There have been several attempts to decriminalize marijuana and other drugs in the United States of America since the 1970s. The paper will argue for decriminalization which is basically the absence of laws punishing people for using drugs (like in the case of alcohol or cigarettes). A policy thinker, John Kaplan (1983, 101), once posed a serious policy question: “could we not lower the total social costs of heroin use and other governmental response to it by allowing the drug to be freely and cheaply available in liquor stores or as an over-the-counter drug?” (394). Prominent policy makers like Edward Brecher have argued that many of heroin’s (and also other drugs like marijuana) harmful aspects are a result of it being illegal. It is vital that the government realize that the poor state of most drug users in America is a result of the high prices, contamination of the drug in the black market, the laws against such drugs and the ways in which laws against the drugs are enforced (Abadinsy). As proponents of decriminalization of drugs, the argument is that substantial amounts of resources are used which would otherwise be freed and used elsewhere where most needed like prevention of serious crimes.
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America has millions of drug users like marijuana users, and it has been proved that the using this drugs is less dangerous and hazardous to the society relative to using other substances like alcohol or smoking cigarettes. In the United States of America, the war on drugs directs its emphasis on arresting the users of these drugs. Over the years there has been much debate over whether illegal drugs, for example marijuana, which has been proven to have some medical value, especially to patients who are suffering from cancer and AIDS because it helps in relieving nausea and also stimulates appetite, should be decriminalized. This is a report essay that aims to persuade legislators and all stakeholders involved with the issue of drugs to create, modify and repeal the law in order to support the decriminalization of drugs in the present America. The paper also seeks to discuss why drugs like marijuana should be decriminalized for their use in the field of medicine.
Definition of Drug Decriminalization
According to the freedictionary, decriminalization is defined as the process of amending the statutes which criminalized certain acts so that these acts are no longer crimes and therefore prosecuted. Example of laws in the U.S. that have been decriminalized include certain sexual practices between two mature consenting people or staying in the same public place for some time without any criminal activity (loitering) (Free Online Law Dictionary). Therefore, decriminalization is a system that punishes offences by other means rather than prison and in relation to drugs it means the possession or sale of drugs to adults (usually in small amounts). Among the illegal drugs, decriminalization usually is limited to marijuana. For the de jure decriminalization, it entails the amendment of criminal legislation like administrative decision not to prosecute acts that are subject to arrest and prosecution under the law (Drug Policy Forum of Texas).
Definition of Drug Legalization
The Drug Policy Forum of Texas defines drug legalization as the use and sale of drugs to adults under a certain system of regulation like it is with alcohol that involves conducting the business using licenses (Drug Policy Forum of Texas). Thus, decriminalization is the act of making drug use not a criminal offence, while legalization is making production and sale of drugs not a criminal offence.
Why Drug Decriminalization
According to Husak, drug prohibitions tend to violate principles that proponents of drug criminalization want to care about. This is because most drugs have a legitimate use and thus drug use per se should not be prohibited. Usually, use of a certain drug is prohibited for a given reason. But why are drugs proscribed? Husak argues that drug proscription provides a state of ‘intoxication’ or makes one ‘high’. Another reason for supporting drug decriminalization is that no person should be punished unless there are concrete and excellent reasons to do so. However, punishment is one of the worst things a state does to its subjects as the imposition of punishment should be able to satisfy a demanding standard of justification. Husak believes in responding argument-to-argument and drug-to-drug. He argues that why should the government see a reason to criminalize caffeine and not marijuana, because both are drugs. He argues that if a drug turned people to butchering others, then it should be banned, but unfortunately the banned drugs do not belong to that category (Husak).
Husak further delves into the matter by arguing for reasons that criminalize drugs. Laws enacted to criminalize drugs have no rationale as to which drugs should be illicit or which should not. The same rationale does not explain why drug users should be punished because there is no sense of harm or violation of another person’s freedom when one uses drugs. In the U.S. alone it is estimated that about 80-90 million people (42 percent of the population) have used ‘illegal’ drug(s) at least once in their lifetime. Very few of these instances produce harm or cause harm to other people as a result. Therefore, use of drugs is not an indication that the society will become more harmful. The use of these drugs does lead to increased murders or any acts that could be described as significantly harmful. This also means that many people will be punished because of using drugs. If it is not possible to punish all people who have committed crime, then the government should not only punish some people and leave others. Generally, drug control policy in the U.S. is formulated under the guise that the policies will be effective in influencing drug usage (Husak).
Grill argues from Husak’s point of view that decriminalization and partial legalization of drugs will lead not only to greater availability of the drugs but also would authenticate the boundary between illegal and legal use of drugs. In this way, this will strengthen any deterrent effect of prohibition of potentially harmful drugs or substances. Husak agrees that the current U.S. policy is excessive as it leads to excessive sentences to many people. It is important to note that long-term jailing of a greater number of people entails greater costs (249). Grill also points out of Husak’s explanation, “It is certainly worthwhile to point out that in contrast to other crimes such as theft or assault, drug use or possession are victim-less crimes, and so an important rationale for punishment is lacking” (p.251).
Proponents in support of decriminalization of these drugs present various views in support of their stand. President Richard Nixon commissioned the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse in 1972 to give a report on marijuana use. The commission produced an indebt report detailing its findings on marijuana. The report titled Marijuana: A Signal of Misunderstanding found that continued prohibition of marijuana was constitutionally suspect and recommended that the legislature and executive had the duty to obey the constitution. The report further provides a provision for a free society and thus states:
A free society seeks to provide conditions in which each of its members may develop his or her potentialities to the fullest extent. A premium is placed on individual choice in seeking self-fulfillment. This priority depends upon the capacity of free citizens not to abuse their freedom, and upon their willingness to act responsibly toward others and toward the society as a whole. Responsible behavior, through individual choice, is both the guarantor and the objective of a free society.
Policy stakeholders concerned with drugs have highlighted many advantages of drug decriminalization that include:
Many proponents argue that drug decriminalization will reduce costs of maintaining criminal justice and law enforcement systems while generating income for the government through taxes (like in the case of alcohol). It is estimated that in the U.S. a total of $12.1 billion was used on law enforcement related costs, and another $16.9 billion in correction costs. The study further claims that if marijuana was decriminalized, Alaska alone could save $25-30 million each year and because crimes has never been linked to marijuana use, there would be mo impact on crime activities. The report also shows that tax savings if marijuana was decriminalized would be around $10-20 million. Courts will also save large amounts of money and largest savings could be in excessive of $68.5 million and police savings will be $40.3 million per year. On a national level, the U.S. would save $7.6 billion per year according to a report by Jon Gettman. The report cites that in 2005 the country used $2.1 billion in enforcing marijuana laws by the police (Austin, 2-3).
Drug decriminalization will lead to a reductio in the resources necessary for drug law enforcers. It has been argued that the federal government, the state and the local governments spend millions and perhaps billions of tax payers’ money annually for drug enforcement, including the money spent on imprisonment, parole and probation. The argument is that instead of them using a lot of money chasing or imprisoning people who only want to get ‘high’, why can’t the government and concerned stakeholders channel the money for drug treatment and prevention.
Health Effects Accrued From the Drugs
According to one psycho-pharmacologist David Nutt, the health effects accrued from consuming marijuana are far less than those accrued from consuming alcohol or smoking cigarettes if the drug was decriminalized or legalized. Therefore, it can be seen that harm caused by these illegal drugs is much far less than that accrued from consuming legal drugs.
Reduction of Crime and Criminal Activities
Criminals and criminal organizations that are supported by drug trafficking would no longer remain viable with the use of drug money. Decriminalization would ensure that the use of social controls inhibiting antisocial behavior is done away with. Because the use of such drugs is illegal, users are usually shielded from the public or avoid detection by avoiding social pressure that other users of, say, alcohol or cigarette users, are exposed to. This implies therefore that illicit drug users escape the potent social control applied to smokers. Drug traffickers, who usually market their ‘business’ aimed at expanding the customer base, will be blocked since this type of operative will result in widespread use of drugs(Abadinsky, 396).
Austin adds further that marijuana use has little or no direct link to criminal activities. The argument that use of marijuana will lead to using ’heavy’ drugs does not hold water. In America, about 25 million people consume marijuana while only a small percentage of Americas consume the heavier drugs like cocaine or heroin, this clearly implies that a majority of marijuana users do not go further to using harder drugs (Austin, 5).
Reduction of HIV/AIDS Related Deaths
If it was decriminalized, use of drugs could not necessarily involve the danger of AIDS or other diseases due to sharing of one hypodermic syringe, but every person will be having his/her own tools to use. The U.S. government should realize that while the AIDS incidences among homosexuals are decreasing, the disease is now spreading among drug addicts. Another reason for decriminalizing is that drugs will be available in liquid form to be taken orally if one has no syringe. Under government watch, drugs will be distributed in measured doses and will be free from any contaminations therefore reducing chances of drug overdose (Abadinsky, 396).
Low cost of these drug substances will limit secondary criminality that needs to support an expensive drug habit. Habits like exchange of drugs for sex will thus decrease and this will result in low spread of such sexually transmitted diseases like HIV/AIDS (Abadinsky, 396).
Focus on Constructive Activities
Another argument is that the people involved in using these illegal drugs will lead normal lives if the drugs were decriminalized and time and energy needed to maintain their habit could be used in more constructive habits and contribute positively to the society. The argument is that it is the law that makes such drugs harmful and it is not the drug. Some drugs like opiates are used to provide relief to hazardous distress and similar arguments can be made about marijuana and heroin (Abadinsky, 396).
The Case of Marijuana
Decriminalization and legalization of Marijuana
As the war against marijuana has been waged in the United States of America, the prison system has destroyed many lives and a lot of families have been affected. These effects are more adverse than the ones that are caused by marijuana itself. In the districts of Columbia and some states in America, the medicinal value of marijuana has been established and in the year 2010; the American Medical Association requested for the decriminalization of marijuana in order to allow lawful studies of the medical efficiencies of the plant. Further, marijuana should be regarded as a health issue rather than a criminal offence hence the Americans should not be incarcerated for choosing to use any natural substance. In addition, the modification of the American laws to support the legalization of marijuana is of greater significance since its legalization will save the huge amount of money that is used by the law enforcement agencies. It will also save American government the amounts used in law enforcement and it will provide more revenue (IDEAS FOR CHANGE IN AMERICA).
It should be known that the marijuana prohibition is based on the outdated disinformation. States of America, the justification of the illegality of marijuana requires the selective application and distortions of the scientific records which causes a lot of harm to the law enforcement agencies, scientists and credibility of teachers in the country. In the past, the dangers associated with the plant have been exaggerated. The American legislators should facilitate the creation and modification of the laws regarding the use of marijuana basing their argument on that the associated marijuana dangers are based on the old time prejudices that were formed when the scientific researchers were not able to establish the exact impact of marijuana usage. Contrary to these old perceptions, the people who have been using marijuana for the last decade have demonstrated that it has no harmful effects on the society and individuals (AlterNet).
With the ongoing environmental debates in the entire world, the emphasis has been on the plants that are able to produce bio fuels. In connection to the issue, the decriminalization of marijuana would lead to the development of hemp which is an important crop in America, because it can be used to produce bio fuels that reduce the emission of carbon. For instance, the American legislators should learn from the European nations and Canada that have developed the cultivation of hemp through the decriminalization of marijuana and realize that the marijuana prohibition in the United States of America is a very big obstacle to industrial development. As the country’s policies are trying to promote the bio fuel development as an alternative energy source, the legislators should be at the front line in supporting the development of the industrial hemp. This can be achieved through creating, modifying or repealing the laws to decriminalize marijuana in America.
A decriminalized and well regulated marijuana market in America will enhance the reduction of marijuana use and sales among children as well as their exposure to other types of more dangerous drugs that are found in the illegal market. When the marijuana is illegal, many teenagers are tempted to get involved in the sales because it is more valuable. Therefore, the decriminalization of marijuana will lead to the reduction of the excessive profits associated with its sales and the teenagers will get fewer incentives in the business.
The use of alcohol and other drugs such as tobacco, which are legal, remains the cause of major health problems as compared to marijuana. This is a clear indication that the American laws concerning marijuana needs to be reformed. For instance, marijuana does not cause any damage to the immune system, brain and genetic code. On the contrary, it helps in curing some diseases such as the respiratory diseases, which are eliminated by ingesting it through foods and vaporizers (McCollum, B. 2001). The various reports have shown that no health differences are found between the non-smokers and heavy-smokers of marijuana and it does not cause emphysema, birth defects, heart problems, cancer, strong addiction and liver damages that are caused by other drugs and alcohol. Also, the overdose of marijuana does not cause deaths and there is no single death in history that is caused by health problems associated with marijuana. With this in mind, the legislators in the United States of America should consider the decriminalization of marijuana as improving the lives of the citizens.
Finally, the prohibition of marijuana does not stop people from using it. It only prevents the legal production and selling and stops the trafficking activities. Due to this, the prices of the marijuana increase in line with the status of the black market, which together with the associated marijuana addiction, leads to crimes in the country. To reduce these crimes the American laws should be modified to decriminalize marijuana (Marijuana Pros & Cons).
Why Marijuana Remains Illegal
There are a number of reasons why marijuana has remained an illegal substance in America. It is a political issue that is being kicked around by self serving groups who see marijuana as a substaance that will lead to the tearing of families, a threat to the national fabric and as an agent that will cause people to abandon their traditional values. These allegations are, however, exaggerated, but they are not legitimate areas of legislation. Some groups, such as law enforcement agencies, the judiciary and the penal system have quite practical reasons for keeping the substance illegal. They see the decriminalization of this substance as a threat to their jobs. Scientists, whose research on marijuana, are funded by the government and therefore are also an interest group that stand to lose millions of dollars in grants should marijuana become decriminalized. Pharmaceutical companies and the Liquor lobby fear that the legalization of marijuana will result in a deep cut into their profits because it is a competing product that can be produced with relative ease as long as one has access to a plot of land (Rosenthal,E. Kubby,S. & Newhart,S. page ix-xii).
In 1999, The Institute of Medicine issued a report “Marijuana and Medicine: Assessing the Science Base”. This was after it had been asked by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy to review scientific evidence about marijuana following the decriminalization of medical marijuana by voters in California in 1996. The report concluded that “until a non-smoked, rapid onset cannabinoid drug delivery system becomes available, we acknowledge that there is no clear alternative for people suffering from chronic conditions that might be relieved by smoking marijuana such as pain or AIDS wasting. O’Mathhuna says that “one possible approach is that of ‘n-of-1’ clinical trials” (page 393). The n-of-1 approach means that every patient acts as his own control and is under observation while he is given different test substances. In 2004 there were clinical trials with a sublingual spray that contained a liquid extract of marijuana; the spray administered a measured amount of cannabinoid under the tongue. All the eight patients who used this drug had pain as a result of failed spinal surgery; all reported that it helped in pain relief. Though it had some negative effects, its efficiency in pain relief was viewed as being greater than the side effects (O’Mathhuna, D. 391-393).
The Case of Drug Decriminalization in Portugal
This study will shift focus to Portugal; a country whose drug policy makers have attempted to formulate policy recommendations on how best to manage drug-related problems on empirical grounds. In the year 2001 Portugal took broad nationwide steps when it took effect to decriminalize all drugs (this included such drugs as heroin, marijuana and cocaine). Since the 2001 legislation, Portugal is the only state in the European Union to decriminalize drugs. According to Greenward (2009, 2), the statute is found in Article 29 and asserts that decriminalization applies to purchase, possession and consumption of all drugs for personal use. Even with the decriminalization, drug possession and usage in Portugal remain prohibited and is subject to police intercession. In this sense decriminalization therefore means that only ‘non-criminal’ sanctions like fines are imposed or no penal sanctions can be imposed at all.
How Portugal’s Decriminalization Works
The 2001 Portugal statute was enacted mainly to revise the legal framework that is applicable to consumption off all narcotic drugs and psychotic substances that were previously criminalized (Greeenward 3). It further defines one’s consumption as the measure “not exceeding the quantity required for an average individual consumption during a period of 10 days.” (10). It should however be noted that decriminalization does not apply to drug trafficking, defined as the possession of more than average dose for 10 days” (10).
Offenders are fined between 25 Euros or the minimum national wage; fines are usually declared to be the last resort but in the absence of addiction or repeated violations fines are suspended. If the offender is deemed not to be an addict or a first time offender, then the proceedings can be suspended, at least in theory. Decriminalization in practice, however, pursuant to the law; police conduct is still unclear and thus subject to further scrutiny and discussion among the country’s drug policy experts. However, it has been discovered that other police officers are likely to act when they see that acts drug usage now than they did before decriminalization. This is because they believe that treatment options offered to these drug users are more effective than just turning users into criminals (it was discovered that criminals were barely out in the streets when they were caught and without real treatment) (4).
The U.S. can copy Portugal’s decriminalization laws and improve them. Portugal has shown that by decriminalizing drugs in a more subtle way there is real economic benefit and reduction criminal incidences. Statistics from Portugal indicate that five years after the drugs were decriminalized, the number of deaths from street overdose of the drug dropped from about 400 to 290 annually, while the number of HIV cases shrank to 400 in 2006 from a high of 1,400 in 2000 (CARTO Institute). The report’s president Glenn Greenward encourages the U.S. "now instead of being put into prison, addicts are going to treatment centers and they're learning how to control their drug usage or getting off drugs entirely.” The case in Portugal has shown that drug decriminalization eliminates the time spent in jail by abusers, unlike drug legalization, which removes penalties for producing, using or selling drugs. In that light, some countries like Italy and Spain have also decriminalized personal use of drugs, while Mexico’s president has proposed to do something about it. It is a high time that the U.S. policy makers take broad steps to decriminalize the use of such drugs and reap benefits that accrue through decriminalization than living in denial while millions of people are suffering in jail while they should be out, being productive in society, and the government using its money on more serious economic activities than chasing and jailing drugs users. Husak has some advice for the U.S. regarding criminalizing these drugs:
If there is a good reason to criminalize illicit drug use, we have yet to find it. We need a better reason to criminalize something other than predictions about how its frequency would increase if punishments were not imposed. These predictions are dubious both normatively and (in this case) empirically. Despite my uncertainty about the future, there is one prediction about which we can be absolutely confident. After decriminalization, those who use illicit drugs will not face arrest and prosecution. The lives of drug users would not be devastated by a state that is committed to waging war against them. Punishment, we must always be reminded, is the worst thing a state can do to us. The single prediction we can safely make about decriminalization is that it will improve the lives of the hundreds of thousands of people who otherwise would be punished for the crime of using drugs for recreational purposes (Husak).
The debate on whether or not to decriminalize marijuana is a hotly contested topic that has drawn different reactions from stakeholders. Unfortunately, the debate is not sufficiently informed by data and many people have no concrete basis for their arguments. Parents, voters and politicians should be informed about decriminalization effects on a number of factors like how it affects the economy, users and the society in general. One such fact is that marijuana (and other drugs) have more than 26 million users and despite an increase from previous number of users has not resulted to increased criminal activities.
Scientific evidence of marijuana’s efficacy in treating a number of diseases is increasing day after day. Professional organizations have also made their contribution in advocating for more research on the potential benefits of medical marijuana that may be overlooked as long as marijuana remains a banned substance. It is quite important to note that marijuana has a long history of medicinal use as it has been mentioned in ancient records of India and China. All efforts should be put into legalization and decriminalization of medicinal marijuana as this will lead to a reduction in the cost of healthcare, especially for the patients suffering from diseases such as cancer and AIDS. Laws should be created and modified to enhance the development of the marijuana distribution schemes, control and regulation that would be accepted by the general public. In the process, legislators should come up with appropriate taxes that would be levied so as to fund the efforts of preventing substance abuse. Finally, the laws that will take the marijuana market out of criminal hands would enhance quality control. There is real benefit in decriminalization of drugs, like financial savings to taxpayers, whose money will be used in more serious crimes in society, than using the money on chasing or imprisoning people who only wanted to get ‘high’ without hurting or harming anybody.