The issues surrounding drug legalization are complicated and sensitive. Each year drug use kills about 14,000 Americans and costs taxpayers approximately $70 billion. Drug-related illnesses and crime costs an estimated $67 billion per year. Drug use also influences worker productivity as seventy-one percent of all illicit drug users are eighteen and older and employed. Also impacted is public safety. A 1993, study from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration indicated that eighteen percent of 2,000 deaths from seven states had drugs, other than alcohol, in their systems when they died. Ironically, some citizens still support the idea of drug legalization of certain drugs, including marijuana and Schedule I drugs (“A Police Chief’s Guide to the Legalization Issue”, May 8, 2001. Justice Department, Drug Enforcement Administration).
The use of drugs is universal. By the nineteenth century in America, drugs were widely available. Narcotics such as heroin and cocaine were recommended as remedies for everything from hay fever and sinusitis to depression. In fact, cocaine was an active ingredient in Coca-Cola for a brief time. This common availability led to many Americans becoming addicts. The increasing number of addicts led to the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, which required that certain drugs be listed as ingredients on products.
In 1914, the federal government went even further when it approved the Harrison Act. This act required anyone distributing or possessing certain drugs to register with the federal government and pay taxes on the products. Subsequently, this led to several states outlawing narcotics altogether. In 1919, the Supreme Court used the Harrison Act as a catalyst to make the prescribing of narcotics by doctors to known addicts to support their habits illegal.
Marijuana was a legal drug in the United States until 1937, when Congress passed the Marijuana Act. This act made it illegal to sell marijuana without paying an occupational tax and a special tax on each sale. However, because few “tax stamps” (“Drug Legalization”, January 5, 2001) were ever issued, the act effectively made marijuana illegal.
The federal government has been strengthening its laws against drug sales and possession for the past eighty years. A total of thirty-two states have mandatory-minimum laws similar to federal guidelines. For example, in New York, possession of a few ounces of cocaine or twelve ounces of marijuana can bring up to fifteen years in prison while a second or third offense can lead to life imprisonment. That is a longer sentence than some rapists and murderers receive.
The call for legalization has been ongoing for many years. Theoretically, legalization would have a domino effect. First, prohibition of drugs limits the supply, creating extreme inflation and making the importing and selling drugs big business. Thus, legalization would take away the profit margin, lowering drug prices and destroying the black market. Second, by lowering drug prices, users would be less likely to turn to crime to support their habits. After all, there are few jobs that can maintain an expensive habit that can cost up to $1000 per day. Additionally, law enforcement estimates that seventy-five percent of criminal offenses are drug-related. Third, allowing the federal government to control the production and delivery of drugs would make them safer in that the government could ensure the purity and quality of the drugs.
Legalization would also help to reduce the number of drug-related imprisonments and help uncrown jails. For instance, in New York City, it is estimated that there are 150 arrests per day for possession and since1981 the state has spent $4 billion to increase prison capacity. An alternative is drug treatment. Sending drug offenders to treatment programs instead of prison would save money. States spend an average of $30,000 per prisoner per year compared to $20,000 per year for the average treatment program. Offenders who go through a treatment program are better able to move on with their lived than those convicted of a felony and who then must try to do well on the outside with a criminal record. Also, many prisoners never kick their habit, even while incarcerated, because drugs frequently infiltrate the corrections system.
As long as the average citizen supports politicians who are tough on crime, an open debate on legalization is nearly impossible. Most politicians resist even discussing legalization in view of the fact that to do so is often considered political suicide. Nevertheless, a non-judgmental attitude is what is needed or legalization will always be a taboo subject for the powers that be.
Even though the debate over legalization has come to a virtual standstill, the nation’s failure to stop or significantly slow drug use and abuse seems to be getting to the point where even the most staunch politicians need to recognize the need to examine current United States drug policy. Drug legalization is a public concern that should be discussed openly and objectively.