What If We Legalized All Drugs: Continued
Europe offers some clues. In 1976, the Netherlands decided to tolerate (though not legalize) the selling of small amounts of cannabis in licensed coffee shops. At first there was little change in usage. But between 1984 and 1992, as shops opened rapidly, smoking of the drug doubled among Dutch 18- to 20-year-olds.
"In that case, it looked like changing the legal status was of minor importance, but opening commercial outlets mattered," says Mark Kleiman, the director of the Drug Policy Analysis Program at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Moreover, what if drugs were glamorously promoted via YouTube or Facebook, or even big business? Peter Reuter, a professor of public policy and criminology at the University of Maryland, says it would be hard to block advertising because there's little proof that marijuana is harmful.
"I think we'd see a fair amount of promotion," he says. "Then you could have large increases in use."
Kleiman adds, "Imagine what Philip Morris and MillerCoors could do if we gave them cannabis to work with."
Would addiction increase?
One oddity that stands out in the research is that the Dutch are still only midrange users of marijuana by European standards. By some measures, they use marijuana far less than Americans, according to a recent World Health Organization survey.
It's thought that this is due to differing social norms, which raises another point. If drugs were legal in America, this could send a powerful signal to kids that drugs are OK. Add this to the lower price, addictive effects of some drugs and easy access, and drug use could rise quite a bit. To offset this, we could run campaigns warning against the stuff. That might work. It might not.
The response from marijuana reform advocates is: "So what if use increases? It's harmless anyway." However, that remains unproved. Researchers worry about the high tar content, the risk of personal injury while someone is "high" and about any effects on students' work.
As for legalizing all drugs, Harvard's Miron argues that the increase in drug abuse would likely be small. "Millions of people don't smoke cigarettes. The same is true of alcohol . . . because they know that too much of it is not good for you," he says. People who are prone to abuse drugs are probably already abusing them, he adds.
That's hardly so, Reuter argues. Heroin and cocaine "are attractive drugs," he says. "Lots of kids would experiment, and maybe 3 or 4% would become dependent. So the increase in addiction might be very substantial."
The added costs
Whichever case proved true, there could be extra costs to U.S. taxpayers for abusers' medical treatment, family support, petty crime and lost worker productivity.
Just how much is hard to say. And how these negative economic effects might net out against the positive effects is virtually impossible to say. Data on drug-use behavior are thin and often contradictory.
Semesky says, "Nobody is going to be better off." The Office of National Drug Control Policy puts the cost of drug abuse at $145 billion, including medical expenses and lost productivity. That's more than the cost of cancer. If drugs were legal, some of these costs would rise, some would fall. Semesky believes the net effect would be highly negative.
Miron says a small rise in drug abuse would be far outweighed by the gains from reduced violent crime, freed-up police resources, a more productive citizenry and reduced illness from bad drugs and dirty needles.
Rosalie Pacula, the director of the Rand Drug Policy Research Center in Santa Monica, CA, says there are huge unknowns. If you look at the effects of alcohol and tobacco abuse, she syas, legalizing drugs would be "very, very risky."
Could this happen?
How likely is it that street drugs would be legalized?
The possession of small amounts of marijuana has been decriminalized in 12 states, meaning offenders might get fined but won't be jailed or given a criminal record. Nonetheless, full legalization of marijuana is hardly likely. In a 2002 CNN/Time Magazine poll, 59% of respondents opposed legalizing marijuana, and 34% favored it. Although attitudes are getting more liberal, marijuana is not legal anywhere in the world.
As for other street drugs, don't even ask. The question of legalization is no more than an interesting academic exercise.