Few topics provoke as much debate as the question of drug legality. On the one hand, there is a social and scientific consensus that substance abuse is extremely harmful. It leads to the deterioration of health and proliferation of immoral and unlawful behavior. On the other hand, the way most governments manage these crimes is not effective and receives substantial criticism. Viewpoints of critics range from choosing different approaches to controlling illegal drug use to universal legalization of drugs. Decriminalization is a compromise between the two extremes, which presumes alleviation of punishment for drug crimes. Currently, drug-related crimes are criminal offenses in many countries, which can be punished by imprisonment. However, this measure might be too strict and ineffective at preventing further violations. This paper will analyze the arguments used by both proponents and opponents of decriminalization and will argue for removing the criminal status from drug related offences.
Arguments against Decriminalization
The most common argument is that people are not disciplined enough to use substances appropriately and are too vulnerable to the allure of the high. The anticipation of positive feelings may drive individuals to forego social norms and break laws in order to receive the needed dose. As long as drugs remain illegal and their consumption constitutes a criminal offense, barriers exist that may force potential perpetrators to reconsider. Even if current drug addicts are not stopped by the fear of punishment, those who are not addicted are disincentivized to try any substances. In the long term perspective, illegal status of drugs may prevent young people from using them. In essence, the first argument appeals to human psychology and presumes that people are not able to control their impulses without the threat of punishment.
The second argument is that illegal status of drugs makes their acquisition more complicated. When products are outlawed, it becomes increasingly difficult for people to obtain them. Criminalization creates obstacles, which impede supply of illegal substances. All transactions have to be made undercover, with a constant risk of being caught. Furthermore, prohibition leads to the increase in prices on drugs. All logistical operations require significantly more effort to move the products and conceal their real purpose than the ones that are legal. Subsequently, less people are able to afford these substances, thus decreasing the overall consumption rate. Overall, this argument relies on economic and logistical costs as the explanation to why criminalization should make drug trade inefficient.
The third argument is that the illegal status of substances allows law enforcement agencies to pinpoint drug dealers. Although the majority of drug-related crimes are committed by individual perpetrators, the main source of them are the people and organizations that make and distribute drugs (Gutiérrez-Romero & Oviedo, 2018). Any time a person is caught with illegal substances, the investigation will inquire about their place of origin. In a legal environment that views drug operations as criminal offenses, any illegal appearance of narcotics is indicative of a network of suppliers. If the punishment for substance abuse becomes lighter, the movement of drugs will increase exponentially, thus complicating the process of monitoring them.
Finally, the easier access to drugs has a negative impact on newborn children. Both women and men who consume substances pass dangerous genes to their children. Especially, children of pregnant mothers who use drugs are at risk. It is widely known that “pregnancy complications, such as neonatal abstinence syndrome, low birth weight and premature birth” may be the result of drug consumption (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, 2018, p. 21). Aside from physiological changes that may occur in children, they can also develop mental disorders. Furthermore, many drug-using mothers chose to abort or abandon their children. Either way leads to the increase in the number of orphans or children with physical and psychological complications. Criminalization of drugs may prevent parents from obtaining such substances and thus spoiling the future of their children.
Arguments for Decriminalization
Proponents of decriminalization largely base their reasoning on the futility of current attempts to regulate drug supply via legal means. The justification is simple – strict laws have already existed for over five decades. Over this period of time, hundreds of thousands of people were convicted, persecuted and imprisoned for drug-related crimes. The education system teaches young people about the inherent negativity associated with chemical substances. Drug consumption is associated with immoral behavior in public consciousness. It is reasonable to suggest that decades of systemic efforts against the proliferation of substances should at least result in a decrease in supply of drugs. Yet, this is not what is currently transpiring, as narcotics are easier to obtain today than at any point in the past (Koram, 2021). In short, the first argument is that the current course of action does not yield appropriate results.
The logical implication is that criminalization has actually given drug cartels more opportunities to conduct business. Once transactions involving substances were declared illegal, they became a part of the black market. As a result, the government’s ability to monitor the movement of drugs and control it was severely diminished. Meanwhile, drug cartels profited since the demand for such substances increased. Statistically, overdose deaths rate has increased exponentially since 1980s (Coyne & Hall, 2017). This finding indicates that not only did the demand not decrease, but the supply was also sustained enough to precipitate such a large number of overdose cases. Following this line of reasoning, it should be evident that the desire to reduce substance abuse had the opposite effect, which propels decriminalization proponents to criticize the policy on drugs.
The proposed response to the problem is to review the sanctions for possessing or using illegal substances. It should be noted that decriminalization does not necessarily imply universal legalization. A common criticism of drug-related laws is that the punishment for substance abuse does not correspond to the level of damage done to society. However, those convicted for consumption of illegal drugs may be sent to prisons. Such places house criminals with different background, including rapists and killers. Social exposure may turn people sentenced for drugs into perpetuating more crimes or other types of crime. Once again, the costs outweigh the benefits for society and law enforcement. A simple solution is to stop framing drug crimes as criminal offences and replace imprisonment with fines.
The fourth argument is that people who have drug addictions do not seek treatment or help precisely due the threat of being persecuted. This fear permeates citizens from reporting their health issues to physicians. On the extreme side, many pregnant mothers do not receive prenatal care either because they are apprehensive of the stigma or because they are outright refused (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, 2018). The subsequent implication is that a large segment of population has to live without access to adequate healthcare. Stigmatization of drug users also prevents them and their family members from being employed, getting education, and creates other obstacles that complicate their living conditions. Decriminalization will allow more drug addicts to seek help and disclose their issues. At the same time, as society becomes accustomed to people with addiction, people will feel more empathic, which in turn may reduce the social stigma.
Reasoning behind Decriminalization
Overall, it can be stated that the primary goal of criminalization of drugs is to limit opportunities to acquire illegal substances and reduce incentives to obtain them. It can also be observed that at the core of such policies lies inherent distrust of human nature. Many governments assume that people will perpetrate if they are provided with an opportunity to escape justice. However, this assumption can be reversed – it is the distrust of the government that prevents citizens from disclosing their actions. Drug use will remain a reality regardless of the severity of punishment the authorities institute. Further attempting to pursue this course of action will not yield any substantial results.
On a more practical level, criminalization of drugs is a self-defeating endeavor because it does not resolve the problem. Drug trade is still rampant, cartels are functioning, and overdose cases are on the rise (Coyne & Hall, 2017). It might be that a counter-intuitive solution is necessary for tackling this problem. Decriminalization of drugs will allow the governments to monitor the movement of substances, see more perpetrators and, most importantly, tax the transactions. Whether via fines or taxes, the financial income from drug-related procedures may give countries more opportunities to fight drug cartels and finance treatment programs. Paradoxically, allowing the crime to transpire may actually have a reverse effect on the overall crime rate.
Finally, there are examples of governments decriminalizing drugs and achieving success in the fight against illegal substance abuse. Portugal represents the most evident case of a country that used a counter-intuitive approach in combating the drug problems. Since the policy was introduced in 2001, state statistics improved significantly. As Cabral (2017) writes, “the number of deaths by drug overdose in Portugal is actually one of the lowest in all of the European Union, at just 4.5 per million of inhabitants against the average in the EU of 19.2” (p. 3). Portugal serves as an example of the drug regulation policy performed effectively and achieving its initial goal as opposed to the highly controversial War on Drugs in the US.
In conclusion, decriminalization is a better option because it is more practical and can be supported by real-life examples. The anti-drug policies pursued by numerous governments, including the US, are a self-defeating endeavor. Instead of curbing the influence of drug cartels, their profits have increased to the sustained demand. Instead of drug movement being monitored, most of the transactions transpire outside the radar, severely complicating tracking. The most significant outcome is that substance abuse has increased despite all efforts to prohibit it. Policies of decriminalization are a reactive response to the unsuccessful War on Drugs. Portugal’s case proves that decriminalization can have a positive impact on drug consumption. Removal of the criminal substance from drugs may not solve the problem entirely, but it can change the situation for the better.
Cabral, T. S. (2017). The 15th anniversary of the Portuguese drug policy: Its history, its success and its future. Drug Science, Policy and Law, 3(0), 1-5.
Coyne, C. J., & Hall, A. (2017). Four decades and counting: The continued failure of the war on drugs. Cato Institute Policy Analysis, (811). 1-27. Web.
Gutiérrez-Romero, R., & Oviedo, M. (2018). The good, the bad and the ugly: the socioeconomic impact of drug cartels and their violence. Journal of Economic Geography, 18(6), 1315-1338.
Koram, K. (2021). Drug prohibition and the policing of warfare. Humanity: An International Journal of Human Rights, Humanitarianism, and Development, 13(1). 1-34.
United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. (2018). Women and drugs. Drug use, drug supply and their consequences.