did to criminal enterprises that profited from the black market sales of this particular drug. (Assuming that one would spring up from said policy, of course.)

Sadly, it seems that no such period exists in the history of the United States.


"This proves what I've started to suspect, if drugs were legalized very few people would want to do them."

This is a fundamentally incorrect conclusion, as evidenced by what has happened in other countries where drugs have been legalized or the authorities have simply turned a blind eye -- in those cases drug use has soared, with all the negative consequences asociated with it.

Where Portugal has succeeded is by decriminalizing use (not sale -- dealer weight will still get you jail), and providing and promoting effective rehab.



I am exactly the opposite!

I am totally against "decriminalization" of drugs, but strongly support legalization and distribution (and TAXING!) of drugs.

Eric M. Jones

I am generally for legalizing drugs, but legalize crystal meth, and crack.....? This is a real problem. I presume there are drugs out there that could be incomparably worse. One might assume that there could be drugs that would simply be ruinous in a single dose (heroin often is). What about them?

I am certain that the societal cost of putting people in prison is much worse than any damge cause by legalization, at least for the "softer" illegal drugs like marijuana.

Love, Peace, Joy...Dude.


Policy makers often ignore the economics of drug use and fail to see that legalising drugs will allow them to regulate and tax the industry.

In Australia at the moment my government is trying to force through the senate an Alcopops tax (a tax on sweet usually vodka based drinks marketed at young female drinkers). What they fail to understand is that an increase in the tax on these drinks will lead to an increase in demand for other non-alcopop drinks (wine, beer). Additionaly, drug dealers are figurtively dancing in the street, if alcopops are too expensive why wouldn't their young customers prefer a night on speed or exstacy? Surprisingly this indirect affect is ignored by the Australian news and in policy debates.


Al is right, its too bad we don't have a time period in our history where a mind altering substance was prohibited, then re-introduced. You can learn a lot from history!
I've never tried anything illegal, but I think if you can grow it, pick it, and try it, it should be allowed. Chemically synthesized drugs seem a lot more dangerous to me, but if you wanna smoke pot and eat shrooms? Have at it.


US Drug policy for the past 30 years has been based on sham science and puritan zealots with complete disregard of empirical evidence. Instead, the anti-drug lobby includes self-interested groups like prison guard unions who want "tough on crime" legislation so they can continue feeding people through America's prison mills.

In the 1970's, Richard Nixon commissioned a group of people, including the director of Sesame Street, to make recommendations on drug policy. The study recommended drug decriminalization --

But Nixon quashed it because he didn't want to appear soft on drugs. Since then, Americans have been deprived of the truth.

Theodoros Giovanni

As a criminologist I would like to oversimplify the whole drug debate.

By criminalising drugs, a government pushes the problem under the carpet, thus increasing criminal activity by increasing the black market price for drugs (due to reduced supply), consequently increasing crime related activity. If drugs are expensive, then more people will commit crimes to obtain money to buy their dose.

By decriminalising drugs, prices fall and criminality related to drugs is reduce, albeit with a small increase in drug use. It depends really what policies a government wishes to pursue.

The similarities between the alcohol prohibition in the US in the 1920's and the related criminality and today's drug problem are astounding. One thing is for certain; if people want to use drugs, and they do, then no law will stand against them.

Matthew R.

No law prevents completely the crime it addresses. Our "war on rape" has been a dismal failure as well, because people still get raped 5000 years after we've passed laws against it. Perhaps we should legalize rape, so it will come out of the shadows and we can tax it.

Our laws are not merely about economic efficacy, but about who we are as a society. Do we want to signal our indifference to people's self-destruction, and incitement to the self-destruction of others?

I support alternative sentencing for users (e.g., no prison time for users, only for dealers). We can make improvements to our current drug law regime without going nuts.


@Matthew R.

Wow, using drugs = rape. Thanks for making everything morally clear.

You are equating a violent act against an unwilling victum, to an act where a willing participant obtains a substance to use for and on themselves. Or, are drug dealers in the habit of firing blowguns filled with narcotics at passerbys on the street to get them hooked? Interesting business model there.

I also don't understand your logic. If we do not "want to signal our indifference to people's self-destruction, and incitement to the self-destruction of others?" , then why should alcohol and nicotine still remain legal? Doesn't that "signal our indifference?".

John Neff

In Portugal they have a three person commission that determines if the accused is a dealer, user/dealer or user.
The dealers are transferred to the criminal justice system, the users are transferred to the civil justice system and where the user/dealers are transferred depends on the circumstances. The commission also supervises the treatment and probation of the persons transferred to civil justice system.

IMHO having a three person commission that considers all available evidence is a vastly superior method for separating dealers from the users than basing the selection on the amount of drugs involved.

In my state it cost $1 million a year to incarcerate 33 prisoners and as a consequence it is a very costly error to incarcerate a user that could be on probation and undergoing treatment in the community instead.