Commentary: Decriminalization of Drugs is the Answer By RIO BAUCE

Friday July 01, 2005

Wouldn’t it be great if the government could close the budget deficit while reducing crime rates? What could be the solution to making America safer? Believe it or not, the decriminalization of illegal drugs could do this and more. When drugs became outlawed, an illegal drug market was set up. There are many very dangerous drugs that are legal, such as alcohol and tobacco, while other drugs are not. As a result of making drugs illegal, much money is spent annually on drug law enforcement. Drug-related crime is a pressing issue that needs to be looked at seriously and decriminalization of drugs should be considered a possible solution. 

Drug abuse is not a new problem. In fact, President Richard Nixon was the first president to declare not just any war, but rather a “War on Drugs.” This was done in the same manner that President Lyndon Johnson declared a “War on Poverty.” At first the war on drugs sounds reasonable to the average person; drugs are clearly very harmful to our society as a whole. But the fact is that since Nixon’s war on drugs began, drug use has increased tenfold. During the war on drugs, Nixon passed the Comprehensive Drug Abuse and Control Act, which was supposed to rank drugs by their harmfulness and prosecute accordingly. Ever since then, drugs began to gradually become outlawed, and the illegal “black market” started to appear everywhere. Drug dealers who we can assume don’t care about their clients crowd corners of poverty-stricken neighborhoods. However, since the drugs they sell are illegal, the price is high. Because the price of drugs is high, some people are not able to support their addictions and turn to criminal acts, such as stealing to pay for their drugs. 

The government is not looking out for our health. While drugs such as marijuana (effectively used to treat migraines, rheumatism and insomnia) remain illegal, drugs such as tobacco and alcohol (used recreationally, with severe side effects) remain readily accessible. According to a study by Gangsandkids.com, alcohol is the number one substance abuse problem in America today, closely followed by tobacco. Alcohol is a contributing factor in four out of five of all homicides in the U.S. alone . Drinking accounts for 50 percent of driving fatalities. According to a report by Drugs-Rehabs.org, “alcohol and alcohol related problems” cost the economy a whopping $100 million for health care every year. Alcohol wasn’t always legal. In 1919, the 18th Amendment to the Constitution declared that alcohol was illegal to sell or posses, launching the Prohibition era, which lasted until 1933. During this time, it was not legal for alcohol to be sold. Most historians and analysts would agree that prohibition was a failure, because not only did it not discourage drug use, alcohol arrests went through the roof, costing the country a huge amount of money. With the Comprehensive Drug Abuse and Control Act in effect, one would think that since alcohol and tobacco are at the top of the list that they would be prosecuted the toughest. However, that is not true. Alcohol and tobacco companies have a huge lobby in Washington D.C. and they have survived legal restrictions. The government also spends $150 billion per year on trying to prevent imported drugs from penetrating the borders. Unfortunately, a huge amount of drugs is still smuggled into our country. If drugs were decriminalized, the government could not only monitor the drugs, but tax them as well. There is also the issue surrounding unsterile drug supplies, such as HIV-contaminated needles. Since drugs are illegal, drug addicts commonly share needles and increase their risk of spreading HIV. Drug addiction is a health problem, not a criminal act. 

Money spent on law enforcement could be more effective if used on things such as drug education in schools. The U.S. spends $11 billion annually to pay for law enforcement for the war on drugs. Of that money, $7.6 billion goes toward cracking down on marijuana users. However, a recent study done by the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws found that the money spent on law enforcement for pot had very little effect of the rate of marijuana use. In other words, the government continues to waste money on something that does nothing to help. Drug education could teach kids about the effects of drugs rather than discouraging drugs use because of they are illegal. Money currently spent on law enforcement in the war on drugs could be more effectively used on better drug education programs. Law enforcement on drugs further wastes our money and does nothing to stop drug abuse. The war on drugs has had major defects.  

While decriminalization of drugs can have numerous positive effects, concerns have been raised about the possible negative effects. Anti-legalization activists have contended that decriminalization of drugs would encourage drug use, specifically the use of marijuana, which may lead to harder drugs. Drug decriminalization could send the wrong message to people in society. Why should we make them legal now, when we have made big strides? According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, drug use is down by 30 percent in the last 20 years, and use of cocaine is down 70 percent. Spending on drug control constitutes only a minimal portion of the budget, compared to the “social costs of drug abuse and addiction.” And after all, the reason that illegal drugs are illegal is because they are detrimental to society. Why would we want to legalize harmful things? 

While both sides of people in the drug decriminalization debate have fairly valid points, what it really comes down to for me is personal responsibility and personal choice. The government has no business meddling in our personal affairs. People are going to use drugs, whether they are legal or not. But society has a responsibility to protect drug users, by allowing them accessibility to sanitary supplies, and not to waste taxpayer money on things that aren’t effective. 

Whatever side you stand on, everyone can agree that drug abuse is a big concern of our time. With countless and increasing drug-related gang violence, the future looks bleak. But there is something we can do and that is to try to help those who really need the help. Drug addicts need to be helped, not prosecuted. The decriminalization of drugs would not only protect addicts, but also people who are associated with addicts, because those people can be assured that there would be quality control on drugs and help for drug addicts. When will this country realize the benefits of drug decriminalization? Sadly, we may never know. 


Rio Bauce is a Berkeley High School student.