From Moral Issues that Divide Us and Applied Ethics: A Sourcebook


James Fieser




Copyright 2008

Updated: 1/15/2012



1. Overview

2. An Argument for Drug Legalization -- American Civil Liberties Union

3. An Argument Against Drug Legalization -- Donnie R. Marshall





Jeff is a 35 year old drug addict who lives in his mother’s basement. Though he works on and off in construction, he is incapable of holding down a full time job, and whatever he does earn quickly goes into his drug habit, which currently is methamphetamine. His days consist largely of watching TV, hanging around with other meth addicts and getting high. He’s been in and out of jail for drug possession, theft, and disorderly conduct, and he’s been in drug rehabilitation programs 7 times, most of which were part of plea bargain agreements. Since eighth grade he’s been a regular drug user and has sampled most of what’s out there. His exceptional intelligence enabled him to coast through high school and two years of college, but as he became more dependent on drugs he lost interest in even attending class and ultimately dropped out. He was married once, with two children, but after draining the family income and pawning almost everything in their apartment to support his habit, his wife left him with the kids and he hasn’t seen them since. He’s let his appearance go, lost several of his teeth and, now looking almost as old has his mother, it’s been years since he’s been out on a date. In addition to his meth use, he is an alcoholic and smokes heavily, and his prospects for living past his 40s are minimal.

            There is nothing particularly remarkable about Jeff’s story, and in fact it is representative of countless people in our society. In this chapter we will examine the moral issues surrounding drug use, or, more accurately, a subset of drug use specifically involving what are called “recreational drugs”. These are psychoactive drugs (that is, drugs with mind-altering effects) that are taken mainly as a source of pleasure rather than for medical purposes. The most common ones are typically categorized into the following four groups:



The most widely used legal psychoactive drugs are caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine. Our focus here, though, will be primarily on the use of illegal drugs, such as marijuana, cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine.



Psychoactive drugs have been used in society for as far back as history provides us with records. Many are naturally produced in plants and easily accessed by human populations in the regions in which they grow. Just as alcohol plays a key function today in social events, psychoactive drugs from plants have also been incorporated into community celebrations, rites of passage, and religious ceremonies. For better or worse, most societies today that accept or at least tolerate alcohol are reluctant to view other drugs the same way. Alcohol’s widespread acceptance owes in part to the fact that the natural fermentation process occurs everywhere around the world, whereas other psychoactive drugs will grow only in special climates.



It is impossible to discuss the issue of recreational drugs without speaking of the harms associated with them, most of which we all well know from news stories and popular fiction. One immediate type of harm is that to the users themselves. While many drugs can be taken in limited quantities with no ill effects, the cumulative use of many, though, are particularly harmful. In 2007, 38,000 people in the U.S. died from drug induced causes, including overdose, heart attack, organ damage, and even malnutrition. Brain damage is also common. In addition to the immediate health risks of extended drug use, there are also secondary harms, such as sexually transmitted diseases that result from reduced inhibition and poor precautionary judgment. HIV and hepatitis C commonly results from injection drug use. As with Jeff, a life of heavy drug dependency often derails normal human interests in careers, families, and other activities that we typically consider productive. In addition to harm that drugs cause to the users themselves, there is also harm caused to others. Perhaps the most tangible harm to society from drug dependency is the increase in crime that results from users whose drug habit outstrips their legitimate incomes. Muggings and theft are commonly linked with addiction, and women who ordinarily would never consider prostitution often compromise their convictions to support their drug habits. There are the tragic consequences when people under the influence of drugs get behind the wheel of a car or have their judgments impaired in a job that could put people’s lives at risk, such as with physicians or building contractors. There is also the harm that drugs cause to the user’s family: family resources are depleted, children are neglected and even forced by their parents into prostitution or drug running to boost the family income. Many children of drug-addicted parents end up homeless.

            Yet another harm that results from drugs is that involving the illegal drug trade itself. The business of dealing in drugs is a particularly dangerous one, and the high murder rate in large cities owes much to feuding between dealers—disputes over distribution territory, payback for dishonest negotiation, retaliation for the killing of a gang member. The danger also extends to members of the community where dealers do their business. Residents are held hostage to the dangerous drug trade that infiltrates their streets, and pedestrians are often hit with stray gunfire. Young children are routinely recruited for distribution tasks, and weapons make their way into schools. Federal and local governments devote billions in tax dollars to fighting the illegal drug trade, often with minimal success. Prison population is at an all time high, a large percentage of which is drug related, which, again, burdens taxpayers. Spouses and children of the inmates also suffer as they face new financial and domestic problems.

            Alcohol is an unusual drug with a unique set of harms. Alcoholic beverages have been around since ancient cultures, in some places for more than 10,000 years. Its nearly universal availability and acceptance owes in large part to the fact that the alcohol fermentation process occurs naturally in any geographical location. Contrast that with mind-altering drugs, such as marijuana and opium, which grow naturally in only select regions. Although alcoholic beverages have been grandfathered into social acceptance, the harms from alcohol abuse are as severe as those from illicit drugs, and if alcohol was only first discovered today it would likely be banned as a dangerous drug. The harms from alcohol abuse are well known, and they cut across all age and socio-economic groups. A good example is the harm that results from college drinking. In the U.S., nearly 2,000 students die each year from alcohol-related accidents, and another 600,000 are injured. 700,000 students are victims of assault, 100,000 from sexual assault or rape. Alcohol abuse in colleges leads to unsafe sex, academic problems, drunk driving, suicide attempts, and property damage (www.collegedrinkingprevention.gov).



A hallmark of drug use is that it is addictive. The notion of “addiction” is hard to pin down, and it often varies depending on who you ask. The World Health Organization defines drug addiction as follows:


Drug addiction is the state of periodic or chronic intoxication detrimental to the individual and to society, produced by the repeated consumption of a drug (natural or synthetic). Its characteristics include (1) an overpowering desire or need (compulsion) to continue taking the drug and to obtain it by any means (2) a tendency to increase the dosage, and (3) a psychic (psychological) and sometimes physical dependence on the effects of the drug.


A standard legal definition of “drug addict” used in U.S. law is this:


The term “addict” means any person who habitually uses any habit-forming narcotic drugs so as to endanger the public morals, health, safety, or welfare, or who is or has been so far addicted to the use of such habit-forming narcotic drugs as to have lost the power of self-control with reference to his addiction. (U.S. Code, 41.201)


A common distinction is drawn between drugs that are physically addictive and those that are only psychologically addictive. Physically addictive ones are accompanied by severe physiological withdrawal symptoms, whereas psychologically addictive ones lack such symptoms.

            Society has viewed drug addiction in largely two ways: the moral model and the disease model. According to the moral model, addiction is ultimately a matter of personal choice, where users have enough control over their actions to continue or not continue with their addictive behavior. It may be difficult to stop, but with the right will power it can be accomplished. Failure to do so is a moral weakness where users know that their actions are wrong but opt to do them anyway. This is the rationale behind traditional religious views that condemn addictive behaviors as sinful, particularly drunkenness and gluttony.

            By contrast, the disease model of addiction maintains that addiction is no more a matter of choice than having a mental illness like schizophrenia. Biochemical changes within the brain take place and have a permanent affect on users’ drives. Simple willpower is not sufficient to break free of the addiction, and it must be managed in ways similar to how diseases are treated. Some people are particularly prone to addiction for largely genetic reasons, and are sometimes described as having addictive personalities. Otherwise normal people, without this genetic predisposition, still can become addicts when chemical changes within the brain reach a certain threshold, specifically when the brain’s reward center permanently connects a type of behavior with a pleasure response. In either case, even if users can be reprogrammed to resist a particular behavior, the addictive mechanism within the brain is already fixed and they will forever remain addicts.  The disease model of addiction first emerged in the 1940s, and within a few decades it was embraced by both the American Medical Association and the World Health Organization.

            Extreme advocates of the disease model sometimes argue that drug addicts who break the law as result of their addiction, such as by stealing to support a drug habit, should not be punished for their conduct, but instead given therapy. They are in essence broken machines that need to be fixed, not punished. However, many mental health organizations that deal with drug dependency incorporate both the disease and moral models. While there are certainly physiological causes of addiction that cannot be over looked, there is nevertheless an element of moral responsibility that users have to control their addiction and to be accountable for the harms that they’ve caused others through their addiction.


What People Think

While people in the U.S. are reluctant to legalize hard drugs such as heroin, meth and cocaine, attitudes are more lenient when it comes to marijuana, as reflected in the following surveys (conducted October, 23-24, 2002, www.pollingreport.com):


"Do you favor or oppose the legalization of marijuana?"

Favor: 34 %

Oppose: 59 %

Not sure: 7 %


"Assuming marijuana is not legalized, do you think people arrested for possession of small amounts of marijuana should be put in jail, or just have to pay a fine but without serving any time in jail?"

Put in jail: 19%

Just pay a fine: 72%

Both: 2%

Neither: 4%

Not sure: 3%


"Do you think adults should be allowed to legally use marijuana for medical purposes if their doctor prescribes it or do you think that marijuana should remain illegal even for medical purposes?"

Allow medical use: 80%

Illegal even for medical purposes: 17%

Not sure: 3%


"According to statistics, lots of people have tried marijuana at least once. How about you, have you tried marijuana at least once?"

Yes: 47%

No: 50%

Not sure: 3%



The issue of drug use has both a moral and legal dimension. On the one hand, even if drug use is legal, we can ask whether the use of such drugs is immoral. Just because the law permits me to do something doesn’t mean that I should do it—such as smoking or riding a motorcycle without a helmet. On the other hand, even if it is immoral to take drugs, we can still ask whether the use of such drugs should be illegal. The law permits us to do a range of immoral activities, such lying to others or cheating on one’s spouse. While these are things that we shouldn’t do morally speaking, at the same time we don’t want our laws telling us how to conduct our private lives. For the moment, let’s set aside the issue of whether drugs should be illegal and look specifically at whether drug use is immoral. We’ll consider two lines of thought: one based on the pleasure that drugs bring to the user, and another based on the duty to avoid harming oneself and others through drug use.


Drugs and Pleasure: Epicurean and Stoic Arguments

For the sake of argument, let’s set aside the issue of the physical harms that drugs might pose to users and society at large, and assume that you are in a situation in which you could safely take a drug without the problems of overdose, death, drug wars. When trying to understand the moral ramifications of drug use in such safe conditions, the first thing we need to recognize is that the whole purpose of taking recreational drugs is for the pleasure that they produce, and the pursuit of pleasure comes natural to us. By our very nature we are pleasure seeking creatures, and much of what motivates is in life is the drive for pleasures of wide variety. There are pleasures from food, romance, TV, movies, music, art, fashion, literature, travel, sports, games, you name it. Through these activities our brain chemistry is altered in ways that give us unique experiences of pleasure, and through this we step out of our normal routines and escape to a new realm. If we remove pleasures from our lives, then human existence becomes a barren landscape of routine actions that we perform throughout each day as we plod along from birth until death. The Greek philosopher Epicurus (341–270 BCE) argued that pleasure is the centerpiece of human life: “it is from pleasure that we begin every choice and avoidance, and it is also to pleasure that we return, using it as the standard by which we judge every good” (Letter to Menoeceus). Epicurus personally recommended that we only pursue pleasures in moderation. Nevertheless, the larger message of his pleasure-seeking philosophy is that, not only is pursuing pleasures morally permissible, but it is something that we should do. French philosopher Michel Montaigne (1533–1592) argued that the pleasures that we get from excessive drinking are so rewarding that we should “refuse no occasion nor omit any opportunity of drinking, and always have it in our minds” (Essays, “Of Drunkenness”). Recreational drug use is yet one more of the many pleasures available to us, and if we permit these more normal types of escapism, we should also permit drug use.

            As compelling as this Epicurean argument may seem, a rival school of ancient Greek philosophy called Stoicism took an opposing position on the pursuit of pleasure. According to Stoics, we should not actively pursue pleasures of any sort, whether normal ones like food and music, or more artificial ones like drug use. Rather, we should exercise restraint through our lives so that we better cope with the unknown and unpredictable tragedies that life invariably gives us. Indulging in pleasure pampers us too much and gives us unrealistic expectations about what life has in store for us. For Stoics, this would be as true for drugs as it is for any other source of pleasure. But there is a fundamental problem with Stoicism in its most extreme form: it’s rather odd to suggest that we should forego all pleasures to help safeguard us from potential psychological trauma. It’s comparable to how a survivalist might devote all of his resources to building and stockpiling a bunker in his back yard, just in case there’s a nuclear war, viral pandemic, or some similar apocalyptic event. He is sacrificing an otherwise normal life to protect himself from a prospect that may not be nearly as likely or tragic as he envisions. The extreme Stoic recommendation seems overly paranoid and would appeal to only a narrow group of loners who are inclined to lead humorless and somber lives.

            But while we might for good reason dismiss the extreme Stoic stance against pleasure, a more moderate Stoic view is defensible. Many people do overindulge in pleasures of all sorts. A good example of this is society’s ever-growing credit card debt: desires outstrip financial resources, and disaster results. Also, the rise in obesity shows how challenging it can be to keep our culinary desires in check. Restraint is an important counterbalance to our desires, and restraint often involves learning to walk away from pleasures of every type. To combat credit card debt, we may need to just throw out the card and use cash only. To combat obesity, we may need to throw out all unhealthy food in the kitchen, and never buy it again. We thus cure overindulgence by eliminating its source, and this rationale applies all the more to overindulging in recreational drug because of their addictive nature.

            But even when drug use is not addictive, there is something inherently different about drug-related pleasures that may justify Stoic-like restraint. Normal pleasures are very short term, and, if the need arises, we can instantly snap out of our pleasure fantasies to face a more urgent situation. If I’m watching a heart-pounding action movie and then remember that I have a research paper due later that day, I can immediately turn away from it and devote my full attention to the project. By contrast, the mind-altering effect of recreational drugs cannot be turned off at will. We are held hostage to the effects as long as the drug is in our system, and this compromises our ability to act rationally and responsibly. The need to be in control of our minds outweighs the pleasure that we get from mind-altering drugs, and thus we should abstain from them.

            What can we conclude from this contest between Epicureans and Stoics regarding recreational drug use? We can agree with Epicureans that pursuing pleasure is an important component of life, and, at least in theory, recreational drugs could play a part in that. But, along with Stoics, we must recognize that there are liabilities associated with all pleasures due to overindulgence. The situation is made worse with recreational drugs since they have no off switch once we take them. Let’s then enjoy in moderation all the normal pleasures that life offers us, but recognize that this one is different because of the grip it has on our cognitive abilities. This doesn’t necessarily mean that all recreational drug use would be morally wrong, but it does suggest that it requires a level of responsibility that rises above the capacities of many if not most people.


Harm to Oneself

The above discussion about pleasure and recreational drugs assumed that drug use poses no physical harm to the user. But that’s certainly not the case. Regular drug use, as we’ve seen, is associated with a range of harms to the user, such as organ damage, brain damage, and death. While we all recognize the obligation to avoid harming others, within traditional moral philosophy there is an additional obligation to avoid harming oneself. German philosopher Samuel Pufendorf (1632-1694) describes this duty here:


since the mind is upheld by the body, the powers of the body must therefore be strengthened and conserved by suitable food and labors, and not injured by intemperance in eating and drinking, untimely and unnecessary labor, or any other means. Hence one must avoid gluttony, drunkenness, excess in love, and the like. And since disordered and violent passions are not only an incentive to disturb society, but also greatly injure the man himself, one must consequently take pains to restrain one's passions so far as possible. [The Whole Duty of Man, 1.5]


While Pufendorf’s reference to “drunkenness” in the above concerns alcohol—the mind-altering drug of choice in his day—it certainly applies to the recreational drugs that we have at our disposal now. Damage to our bodies through any kind of excess is wrong for the simple reason that our bodies keep our minds alive. We in essence are engaged in suicide when we intentionally reduce our life spans through harmful behavior.

            While the notion of a moral duty to avoid harming oneself was commonplace a few hundred years ago, it is less so now. We do of course recognize that some behaviors are better for us than others, and we all can recite the dos and don’ts of healthy living: we should exercise regularly, eat nutritious meals, and avoid smoking, excessive drinking, and over eating. We also know that, for our own safety, we should wear seatbelts, have smoke detectors in our homes, avoid toxic chemicals, stay away from dangerous parts of town, and see a mental health counselor if we get depressed. While these are all good things for us to do, it’s a little harder to make the case that we are being immoral when we neglect them and engage in self-destructive behavior instead. British philosopher John Stuart Mill (1806–1873) expressed the limitations of duties to oneself here: “The term duty to oneself, when it means anything more than prudence, means self-respect or self-development; and for none of these is anyone accountable to his fellow-creatures, because for none of them is it for the good of mankind that he be held accountable to them” (On Liberty, 4). According to Mill, there is no real moral force behind duties to oneself, other than one’s own conception of self-respect, and that is completely outside the bounds of moral punishment that others might impose on us.

            Our notions of morality today are much more confined to how our behavior impacts other people. I may indeed have a moral obligation to put smoke detectors in my house, but that would be primarily for the protection of my family. I may also have a genuine moral obligation to make healthy lifestyle choices, but, again, that would largely be because of the obligation that I have to not be a burden on my family. When other people are out of the picture, and would in no way be harmed by my actions, am I still under a “moral” obligation to avoid self-destructive behavior? While it may be stupid for me to do such things, it is less clear that it would be immoral. As long as I’m acting freely and not being manipulated by someone, it’s my choice to do stupid things. And the value that we place on the freedom to choose may be stronger than the value that we place on protecting oneself through harm.


Harm to Others

Thus, moral arguments against drug use based purely on harm to oneself are not nearly as compelling today as they used to be. We’d need to show further that drugs create harm to other people. And, as Mill argues, when I infringe on the rules necessary for the protection of others, society “as the protector of all its members” must retaliate on me (ibid). While the moral duty to avoid harming oneself has weakened over time, the moral duty to avoid harming others is as strong today as it ever was in the past. When we survey the harm to others that drug use causes, the harm is considerable. We’ve seen earlier the kinds of damage that drug use can cause to one’s family and society at large. It is the source of many of society’s worst tragedies. Yes, drugs are linked with serious harm. But does that make use of drugs morally wrong for those who can properly control their use of recreational drugs?

            Defenders of drug use argue that it is unfair for responsible people to be morally condemned for the behavior of the irresponsible. With other addictive behaviors—such as hoarding, gaming, or other compulsive past times—we don’t morally condemn them until they reach the point of causing harm to others. Similarly, we shouldn’t condemn people for their use of recreational drugs per se, but only when such use harms others. Thus, it seems wrong to create a moral rule against all recreational drug use merely because some drug abusers are harming others. If you use drugs to the point of harming others, then you are morally blameworthy; but if others aren’t harmed, then the act should be morally permissible. But, from the standpoint of traditional moral theories, this justification of drug use ignores a critical point about how moral rules operate. The same moral rules apply to me, even if they weren’t necessarily created for people like me. Morality is not so much about the potential harm of my actions, but, rather, it is about how much harm a type of behavior causes to society. Aquinas argues that “the line of natural rightness is not drawn to suit the accidental variety of the individual, but the tendencies common to the whole species” (Summa Contra Gentiles, 3.122). What is at issue is whether it is a common tendency within human nature for drug users to become addicts who harm society. It seems that it is. I may personally defy the odds by being a harmless drug user, but that doesn’t matter if the bulk of drug users do harm others.

            That is what traditional moral theorists like Aquinas say on the matter. But in more modern times, greater stress has been placed on the moral values of individual liberty and autonomy. While rules are important guidelines, what is morally required of me is to avoid harming others as I exercise my freedom. I’m morally permitted to take drugs, but I must guard against the harmful effects of my conduct on others. I’m not absolved of my responsibility if I naively think that I can resist drug addiction, but then fall into harmful habits that drag down everyone around me. I’m the bad guy in this case, and appeals to individual liberty will not absolve me of this. But, if I am one of the lucky ones who can defy the odds regarding drug addiction, then liberty is my defense. It remains to be seen whether this more modern view of individual liberty is substantially better than the traditional view of one-size-fits-all moral rules. This same issue arises again with rationales for and against drug legalization, which we turn to next.



Let’s set aside the moral issue of drug use and focus now on the public policy issue. Should some drugs be legalized? What kinds of penalties should be imposed on offenders? How aggressive should law enforcement be in catching drug users and dealers? The key issue regarding the legality of drugs concerns finding the right balance between people’s liberty to make personal choices without governmental interference, and the government’s responsibility to protect society from harms.


Balancing Freedom and Harm

To better understand how the laws need to balance between freedom and harm regarding drugs, consider this thought experiment. Imagine that there was a town called “Buzzville” in which scientists and the local government worked together to eliminate the harmful effects of drug use. Drug companies developed a new generation of recreational drugs that were not harmful to take, and were not addictive—at least no more so than craving some comfort food such as chocolate ice cream. The drugs were also designed so that they’d have no physiological effect when taken by people under 21 years old, thus completely eliminating the risk that the drug trade could pose to minors. If drug users found themselves in situations where they needed to sober up quickly, the mind-altering effects of these drugs could be immediately reversed by swallowing an antidote pill. Cars, heavy machinery and other potentially dangerous things were equipped with safety switches that would disable the unit if it detected the presence of drugs in the user’s breath or sweat. In short, all of the harms of drug use, both to society and the individual, were completely eliminated. Contrast this, now, with a rival town called “Overdoseville” that has only one recreational drug, but it’s as addictive and deadly as heroin. Virtually everyone in the town is addicted to the drug, and society can barely function. Citizens cannot hold down regular jobs, muggings and theft are commonplace, and life-expectancy is age 35 because of the high rate of overdose and health-related problems.

            On the one hand, if an environment like Buzzville ever did become a reality, there would be no obvious grounds for legally prohibiting drugs. The freedom to use drugs would outweigh its harms, since all the harms have been eliminated. On the other hand, if an environment like Overdoesville existed, the harms from drug use would overwhelmingly outweigh the issue of freedom, and there would be compelling grounds to legally prohibit drugs. In fact, governments would be in server violation of its social contract to keep society from collapsing into the state of nature. Our actual society is somewhere in between Buzzville and Overdoseville in terms of the freedom-harm balance of drug use.  The critical question is how close must we get to Buzzville before we should legally permit drugs? There is at least some harm that we can tolerate if the benefits are great enough. A good example of this is our use of automobiles: we enjoy the mobility that our cars give us, but driving is one of the riskiest activities there is. Our society has judged that the personal benefits of automobile use outweigh their harms. Similar reasoning might apply with drug use: if the personal benefit that we derive from recreational drug use is great enough, we may be willing to accept some harms.

            Some European countries have substantially relaxed their drug laws, and the Netherlands is a case in point. While recreational drugs technically remain illegal there, the Dutch have a policy of non-enforcement with “soft drugs” such as marijuana, and users are typically not prosecuted. At the same time, though, the Dutch strictly enforce laws prohibiting drug importation-exportation, and driving under the influence. The U.S., though, is not nearly as lenient as this, and our current assessment is that the harms of drugs outweigh the importance of our freedom to choose. Many morally-charged legal issues in the U.S. are left to individual states to resolve for themselves, such as assisted suicide and capital punishment. With recreational drugs, though, the Federal government has a strict anti-drug policy that umbrellas over the whole country and allows very little wiggle room for individual states.


U.S. Drug Laws

All countries have laws that classify and prohibit specific recreational drugs. In the U.S. this is accomplished with the Controlled Substances Act, first created in 1970, which defines five categories or “schedules” of drugs. The first schedule is the most restrictive and pertains to drugs that meet the following three criteria:



The remaining four categories differ based on their potential for abuse, their legitimate use in medical practice, and their addictive nature. The fifth schedule is the least restrictive and includes drugs that have minimal potential for abuse, accepted medical use, and a low risk of addiction. A good example is cough medicines with small amounts of codeine. In total, over 200 drugs are listed among the five schedules.

            U.S. drug laws are created and administered both by individual states and the federal government. The federal government’s position on drugs is characterized by what it calls the “war on drugs,” a phrase coined in 1971 by President Richard Nixon who described drug abuse as "public enemy number one in the United States." The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) is responsible for establishing “policies, priorities, and objectives for the Nation's drug control program” (www.whitehousedrugpolicy.gov). They identify possible points of disruption along the drug supply line, seek out drug dealers, establish treatment programs for drug users, and have ad campaigns that discourage drug use. One their particularly controversial ad campaigns during the late 1990s involved secretly funding television networks for include anti-drug messages within the plot lines of some of the most popular primetime sit-coms and dramas. The ONDCP would examine the scripts beforehand and suggest changes that would qualify the network for funding. The ONDCP argued that these embedded messages were more effective than normal anti-drug public service commercials, but denied that they dictated any changes in those programs. The ONDCP determines how much of the nation’s drug control efforts should go towards prevention, or treatment, or enforcement. Liberal administrations typically emphasize prevention and treatment more than conservative administrations do, as exemplified in the following statement from the ONDCP during the Obama administration:


Preventing drug use before it begins is a cost-effective, common-sense way to build safe and healthy communities Research on adolescent brain development shows the value of focusing prevention on young people: those who reach the age of 21 without developing an addiction are very unlikely to do so afterward. [National Drug Control Strategy, 2010]


The ONDCP also states that, for many addicts, “brief interventions are not sufficient to promote recovery,” and addiction treatment is effective “only if it is readily available and of high quality” (ibid).

            Amidst governmental efforts to reduce and punish drug use, various organizations advocate the legalization of at least some drugs. A notable example is Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), which consists of police officers and government officials whose mission is “to reduce the multitude of unintended harmful consequences resulting from fighting the war on drugs and to lessen the incidence of death, disease, crime, and addiction by ultimately ending drug prohibition.” One of their advertising slogans is “Drug abuse is bad. The war on drugs is worse.” Other organizations support the strategy of harm reduction: recognizing the inevitability of drug use within society, as a public health policy we should attempt to lessen its harmful effects, rather than wage a war against it. Some harm reduction recommendations include reducing criminal penalties for marijuana use, using methadone to treat withdrawal symptoms from opiate addiction, needle exchange programs, and programs that test the safety of users’ drugs. Switzerland, one of several European countries with harm reduction initiatives, has a legalized heroin program whereby registered heroin addicts can go to government clinics twice a day for injections of the drug, along with required counseling. The program aims to reduce drug crimes, remove addicts from the street and make them more functioning members of society. The U.S. government consistently rejects the adoption of these types of harm reduction strategies.

            Yet another effort towards drug-leniency in this country is the legalization of marijuana for medical purposes. Some medical benefits associated with marijuana are alleviation of chronic pain, alleviation of nausea for chemotherapy patients and others with AIDS, tremor relief for people with multiple sclerosis, and reduction in epileptic seizures. The U.S. government’s position on this, though, is twofold. On the one hand, they acknowledge that there is some proven medical benefit to the chemical THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, and this drug is currently available by prescription in pill or patch form under the brand name “marinol”. On the other hand, though, they maintain that smoking marijuana is not an effective delivery system for THC since dosage cannot be controlled and marijuana smoke has dangerous secondary chemicals. Medical marijuana advocacy, they argue, is just a ploy to help legalize marijuana for recreational use. In spite of the U.S. government’s ban on medical marijuana, in 1996 California voters passed a state-wide ballot initiative called the “Compassionate Use Act” which allows patients, with their physician’s approval, to possess or grow small amounts of marijuana for medical purposes. Since over a dozen other states have legalized medical marijuana. But the U.S. government did not back down in their stand against such medical use, and twice the U.S. Supreme Court sided with the federal government against California. In the most recent of these, Gonzales v. Raich (2005), the Court stated that the federal government has a reasonable basis for believing that locally grown medical marijuana could be channeled into the illegal drug trade. However, one Supreme Court Justice, in a dissenting opinion, argued that California’s Compassionate Use Act is a justifiable social experiment to test the viability of medical marijuana within the confines of that particular state, without causing risk to the rest of the country.

            Most recently, two states, Colorado and Washington, have enacted laws that legalize marijuana for recreational use. Like medical marijuana, however, this also places those two states in direct conflict with the U.S. government’s ban on any sale or possession of marijuana.


U.S. Alcohol Laws

The manufacture, sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages are restricted in some measure in every country throughout the world. Some conservative Muslim countries have outright bans. Those that permit alcoholic beverages typically regulate their sale and distribution, and restrict consumers based on age, public usage, and motor vehicle operation. The story of alcohol prohibition in the U.S. is well-known. Under pressure from the temperance movement to reduce crime, poverty and disease from drinking, 1919 Congress ratified the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution which prohibited the sale, manufacture, and transportation of alcoholic beverages nationwide. While consumption of alcohol was not banned, per se, the aim of the legislation was to severely curtail it by making such beverages difficult to obtain. The effect of the law, though, was catastrophic, with increases in drinking, bootlegging, violent crime, and law enforcement corruption. In a 1926 Senate committee hearing on the effects of prohibition, one witness stated the following:


Nothing is and nothing could be more certain, from all the evidence, than that prohibition is an unqualified failure and a colossal calamity to the Nation. Whatever promotes drunkenness and drug addiction and all forms of intemperance also promotes crime of every kind. We have the unimpeachable evidence of our senses that certainly more than half the crimes and misdemeanors perpetrated throughout the land and sensationally featured and headlined in the newspapers are crimes which are the result of prohibition. [Hiram Maxim, Senate Judiciary subcommittee on “The National Prohibition Law” April 5-24, 1926]


Prohibition ended in 1933 with the ratification of the Constitution’s twenty-first amendment, which repealed the eighteenth amendment. Nevertheless, the twenty-first amendment grants broad powers to States regarding the distribution and sale of alcoholic beverages, and until 1966 Mississippi remained a completely dry state. Today 33 states delegate authority to local counties or municipalities to ban or restrict the alcohol sale.

            Since the end of prohibition, all States follow what is called the three-tiered system of alcohol distribution: alcohol producers can sell only to licensed alcohol distributors, and, in turn, only the distributors can sell to licensed retailers. Producers such as breweries cannot sell directly to grocery retailers or to individual consumers. The system’s purpose is to provide limited access to alcoholic beverages and thus promote moderation in drinking. It also helps ensure that alcoholic beverages are not sold to minors, and it provides a simple method for alcohol tax collection. As a whole, the system helps set the price of alcoholic beverages at the right level: if the price is too cheap, then people will drink too much, and if too expensive they will bootleg. As one alcohol distributor puts it, “The best method of regulating alcohol does not necessarily come at the greatest convenience or lowest cost for individual consumers. However, it does ensure that consumers have appropriate access to alcohol at the lowest cost to society and with the least harm to its members” (www.mndistributors.com).

            The three-tiered system has recently come under attack from thousands of small wineries and microbreweries throughout the country who feel that their businesses could be improved by selling directly to retailers and consumers, skipping entirely the restrictive distribution process. Ending the system, they argue, would result in increased jobs for the small businesses, and lower costs and greater variety for consumers. The system benefits no one but the alcohol distributors who want to retain a monopoly over the country’s supply of alcoholic beverages. Critics of the three-tiered system have sued many States for discriminatory regulations: such States allow in-state wineries to distribute directly to retailers, but do not allow this for out-of-state wineries. These States in essence set aside the three-tiered system for their own wineries, but impose the three-tiered system on out of state ones. What would happen if we eliminated the three-tiered system that we have today? According to Pamela S. Erickson, a defender of the three-tiered system, we have only to look at the United Kingdom to see how alcoholic beverage deregulation has affected them. Over a four-decade period, the U.K. has incrementally deregulated alcohol to where it is available any time of day during the week in all varieties of bars and stores. It is now 70% more affordable and “the marketplace is flooded with cheap alcohol that has encouraged people to drink.” The social consequences of this deregulation have been unfortunate:


Hospital admissions for alcohol liver disease and acute intoxication have doubled over just 10 years. Underage drinking rates are twice what ours are. Problems around bars and clubs are so severe in London that London has two buses equipped as field hospitals to take care of people who have been victims of alcohol-fueled violence or alcohol intoxication every weekend. [Pamela Erickson, U.S. House Judiciary subcommittee hearing on “Legal Issues Concerning State Alcohol Regulation,” March 18, 2010]


In the U.S., changing the three-tiered system is a multifaceted issue. It puts the interests of small wine producers against distributors, private industry against governmental regulation, and, most importantly, profit against public health.



The Conservative Position

The conservative position on recreational drugs is that their use is both immoral and should remain illegal. The chief arguments for the conservative position are these.

            1. Harm to society. There are serious harms to society from drug use, as we’ve already seen, including increases in murder, theft and prostitution. It is, in fact, one of the leading sources of crime in society. A criticism of this argument is that much of the harm associated with recreational drug use is the result of it being illegal to begin with. If drugs were made legal, the illegal drug trade and the evils associated with them would disappear, as happened with organized crime in the U.S. when alcohol prohibition was repealed in 1933. While some of the harder drugs would have other harms associated with them, social harm from softer drugs would likely be very minimal.

            2. Harm to user’s health. Drugs adversely affect the user’s health, and we have an obligation to avoid unnecessary harm to our bodies, such as that which is caused by regular drug use. A criticism of this argument is that harm to oneself is often a byproduct of exercising one’s freedom, such as with playing dangerous sports or simply driving in a car. While it’s good to reduce harms to oneself when we can, eliminating all such harms would seriously curtail our freedom to act as we like and try out different hobbies, careers and lifestyles.

            3. Decrease in user’s motivation. Drugs adversely affect the user’s motivation to be a productive citizen. We have an obligation to ourselves and society to develop our talents and be productive citizens in some way. But the pleasures of drug use, even with less addictive ones, often eclipse the ordinary sense of enjoyment and satisfaction that we might get from learning new skills and creating a better society. A criticism of this argument is that the same rationale applies to other recreational diversions, such as watching mindless TV sitcoms that waste huge amounts of time and sap our motivation to do something more useful. We all can’t be obsessively high-energy and productive people, and there is something to be said for living a relaxed and laidback life, if that’s what we so choose.


The Liberal Position

The liberal position on recreational drugs is that the less harmful and addictive ones are morally permissible and should be legalized. Here are the main arguments for that position.

            1. Autonomy: drug use should be a matter for individuals to decide for themselves, so long as their use of drugs does not negatively impact others. In a free society, the presumption is that individuals should be at liberty to make their own choices, even when their decisions are not always the smartest or safest ones for themselves. The only restriction should be whether the individual’s actions cause significant harm to others. The use of recreational drugs is a case in point. A criticism of this argument is that most recreational drug use does have a serious negative impact on society. Marijuana and perhaps a few others might be exceptions, but the most addictive ones result in great harms. Further, addiction to drugs compromises a person ability to make free choices, and thus undermines autonomy.

            2. Pleasure: recreational drugs provide a great source of pleasure to people, and this counterbalances the harm to themselves. Many of the decisions that we make in life involve balancing pleasures with potential pains. If the pleasure is great enough, we will accept the risk. So too with recreational drugs: while users might be at risk of some harm, they may accept this in exchange for the pleasure benefits. A criticism of this argument is that few peoples’ lives are completely isolated, and there are almost always family members who are secondary victims to the harm that drug users bring on themselves. Children are particularly vulnerable to this. Because of drug use, parents might have less money for their children’s needs and be less motivated to focus on their children’s wellbeing than their own happiness. Even drug-using college students with no kids might negatively impact their future careers by squandering their present educational opportunities, which ultimately affects their future families.

            3. Cultural tradition: the use of mind-altering substances has been an important part of human culture. This is particularly evident with the role that alcohol has played throughout history: it pacifies us when sad, heightens enjoyment when happy, and is incorporated into many of our celebrations. While alcohol is the poster-child for the value we place on mind-altering substances, recreational drugs can and do perform that same function. A criticism of this argument is that society needs to draw a line somewhere regarding the various mind-altering substances that it will embrace as acceptable parts of cultural tradition. Heroin and meth, for example, will never gain acceptance because of how addictive and harmful they are. While other mind-altering drugs are similar to alcohol in their effects, they nevertheless don’t have a long history of acceptance, and society appears reluctant to move the line of acceptance beyond alcohol.


A Moderate Compromise

There’s a famous expression that “I may not like what you say, but I will defend your right to say it.” To some extent this intuition applies to how we behave as well as what we say. We may not always like the choices that people make in their lives, but we should acknowledge a person’s freedom to make those choices. We already grant this when it comes to alcohol use. So why not with other drugs too? There are good reasons for society to restrict the use of highly addictive drugs because of the harm they cause to society (independent of the harm that results from the illegal drug trade itself). If there is any room for compromise, it would be with softer drugs like marijuana. Even for these, though, full legalization would be too dramatic, and, instead, a first step might be to replace criminal penalties with civil ones, such as a fine similar to a traffic offense. Several U.S. cities have already considered taking this approach.




American Civil Liberties Union


Founded in 1917, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has as its mission to "defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to every person ... by the Constitution and laws of the United States." The ACLU takes stands on many morally controversial issues and often enters into legal battles in those areas. Among its positions, the ACLU supports abortion rights, gay rights and affirmative action. It also opposes capital punishment and government sponsored religious symbols or activities. On the issue of drug laws, the ACLU maintains that recreational drug use should be decriminalized – including marijuana, cocaine and heroin. In the selections below, they argue that the question hinges on the harm that drugs pose to others, not on the harm that it poses to users themselves. On balance, they maintain, more public harm is done through criminalization than would occur through a responsible system of decriminalization. It is costly and ineffective; it creates public health problems, gangsterism, an explosion in the number of nonviolent prisoners. It also as a devastating effect on African- American and Latino communities.



More and more ordinary people, elected officials, newspaper columnists, economists, doctors, judges and even the Surgeon General of the United States are concluding that the effects of our drug control policy are at least as harmful as the effects of drugs themselves.

            After decades of criminal prohibition and intensive law enforcement efforts to rid the country of illegal drugs, violent traffickers still endanger life in our cities, a steady stream of drug offenders still pours into our jails and prisons, and tons of cocaine, heroin and marijuana still cross our borders unimpeded. 

            The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) opposes criminal prohibition of drugs. Not only is prohibition a proven failure as a drug control strategy, but it subjects otherwise law-abiding citizens to arrest, prosecution and imprisonment for what they do in private. In trying to enforce the drug laws, the government violates the fundamental rights of privacy and personal autonomy that are guaranteed by our Constitution. The ACLU believes that unless they do harm to others, people should not be punished -- even if they do harm to themselves. There are better ways to control drug use, ways that will ultimately lead to a healthier, freer and less crime-ridden society. 


Currently Illegal Drugs have not Always been Illegal

During the Civil War, morphine (an opium derivative and cousin of heroin) was found to have pain-killing properties and soon became the main ingredient in several patent medicines. In the late 19th century, marijuana and cocaine were put to various medicinal uses -- marijuana to treat migraines, rheumatism and insomnia, and cocaine to treat sinusitis, hay fever and chronic fatigue. All of these drugs were also used recreationally, and cocaine, in particular, was a common ingredient in wines and soda pop -- including the popular Coca Cola. 

            At the turn of the century, many drugs were made illegal when a mood of temperance swept the nation. In 1914, Congress passed the Harrison Act, banning opiates and cocaine. Alcohol prohibition quickly followed, and by 1918 the U.S. was officially a "dry" nation. That did not mean, however, an end to drug use. It meant that, suddenly, people were arrested and jailed for doing what they had previously done without government interference. Prohibition also meant the emergence of a black market, operated by criminals and marked by violence. 

            In 1933, because of concern over widespread organized crime, police corruption and violence, the public demanded repeal of alcohol prohibition and the return of regulatory power to the states. Most states immediately replaced criminal bans with laws regulating the quality, potency and commercial sale of alcohol; as a result, the harms associated with alcohol prohibition disappeared. Meanwhile, federal prohibition of heroin and cocaine remained, and with passage of the Marijuana Stamp Act in 1937 marijuana was prohibited as well. Federal drug policy has remained strictly prohibitionist to this day. 


Decades of Drug Prohibition: A History of Failure 

Criminal prohibition, the centerpiece of U.S. drug policy, has failed miserably. Since 1981, tax dollars to the tune of $150 billion have been spent trying to prevent Columbian cocaine, Burmese heroin and Jamaican marijuana from penetrating our borders. Yet the evidence is that for every ton seized, hundreds more get through. Hundreds of thousands of otherwise law abiding people have been arrested and jailed for drug possession. Between 1968 and 1992, the annual number of drug-related arrests increased from 200,000 to over 1.2 million. One-third of those were marijuana arrests, most for mere possession. 

            The best evidence of prohibition's failure is the government's current war on drugs. This war, instead of employing a strategy of prevention, research, education and social programs designed to address problems such as permanent poverty, long term unemployment and deteriorating living conditions in our inner cities, has employed a strategy of law enforcement. While this military approach continues to devour billions of tax dollars and sends tens of thousands of people to prison, illegal drug trafficking thrives, violence escalates and drug abuse continues to debilitate lives. Compounding these problems is the largely unchecked spread of the AIDS virus among drug-users, their sexual partners and their offspring. 

            Those who benefit the most from prohibition are organized crime barons, who derive an estimated $10 to $50 billion a year from the illegal drug trade. Indeed, the criminal drug laws protect drug traffickers from taxation, regulation and quality control. Those laws also support artificially high prices and assure that commercial disputes among drug dealers and their customers will be settled not in courts of law, but with automatic weapons in the streets. 


Drug Prohibition is a Public Health Menace 

Drug prohibition promises a healthier society by denying people the opportunity to become drug users and, possibly, addicts. The reality of prohibition belies that promise. 

            No quality control. When drugs are illegal, the government cannot enact standards of quality, purity or potency. Consequently, street drugs are often contaminated or extremely potent, causing disease and sometimes death to those who use them. 

            Dirty needles. Unsterilized needles are known to transmit HIV among intravenous drug users. Yet drug users share needles because laws prohibiting possession of drug paraphernalia have made needles a scarce commodity. These laws, then, actually promote epidemic disease and death. In New York City, more than 60 percent of intravenous drug users are HIV positive. By contrast, the figure is less than one percent in Liverpool, England, where clean needles are easily available. 

            Scarce treatment resources. The allocation of vast sums of money to law enforcement diminishes the funds available for drug education, preventive social programs and treatment. As crack use rose during the late 1980s, millions of dollars were spent on street-level drug enforcement and on jailing tens of thousands of low level offenders, while only a handful of public drug treatment slots were created. An especially needy group -- low-income pregnant women who abused crack -- often had no place to go at all because Medicaid would not reimburse providers. Instead, the government prosecuted and jailed such women without regard to the negative consequences for their children. 


Drug Prohibition creates more Problems than it Solves 

Drug prohibition has not only failed to curb or reduce the harmful effects of drug use, it has created other serious social problems. 

            Caught in the crossfire. In the same way that alcohol prohibition fueled violent gangsterism in the 1920s, today's drug prohibition has spawned a culture of drive-by shootings and other gun-related crimes. And just as most of the 1920s violence was not committed by people who were drunk, most of the drug-related violence today is not committed by people who are high on drugs. The killings, then and now, are based on rivalries: Al Capone ordered the executions of rival bootleggers, and drug dealers kill their rivals today. A 1989 government study of all 193 "cocaine-related" homicides in New York City found that 87 percent grew out of rivalries and disagreements related to doing business in an illegal market. In only one case was the perpetrator actually under the influence of cocaine. 

            A Nation of Jailers. The "lock 'em up" mentality of the war on drugs has burdened our criminal justice system to the breaking point. Today, drug-law enforcement consumes more than half of all police resources nationwide, resources that could be better spent fighting violent crimes like rape, assault and robbery. 

            The recent steep climb in our incarceration rate has made the U.S. the world's leading jailer, with a prison population that now exceeds one million people, compared to approximately 200,000 in 1970. Nonviolent drug offenders make up 58 percent of the federal prison population, a population that is extremely costly to maintain. In 1990, the states alone paid $12 billion, or $16,000 per prisoner. While drug imprisonments are a leading cause of rising local tax burdens, they have neither stopped the sale and use of drugs nor enhanced public safety. 

            Not Drug Free -- Just Less Free. We now have what some constitutional scholars call "the drug exception to the Bill of Rights." Random drug testing without probable cause, the militarization of drug law enforcement, heightened wiretapping and other surveillance, the enactment of vaguely worded loitering laws and curfews, forfeiture of people's homes and assets, excessive and mandatory prison terms -- these practices and more have eroded the constitutional rights of all Americans. 


Prohibition is a Destructive Force in Inner City Communities 

Inner city communities suffer most from both the problem of drug abuse and the consequences of drug prohibition. 

            Although the rates of drug use among white and non-white Americans are similar, African Americans and other racial minorities are arrested and imprisoned at higher rates. For example, according to government estimates only 12 percent of drug users are black, but nearly 40 percent of those arrested for drug offenses are black. Nationwide, one-quarter of all young African American men are under some form of criminal justice supervision, mostly for drug offenses. This phenomenon has had a devastating social impact in minority communities. Moreover, the abuse of drugs, including alcohol, has more dire consequences in impoverished communities where good treatment programs are least available. 

            Finally, turf battles and commercial disputes among competing drug enterprises, as well as police responses to those conflicts, occur disproportionately in poor communities, making our inner cities war zones and their residents the war's primary casualties. 


Drugs are Here to Stay -- Let's Reduce their Harm 

The universality of drug use throughout human history has led some experts to conclude that the desire to alter consciousness, for whatever reasons, is a basic human drive. People in almost all cultures, in every era, have used psychoactive drugs. Native South Americans take coca-breaks the way we, in this country, take coffee-breaks. Native North Americans use peyote and tobacco in their religious ceremonies the way Europeans use wine. Alcohol is the drug of choice in Europe, the U.S. and Canada, while many Muslim countries tolerate the use of opium and marijuana. 

            A "drug free America" is not a realistic goal, and by criminally banning psychoactive drugs the government has ceded all control of potentially dangerous substances to criminals. Instead of trying to stamp out all drug use, our government should focus on reducing drug abuse and prohibition-generated crime. This requires a fundamental change in public policy: repeal of criminal prohibition and the creation of a reasonable regulatory system. 


Ending Prohibition Would not Necessarily Increase Drug Abuse 

While it is impossible to predict exactly how drug use patterns would change under a system of regulated manufacture and distribution, the iron rules of prohibition are that 1) illegal markets are controlled by producers, not consumers, and 2) prohibition fosters the sale and consumption of more potent and dangerous forms of drugs. 

            During alcohol prohibition in the 1920s, bootleggers marketed small bottles of 100-plus proof liquor because they were easier to conceal than were large, unwieldy kegs of beer. The result: Consumption of beer and wine went down while consumption of hard liquor went up. Similarly, contemporary drug smugglers' preference for powdered cocaine over bulky, pungent coca leaves encourages use of the most potent and dangerous cocaine products. In contrast, under legal conditions, consumers -- most of whom do not wish to harm themselves -- play a role in determining the potency of marketed products, as indicated by the popularity of today's light beers, wine coolers and decaffeinated coffees. Once alcohol prohibition was repealed, consumption increased somewhat, but the rate of liver cirrhosis went down because people tended to choose beer and wine over the more potent, distilled spirits previously promoted by bootleggers. So, even though the number of drinkers went up, the health risks of drinking went down. The same dynamic would most likely occur with drug legalization: some increase in drug use, but a decrease in drug abuse. 

            Another factor to consider is the lure of forbidden fruit. For young people, who are often attracted to taboos, legal drugs might be less tempting than they are now. That has been the experience of The Netherlands: After the Dutch government decriminalized marijuana in 1976, allowing it to be sold and consumed openly in small amounts, usage steadily declined -- particularly among teenagers and young adults. Prior to decriminalization, 10 percent of Dutch 17- and 18-year-olds used marijuana. By 1985, that figure had dropped to 6.5 percent. 

            Would drugs be more available once prohibition is repealed? It is hard to imagine drugs being more available than they are today. Despite efforts to stem their flow, drugs are accessible to anyone who wants them. In a recent government-sponsored survey of high school seniors, 55 percent said it would be "easy" for them to obtain cocaine, and 85 percent said it would be "easy" for them to obtain marijuana. In our inner-cities, access to drugs is especially easy, and the risk of arrest has proven to have a negligible deterrent effect. What would change under decriminalization is not so much drug availability as the conditions under which drugs would be available. Without prohibition, providing help to drug abusers who wanted to kick their habits would be easier because the money now being squandered on law enforcement could be used for preventive social programs and treatment. 


What the United States would Look Like after Repeal 

Some people, hearing the words "drug legalization," imagine pushers on street corners passing out cocaine to anyone -- even children. But that is what exists today under prohibition. Consider the legal drugs, alcohol and tobacco: Their potency, time and place of sale and purchasing age limits are set by law. Similarly, warning labels are required on medicinal drugs, and some of these are available by prescription only. 

            After federal alcohol prohibition was repealed, each state developed its own system for regulating the distribution and sale of alcoholic beverages. The same could occur with currently illegal drugs. For example, states could create different regulations for marijuana, heroin and cocaine. 

            Ending prohibition is not a panacea. It will not by itself end drug abuse or eliminate violence. Nor will it bring about the social and economic revitalization of our inner cities. However, ending prohibition would bring one very significant benefit: It would sever the connection between drugs and crime that today blights so many lives and communities. In the long run, ending prohibition could foster the redirection of public resources toward social development, legitimate economic opportunities and effective treatment, thus enhancing the safety, health and well-being of the entire society. 



With our history of racial injustice, the United States cannot and should not tolerate laws that systematically target communities of color. Yet, this is precisely the outcome of the current War on Drugs. Even though drugs remain as available as ever, we are continuing policies that have a devastating effect on African- American and Latino communities. The time has come to reverse course in a disastrous, ineffective, and racist war on drugs. 


Who’s Who in the Criminal Justice System.

Today, black males have a 29% chance of serving time in prison at some point in their lives, Latino males have a 16% chance, and white males have a 4% chance.1 Even though whites outnumber blacks five to one and both groups use and sell drugs at similar rates,2 African-Americans comprise:


• 35% of those arrested for drug possession;

• 55% of those convicted for drug possession; and

• 74% of those imprisoned for drug possession.3


            This skewed enforcement of drug laws has a devastating impact. One in three black men between the ages of 20 and 29 are currently either on probation, parole, or in prison. One in five black men have been convicted of a felony. In seven states, between 80% and 90% of prisoners serving time for drug offenses are black.4

            The statistics for the Latino population are equally disturbing. Latinos comprise 12.5% of the population5 and use and sell drugs less than whites,6 yet they accounted for 46% of those charged with a federal drug offense in 1999.7  How Did We Get Here?

            Historically, people of color have been a primary target of anti-drug policies and rhetoric. Beginning in the early 1900s, drug warriors invoked the image of black men high on drugs to pass the nation’s earliest drug laws.8 By 1930, 16 western states prohibited marijuana as a way to target the growing Mexican community that had flooded the U.S. job market.9 In 1951, the Boggs Act established stringent narcotics penalties in response to the threat of “communist opium” from Asia.10 In 1973, with a mandate from the public to “get tough on crime,” New York enacted the Rockefeller drug laws, requiring severe prison terms for drug crimes regardless of circumstance. A quarter century later, 94% of all people in prison in New York state on drug charges are black or Latino.11

            By the 1980s, the link between minorities, drugs, and crime was firmly cemented in American rhetoric and embodied in President Reagan’s revamped “War on Drugs.” Media hysteria about an unsubstantiated crack epidemic amongst blacks prompted Congress to pass draconian mandatory minimum sentencing laws against crack cocaine. Penalties against powder cocaine – the same drug but typically associated with white users – remained relatively light. Even though most crack users and dealers are white, this “crack equals black” formula distorted prosecutions. By 2001, over 80% of federal crack defendants were black.12


• Possession of 500 grams of powder cocaine results in a 5-year prison term.

• Possession of 5 grams of crack cocaine results in a 5-year prison term.13


            Law enforcement practices fuel racial inequalities in the criminal justice system. Over the years, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has helped train police to profile highway travelers for potential drug couriers.14 This profile is based on associating people of color with crime, creating a phenomenon known as “driving while black or brown.” In Maryland, for instance, although only 21% of drivers along a stretch of Interstate 95 are minorities including blacks, Latinos, Asians, and others, 80% of those who are pulled over and searched are people of color.15 In California, between 80% and 90% of all motorists arrested by law enforcement officials since 1991 have been members of minority groups.16 These statistics are not the product of chance, but of purpose and can be found throughout the country.

            But racial profiling is not just limited to our highways. In 1998, 51,000 people were selected for body searches ranging from hand frisks to strip-searches by immigration officials at customs checkpoints. 96% of those searches yielded nothing; twothirds of the people selected were black or Latino.17

            On the streets of our cities, young minorities are routinely stopped for Terry frisks, named after a Supreme Court ruling stating that police do not need a warrant or even probable cause to stop and search individuals as long as there exists a reasonable cause for suspicion. In New York City, between 1998 and 1999, the police recorded 45,000 such stops, 35,000 of which yielded nothing. Two-thirds of the people selected were black and Latino.18

            A very clear incentive exists for police departments to engage in racial profiling. Civil asset forfeiture laws allow police to seize and sell property without proving its guilt and keep a portion of the assets for themselves. In fact, police departments are now dependent on forfeiture revenues in order to match funds for federal grants and for regular operational costs, including the salaries of the very police officers that are responsible for the seizures.19 By targeting minority communities whose voices and political power are marginalized, law enforcement agencies can exploit the power of forfeiture without many Americans ever learning of the practice.

            In addition to these practices, overzealous local prosecutors and judges with minimal discretion in the sentencing process exacerbate the situation.  Texas, for instance, has seen many racial exploits related to the War on Drugs. In the rural town of Tulia in 1999, 12% of the adult male African-American population was arrested on drug charges based solely on the word of an undercover officer who offered no hard evidence. In 2000, 15% of young black males in the town of Hearne were arrested in a drug sweep based solely on the word of an informant who had agreed to implicate targeted individuals. All of these men were innocent. Just one year later, dozens of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans were arrested in what has been dubbed as the “Dallas Sheetrock Scandal.” Tests later showed that some of drugs in question were really ground-up sheet-rock, planted by informants.20


Women and Children

Women as mothers, girlfriends, wives, and individuals are especially vulnerable to drug war injustices. Many women are coerced into the drug trade by a boyfriend or husband, often play only a small role, but then receive the same harsh prison terms. Between 1986 and 1996, the number of women incarcerated for drug offenses increased 888%.21 Overwhelmingly, most of these women come from poor backgrounds: 80% of imprisoned women report incomes of less than $2000 in the year before the arrest.22

            Minority women are especially targeted by drug war policies while pregnant or parenting. Black women during pregnancy, for instance, are 10 times more likely to be drug tested or reported to child welfare agencies than white women. Before this practice was struck down by the Supreme Court, one public hospital in South Carolina selectively drug tested pregnant black women and reported positive tests to police who then arrested them, forcing many to give birth in shackles before taking them to jail.23

            The effects drug war policies have on children are devastating. Today, 1.6 million children have a father in prison and 200,000 children have a mother in prison. Black children are nearly 9 times more likely, and Latino children 3 times more likely to have a parent in prison than white children.24 Children, too, are trapped within the criminal justice system. Though youth of all races use and sell drugs at similar rates, minority youth represent 60% to 75% of drug arrests today. In fact, black youth are incarcerated 25 times the rate of white youth; Latino youth, 13 times the rate of their white counterparts.25


Collateral Consequences

The War on Drugs does more than fill our prisons. Drug war policies permeate every facet of life, including health, welfare, education, housing, and voting. The constant emphasis on punishment exacts a high price from minority populations and traps them in a vicious cycle of incarceration, addiction, and helplessness with little compassion or assistance from the government. Today, HIV/AIDS is one of the leading causes of death for blacks and Latinos aged 25 to 44. Nearly half of AIDS cases among blacks and Latinos are related to dirty needles,26 while 59% of AIDS cases in children result from a parent using an infected needle.27 Instead of implementing harm reduction policies like needle exchanges that prevent the spread of AIDS, the federal government blocks funding for such measures and states like New Jersey arrest anyone attempting to provide clean injection equipment.

            In 2000, government estimates placed the number of drug users requiring treatment at 4.7 million but only 16.6% of this group received treatment.28 Over the past 8 years, treatment has comprised barely 20% of the total drug control budget, while domestic law enforcement represents more than 50% of the budget.29

            In areas of welfare and education, punitive drug war policies deny government aid to those looking to improve their lives after a drug conviction. The 1996 Welfare Reform Act imposed a lifetime ban on welfare assistance to anyone convicted of a drug felony. This ban has endangered the ability of low-income parents and their children to meet their basic needs, including shelter, food, job training, education, and drug treatment.30 The 1998 amendments to the Higher Education Act deny or delay federal financial aid to anyone convicted of a drug offense. Meanwhile, there are five times as many black men in prison as in four-year colleges and universities. As with the Welfare Reform Act, no other offense, not even murder or rape, results in the loss of aid.31

            In 2002, the Supreme Court ruled that public housing authorities could evict an entire family if someone in the household or a guest used drugs, even if the others knew nothing about it or tried to stop it.32 These innocent people can now lose their homes as well as their housing assistance, effectively rendering them homeless in communities where affordable housing is scarce.

            In most states, the very people affected by these policies are the ones without a political voice. Due to felony disenfranchisement laws, an individual who is convicted of a felony can lose his or her right to vote, and in some states, the disenfranchisement is permanent. Across the nation, 13% of all adult black men have lost their right to vote, with rates reaching a staggering 40% of adult black men in some states.33 



These are the grim realities of the War on Drugs. They are staged on a battlefield where the heaviest casualties are people of color. Instead of continuing these destructive policies that ultimately tear the fabric of our society, it is time to rethink and reassess the effectiveness and purpose of our current drug policies. 



For notes to this article and hyperlinked sources, see “publications” at http://www.aclu.org/drugpolicy/


Source: ACLU, “Against Drug Prohibition” (1995), “Race and the War on Drugs” (2003), reprinted by permission of the American Civil Liberties Union.






Donnie R. Marshall


Donnie R. Marshall was Deputy Administrator for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the federal agency responsible for suppressing the sale of recreational drugs. In this essay, Marshall defends the current U.S. policy which makes the sale and use of such drugs illegal. He argues that there are four likely outcomes to legalizing drugs. First, it would boost drug use since increased supply would create new demands. Second, it would contribute to a rise in crime because of the mood-altering effects of drugs. Third, it would increase social problems such as overdoses, accidents, theft and domestic violence. Fourth, it would create serious problems for law enforcement, particularly with under aged people. Marshall believes that drug enforcement works and we should not back off on our current policies.


I would like to discuss what I believe would happen if drugs were legalized. I realize that much of the current debate has been over the legalization of so-called medical marijuana. But I suspect that medical marijuana is merely the first tactical maneuver in an overall strategy that will lead to the eventual legalization of all drugs.

            Whether all drugs are eventually legalized or not, the practical outcome of legalizing even one, like marijuana, is to increase the amount of usage among all drugs. It's been said that you can't put the genie back in the bottle or the toothpaste back in the tube. I think those are apt metaphors for what will happen if America goes down the path of legalization. Once America gives into a drug culture, and all the social decay that comes with such a culture, it would be very hard to restore a decent civic culture without a cost to America's civil liberties that would be prohibitively high.

            There is a huge amount of research about drugs and their effect on society, here and abroad. I'll let others better acquainted with all of the scholarly literature discuss that research. What I will do is suggest four probable outcomes of legalization and then make a case why a policy of drug enforcement works.



The first outcome of legalization would be to have a lot more drugs around, and, in turn, a lot more drug abuse. I can't imagine anyone arguing that legalizing drugs would reduce the amount of drug abuse we already have. Although drug use is down from its high mark in the late 1970s, America still has entirely too many people who are on drugs.

            In 1962, for example, only four million Americans had ever tried a drug in their entire lifetime. In 1997, the latest year for which we have figures, 77 million Americans had tried drugs. Roughly half of all high school seniors have tried drugs by the time they graduate.

            The result of having a lot of drugs around is more and more consumption. To put it another way, supply drives demand. That is an outcome that has been apparent from the early days of drug enforcement.

            What legalization could mean for drug consumption in the United States can be seen in the drug liberalization experiment in Holland. In 1976, Holland decided to liberalize its laws regarding marijuana. Since then, Holland has acquired a reputation as the drug capital of Europe. For example, a majority of the synthetic drugs, such as Ecstasy (MDMA) and methamphetamine, now used in the United Kingdom are produced in Holland.

            The effect of supply on demand can also be seen even in countries that take a tougher line on drug abuse. An example is the recent surge in heroin use in the United States. In the early 1990s, cocaine traffickers from Colombia discovered that there was a lot more profit with a lot less work in selling heroin. Several years ago, they began to send heroin from South America to the United States.

            To make as much money as possible, they realized they needed not only to respond to a market, but to create a market. They devised an aggressive marketing campaign which included the use of brand names and the distribution of free samples of heroin to users who bought their cocaine. In many cases, they induced distributors to move quantities of heroin to stimulate market growth. The traffickers greatly increased purity levels, allowing many potential addicts who might be squeamish about using needles to snort the heroin rather than injecting it. The result has been a huge increase in the number of people trying heroin for the first time, five times as many in 1997 as just four years before.

            I don't mean to imply that demand is not a critical factor in the equation. But any informed drug policy should take into consideration that supply has a great influence on demand. In 1997, American companies spent $73 billion advertising their products and services. These advertisers certainly must have a well-documented reason to believe that consumers are susceptible to the power of suggestion, or they wouldn't be spending all that money. The market for drugs is no different. International drug traffickers are spending enormous amounts of money to make sure that drugs are available to every American kid in a school yard.

            Dr. Herbert Kleber, a professor of psychiatry at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, and one of the nation's leading authorities on addiction, stated in a 1994 article in the New England Journal of Medicine that clinical data support the premise that drug use would increase with legalization. He said:

            "There are over 50 million nicotine addicts, 18 million alcoholics or problem drinkers, and fewer than 2 million cocaine addicts in the United States. Cocaine is a much more addictive drug than alcohol. If cocaine were legally available, as alcohol and nicotine are now, the number of cocaine abusers would probably rise to a point somewhere between the number of users of the other two agents, perhaps 20 to 25 million...the number of compulsive users might be nine times higher than the current number. When drugs have been widely available -- as...cocaine was at the turn of the century -- both use and addiction have risen." I can't imagine the impact on this society if that many people were abusers of cocaine. From what we know about the connection between drugs and crime, America would certainly have to devote an enormous amount of its financial resources to law enforcement.



The second outcome of legalization would be more crime, especially more violent crime. There's a close relationship between drugs and crime. This relationship is borne out by the statistics. Every year, the Justice Department compiles a survey of people arrested in a number of American cities to determine how many of them tested positive for drugs at the time of their arrest. In 1998, the survey found, for example, that 74 percent of those arrested in Atlanta for a violent crime tested positive for drugs. In Miami, 49 percent; in Oklahoma City, 60 percent.

            There's a misconception that most drug-related crimes involve people who are looking for money to buy drugs. The fact is that the most drug-related crimes are committed by people whose brains have been messed up with mood-altering drugs. A 1994 study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics compared Federal and State prison inmates in 1991. It found, for example, that 18 percent of the Federal inmates had committed homicide under the influence of drugs, whereas 2.7 percent committed homicide to get the money to buy drugs. The same disparities showed up for State inmates: almost 28 percent committed homicide under the influence versus 5.3 percent to get money to buy drugs.

            Those who propose legalization argue that it would cut down on the number of drug-related crimes because addicts would no longer need to rob people to buy their drugs from illicit sources. But even supposing that argument is true, which I don't think that it is, the fact is that so many more people would be abusing drugs, and committing crimes under the influence of drugs, that the crime rate would surely go up rather than down.

            It's clear that drugs often cause people to do things they wouldn't do if they were drug-free. Too many drug users lose the kind of self-control and common sense that keeps them in bounds. In 1998, in the small community of Albion, Illinois, two young men went on a widely reported, one-week, non-stop binge on methamphetamine. At the end of it, they started a killing rampage that left five people dead. One was a Mennonite farmer. They shot him as he was working in his fields. Another was a mother of four. They hijacked her car and killed her.

            The crime resulting from drug abuse has had an intolerable effect on American society. To me, the situation is well illustrated by what has happened in Baltimore during the last 50 years. In 1950, Baltimore had just under a million residents. Yet there were only 300 heroin addicts in the entire city. That's fewer than one out of every 3,000 residents. For those 300 people and their families, heroin was a big problem. But it had little effect on the day-to-day pattern of life for the vast majority of the residents of Baltimore.

            Today, Baltimore has 675,000 residents, roughly 70 percent of the population it had in 1950. But it has 130 times the number of heroin addicts. One out of every 17 people in Baltimore is a heroin addict. Almost 39,000 people. For the rest of the city's residents, it's virtually impossible to avoid being affected in some way by the misery, the crime and the violence that drug abuse has brought to Baltimore.

            People who once might have sat out on their front stoops on a hot summer night are now reluctant to venture outdoors for fear of drug-related violence. Drug abuse has made it a matter of considerable risk to walk down the block to the corner grocery store, to attend evening services at church, or to gather in the school playground.

            New York City offers a dramatic example of what effective law enforcement can do to stem violent crime. City leaders increased the police department by 30 percent, adding 8,000 officers. Arrests for all crimes, including drug dealing, drug gang activity and quality of life violations which had been tolerated for many years, increased by 50 percent. The capacity of New York prisons was also increased.

            The results of these actions were dramatic. In 1990, there were 2,262 homicides in New York City. By 1998, the number of homicides had dropped to 663. That's a 70 percent reduction in just eight years. Had the murder rate stayed the same in 1998 as it was in 1990, 1629 more people would have been killed in New York City. I believe it is fair to say that those 1629 people owe their lives to this effective response by law enforcement.



The third outcome of legalization would be a far different social environment. The social cost of drug abuse is not found solely in the amount of crime it causes. Drugs cause an enormous amount of accidents, domestic violence, illness, and lost opportunities for many who might have led happy, productive lives.

            Drug abuse takes a terrible toll on the health and welfare of a lot of American families. In 1996, for example, there were almost 15,000 drug-induced deaths in the United States, and a half-million emergency room episodes related to drugs. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has estimated that 36 percent of new HIV cases are directly or indirectly linked to injecting drug users.

            Increasing drug use has had a major impact on the workplace. According to estimates in the 1997 National Household Survey, a study conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), 6.7 million full-time workers and 1.6 million part-time workers are current users of illegal drugs.

            Employees who test positive for drug use consume almost twice the medical benefits as nonusers, are absent from work 50 percent more often, and make more than twice as many workers' compensation claims. Drug use also presents an enormous safety problem in the workplace.

            This is particularly true in the transportation sector. Marijuana, for example, impairs the ability of drivers to maintain concentration and show good judgment on the road. A study released by the National Institute on Drug Abuse surveyed 6,000 teenage drivers. It studied those who drove more than six times a month after using marijuana. The study found that they were about two-and-a-half times more likely to be involved in a traffic accident than those who didn't smoke before driving.

            The problem is compounded when drivers have the additional responsibility for the safety of many lives. In Illinois, for example, drug tests were administered to current and prospective school bus drivers between 1995 and 1996. Two hundred tested positive for marijuana, cocaine and other drugs. In January 1987, a Conrail engineer drove his locomotive in front of an Amtrak passenger train, killing 16 people and injuring 170. It was later determined that just 18 minutes before the crash, both he and his brakeman had been smoking marijuana.

            In addition to these public safety risks and the human misery costs to drug users and their families associated with drug abuse, the Office of National Drug Control Policy has put a financial price tag on this social ill. According to the 1999 National Drug Control Strategy, illegal drugs cost society about $110 billion every year.

            Proponents of legalization point to several liberalization experiments in Europe -- for example, the one in Holland that I have already mentioned. The experiment in Holland is now 23 years old, so it provides a good illustration of what liberalizing our drug laws portends.

            The head of Holland's best known drug abuse rehabilitation center has described what the new drug culture has created. The strong form of marijuana that most of the young people smoke, he says, produces "a chronically passive individual -- someone who is lazy, who doesn't want to take initiatives, doesn't want to be active -- the kid who'd prefer to lie in bed with a joint in the morning rather than getting up and doing something."

            England's experience with widely available heroin shows that use and addiction increase. In a policy far more liberal than America's, Great Britain allowed doctors to prescribe heroin to addicts. There was an explosion of heroin use, and by the mid-1980s known addiction rates were increasing by about 30 percent a year. According to James Q. Wilson, in 1960, there were 68 heroin addicts registered with the British Government. Today, there are roughly 31,000.

            Liberalization in Switzerland has had much the same results. This small nation became a magnet for drug users the world over. In 1987, Zurich permitted drug use and sales in a part of the city called Platzspitz, dubbed "Needle Park." By 1992, the number of regular drug users at the park had reportedly swelled from a few hundred in 1982 to 20,000 by 1992. The experiment has since been terminated.

            In April, 1994, a number of European cities signed a resolution titled "European Cities Against Drugs," commonly known as the Stockholm resolution. The signatories include some of the major European cities, like Berlin, Stockholm, Paris, Madrid, London, Warsaw and Moscow. As the resolution stated: "the answer does not lie in making harmful drugs more accessible, cheaper and socially acceptable. Attempts to do this have not proved successful. We believe that legalizing drugs will, in the long term, increase our problems. By making them legal, society will signal that it has resigned to the acceptance of drug abuse." I couldn't say it any better than that. After seeing the results of liberalization up close, these European cities clearly believe that liberalization is a bad idea.

            You do not have to visit Amsterdam or Zurich or London to witness the effects of drug abuse. If you really want to discover what legalization might mean for society, talk to a local clergyman or an eighth grade teacher, or a high school coach, or a scout leader or a parent. How many teachers do you know who come and visit your offices and say, Congressman, the thing that our kids need more than anything else is greater availability to drugs. How many parents have you ever known to say, "I sure wish my child could find illegal drugs more easily than he can now."

            Or talk to a local cop on the beat. Night after night, they deal with drug-induced domestic violence situations. They roll up to a house and there is a fight, and the people are high on pot or speed, or their husband or father is a heroin addict, and you can't wake him up or he's overdosed in the family bedroom. That's where you see the real effects of drugs.

            Anyone who has ever worked undercover in drug enforcement has witnessed young children, 12- and 14-year old girls, putting needles into their arms, shooting up heroin or speed. To feed their habit, the kids start stealing from their parents and their brothers and sisters, stealing and pawning the watch that's been handed down from their grandmother to buy a bag of dope. Drug addiction is a family affair. It's a tragedy for everyone involved. And it wouldn't matter a bit to these families if the drugs were legal. The human misery would be the same. There would just be more of it.



The fourth outcome of legalization would be a law enforcement nightmare. I suspect few people would want to make drugs available to 12-year old children. That reluctance points to a major flaw in the legalization proposal. Drugs will always be denied to some sector of the population, so there will always be some form of black market and a need for drug enforcement.

            Consider some of the questions that legalization raises. What drugs will be legalized? Will it be limited to marijuana? If the principle is advanced that drug abuse is a victimless crime, why limit drug use to marijuana?

            I know that there are those who will make the case that drug addiction hurts no one but the user. If that becomes part of the conventional wisdom, there will certainly be pressure to legalize all drug use. Only when people come to realize how profoundly all of us are affected by widespread drug abuse will there be pressure to put the genie back in the bottle. By then, it may be too late.

            But deciding what drugs to legalize will only be part of the problem. Who will be able to buy drugs legally? Only those over 18 or 21? If so, you can bet that many young people who have reached the legal age will divert their supplies to younger friends. Of course, these young pushers will be in competition with many of the same people who are now pushing drugs in school yards and neighborhood streets.

            Any attempt to limit drug use to any age group at all will create a black market, with all of the attendant crime and violence, thereby defeating one of the goals of legalization. That's also true if legalization is limited to marijuana. Cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine will be far more profitable products for the drug lords. Legalization of marijuana alone would do little to stem illegal trafficking.

            Will airline pilots be able to use drugs? Heart surgeons? People in law enforcement or the military? Teachers? Truck drivers? Workers in potentially dangerous jobs like construction?

            Drug use has been demonstrated to result in lower work-place productivity, and often ends in serious, life-threatening accidents. Many drug users are so debilitated by their habit that they can't hold jobs. Which raises the question, if drug users can't hold a job, where will they get the money to buy drugs? Will the right to use drugs imply a right to the access to drugs? If so, who will distribute free drugs? Government employees? The local supermarket? The college bookstore? If they can't hold a job, who will provide their food, clothing and shelter?

            Virtually any form of legalization will create a patchwork quilt of drug laws and drug enforcement. The confusion would swamp our precinct houses and courtrooms. I don't think it would be possible to effectively enforce the remaining drug laws in that kind of environment.



This is no time to undermine America's effort to stem drug abuse. America's drug policies work. From 1979 to 1994, the number of drug users in America dropped by almost half. Two things significantly contributed to that outcome. First, a strong program of public education; second, a strict program of law enforcement.

            If you look over the last four decades, you can see a pattern develop. An independent researcher, R. E. Peterson, has analyzed this period, using statistics from a wide variety of sources, including the Justice Department and the White House Office of National Drug Control Strategy. He broke these four decades down into two periods: the first, from 1960 to 1980, an era of permissive drug laws; the second, from 1980 to 1995, an era of tough drug laws.

            During the permissive period, drug incarceration rates fell almost 80 percent. During the era of tough drug laws, drug incarceration rates rose almost 450 percent. Just as you might expect, these two policies regarding drug abuse had far different consequences. During the permissive period, drug use among teens climbed by more than 500 percent. During the tough era, drug use by high school students dropped by more than a third.

            Is there an absolute one-to-one correlation between tougher drug enforcement and a declining rate of drug use? I wouldn't suggest that. But the contrasts of drug abuse rates between the two eras of drug enforcement are striking.

            One historian of the drug movement has written about America's experience with the veterans of Vietnam. As you may recall from the early 1970s, there was a profound concern in the American government over the rates of heroin use by our military personnel in Vietnam. At the time, U.S. Army medical officers estimated that about 10-15 percent of the lower ranking enlisted men in Vietnam were heroin users.

            Military authorities decided to take a tough stand on the problem. They mandated a drug test for every departing soldier. Those who failed were required to undergo drug treatment for 30 days. The theory was that many of the soldiers who were using heroin would give it up to avoid the added 30 days in Vietnam. It clearly worked. Six months after the tests began, the percentage of soldiers testing positive dropped from 10 percent to two percent.

            There may be a whole host of reasons for this outcome. But it demonstrates that there is nothing inevitable about drug abuse. In fact, the history of America's experience with drugs has shown us that it was strong drug enforcement that effectively ended America's first drug epidemic, which lasted from the mid-1880s to the mid-1920s.

            By 1923, about half of all prisoners at the Federal penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas, were violators of America's first drug legislation, the Harrison Act. If you are concerned by the high drug incarceration rates of the late 1990s, consider the parallels to the tough drug enforcement policies of the 1920s. It was those tough policies that did much to create America's virtually drug-free environment of the mid-20th Century.

            Drug laws can work, if we have the national resolve to enforce them. As a father, as someone who's had a lot of involvement with the Boy Scouts and Little Leaguers, and as a 30-year civil servant in drug enforcement, I can tell you that there are a lot of young people out there looking for help. Sometimes helping them means saying "no," and having the courage to back it up.

            Let me tell you a story about one of them. He was a young man who lived near Austin, Texas. He had a wife who was pregnant. To protect their identities, I'll call them John and Michelle. John was involved in drugs, and one night we arrested him and some of his friends on drug charges. He went on to serve a six-month sentence before being turned loose.

            Sometime after he got out, he and his wife came to our office looking for me. They rang the doorbell out at the reception area, and my secretary came back and said they were here to see me. I had no idea what they wanted. I was kind of leery, thinking they might be looking for revenge. But I went out to the reception area anyway.

            John and Michelle were standing there with a little toddler. They said they just wanted to come in so we could see their new baby. And then Michelle said there was a second reason they came by. When he got arrested, she said, that's the best thing that ever happened to them.

            We had been very wholesome people, she said. John was involved in sports in high school. He was an all-American guy. Then he started smoking pot. His parents couldn't reach him. His teachers couldn't reach him. He got into other drugs. He dropped out of high school. The only thing that ever got his attention, she said, was when he got arrested.

            Meanwhile, John was listening to all this and shaking his head in agreement. He said that his high school coach had tried to counsel him, but he wouldn't listen to him. He said his big mistake was dropping out of sports. He thought that if he had stayed in sports he wouldn't have taken the route he did.

            When I arrested those kids that night I had no idea of the extent to which I would ultimately help them out of their problems and influence their lives in a positive way. In 30 years of dealing with young Americans, I believe that John is more typical than not.

            America spends millions of dollars every year on researching the issue of drugs. We have crime statistics and opinion surveys and biochemical research. And all of that is important. But what it all comes down to is whether we can help young people like John -- whether we can keep them from taking that first step into the world of drugs that will ruin their careers, destroy their marriages and leave them in a cycle of dependency on chemicals.

            Whether in rural areas, in the suburbs, or in the inner cities, there are a lot of kids who could use a little help. Sometimes that help can take the form of education and counseling. Often it takes a stronger approach. And there are plenty of young people, and older people as well, who could use it.

            If we as a society are unwilling to have the courage to say no to drug abuse, we will find that drugs will not only destroy the society we have built up over 200 years, but ruin millions of young people like John.

            Drug abuse, and the crime and personal dissolution and social decay that go with it, are not inevitable. Too many people in America seem resigned to the growing rates of drug use. But America's experience with drugs shows that strong law enforcement policies can and do work.

            At DEA, our mission is to fight drug trafficking in order to make drug abuse the most expensive, unpleasant, risky, and disreputable form of recreation a person could have. If drug users aren't worried about their health, or the health and welfare of those who depend on them, they should at least worry about the likelihood of getting caught. Not only do tough drug enforcement policies work, but I might add that having no government policy, as many are suggesting today, is in fact a policy, one that will reap a whirlwind of crime and social decay.


Source: U.S. House Criminal Justice hearing on Pros and Cons of Drug Legalization, Decriminalization, and Harm Reduction, 1999.




Please answer all of the following questions for review.



1. Explain the disease and moral models of drug addiction.

2. What are the Epicurean and Stoic arguments regarding drug use?

3. What is the problem with the “harm to oneself” argument against drug use?

4. What are the pro-drug efforts regarding drug legalization?

5. What is the three-tiered system of alcohol distribution?

6. What are the criticisms of the three conservative arguments against drug use?

7. What are the criticisms of the three liberal arguments in favor of drug use?



8. Why, according to the ACLU, is drug prohibition a public health menace?

9. What are some of the problems created by drug prohibition?

10. What evidence does the ACLU provide to show that ending prohibition would not necessarily increase drug abuse?

11. How has racial profiling factored into the war on drugs?

12. What examples does the ACLU give of the link between minorities and drugs?

13. How are women and children adversely affected by the illegalization of drugs?


[Donnie Marshall]

14. What is Marshall’s argument that legalization would boost drug use?

15. What is Marshall’s argument that legalization would increase crime?

16. Describe the negative consequences in European countries from permissive drug laws.

17. Describe how the legalization of drugs would create a black market for drugs.

18. What are some of Marshall’s examples that show the effectiveness of drug enforcement?



Please select only one question for analysis from those below and answer it.



1. Criticize one of the arguments for sobriety.

2. Defend or refute the view that marijuana should be legalized for medical purposes.

3. Defend or refute the three-tiered system of alcohol distribution.

4. Defend one of the conservative criticisms drug use against the criticism indicated in the reading regarding it.

5. Defend one of the liberal arguments for active drug use against the criticism indicated in the reading regarding it.



6. The ACLU focuses on the issue of whether recreational drug use should be legal, not whether recreational drug use is moral. Explain the difference between these two issues and discuss the types of arguments that might be relevant to one issue, but not the other.

7. The ACLU does not believe that the issue of drug legalization should be settled on the basis of the harm that drug users cause to themselves. Try to defend drug prohibition on the basis of the harm that drug users cause to themselves.

8. The ACLU argues that most of the public woes surrounding drugs would be eliminated if drugs were legalized. Try to refute this claim.

9. When defending the decriminalization of drugs, the ACLU does not distinguish between marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine, or heroin. If legalized, should there be different kinds of distribution systems for recreational drugs? If so, suggest a possibility.

10. The ACLU contends that racial bias is the reason why racial minorities are so disproportionately affected by the war on drugs. Try to argue that racial bias is not necessarily a motivating factor.


[Donnie Marshall]

11. Suppose that Marshall is correct that the legalization of drugs would create a serious harm to society. Might this be counterbalanced by the personal benefits of free choice? Argue for one side or the other.

12. The ACLU suggests that taking drugs does not incline the user to become more violent. Marshall argues that it does. Compare the evidence that both offer for their respective positions and say which is more compelling.

13. The ACLU and Marshall both discuss the lenient drug laws in some European countries, and they come to different conclusions. Examine what each side says on the subject and say which view is more compelling.

14. Marshall suggests that drug legalization would create a black market for drugs and make enforcement difficult. Examine his evidence and suggest a policy that might reduce a black market.

15. Marshall compares the success of drug enforcement in the early 1900s to its success today. Is this a legitimate comparison? Argue one side or the other.