December 16, 2013
The Pitfalls of Legalization?
By Robert DuPont
White House "Drug Czar" (1973-1977)

Uruguay has become the world’s first country to legalize the growth, consumption, and trading of marijuana, highlighting the impatience that many have for the protracted Drug War. Former White House Drug Czar Robert DuPont argues that legalization of prohibited drugs will not lead to their disappearance on the black market.

According to the pro-drug lobby – and with a boost from the media – Uruguay is leading the world by legalizing marijuana. The pro-drug lobby claims that prohibition is a failure and that all drugs should be legalized. Marijuana, the most widely used illegal drug in the world, is just the leader of this campaign. The strategy takes its precedent from the legalization of the sale of alcohol, but the policy is disarmingly simplistic and presents a terrible threat to public health and safety.

Alcohol and tobacco are the leading preventable causes of illness and death in the United States and the rest of the developed world. This is not because they are more dangerous than drugs that are currently illegal, but because they are legal and commercially produced and distributed.

Legalizing marijuana would not stop the produc- tion, sale, or use of illegal marijuana.

Look at the numbers: In the United States, 52 percent of those aged 12 and older drank alcohol in the past month, and 27 percent used tobacco, but only nine percent used any illegal drug and only seven percent used marijuana. This indicates that prohibition is successfully deterring illegal drug use. While prohibition is not without real costs, and today’s drug policy can be improved, our balanced and restrictive drug policy is limiting the damage done by illegal drug use in the United States and around the world.

The promises of drug legalization are bogus. Legalizing marijuana would not stop the production, sale, or use of illegal marijuana. If marijuana were taxed and regulated, there would be plenty of marijuana grown and sold on the black market. Furthermore, normalizing marijuana use would increase demand in both the legal and illegal markets.

The tax bonanza promoted by legalization advocates is hard to take seriously. Legal marijuana sales would struggle to compete with black-market sales, which would continue to provide more potent products at lower, tax-free prices. To the extent that there would be tax revenues from legal marijuana, they would pale in comparison to the social costs. In the United States, the tax revenues from alcohol and tobacco are far less than their social costs. Is this an attractive precedent? I don’t think so.

The public has been led to believe that this politically potent movement is just about marijuana. It is not. Every argument made today in support of marijuana legalization is also being made – or will be made – for other illegal drugs.

The real drug-abuse challenge facing the world today is seldom recognized, let alone debated. It is rooted not in politics, but in biology. Drugs of abuse, including marijuana, target the brain’s reward system more intensely than natural pleasures such as food and sex. Drugs are addicting not because users experience withdrawal when they stop using them, but because they produce a brain reward that the once-addicted brain never forgets. That is why relapses to drug use are so common long after all withdrawal symptoms have passed.

Legalizing drugs, including marijuana, is absolutely not the new and better idea to reduce the toll of illegal drug use.

To combat the rising demand for illegal drugs around the world, we must fashion more effective strategies to limit the use of drugs of abuse outside legitimate and controlled medical situations – strategies that are affordable and compatible with contemporary laws and culture. This is an enormous task, but one that can be completed with international cooperation and leadership. Drug use can be reduced by, among other things, implementing strong prevention strategies, increasing access to treatment, improving quality of treatment, and leveraging the criminal justice system to reduce drug use while also reducing recidivism and incarceration. Legalizing drugs, including marijuana, is absolutely not the new and better idea to reduce the toll of illegal drug use.

As for Uruguay, President José Mujica and his legislature have produced a media sensation. It is difficult to imagine that legalizing marijuana as envisioned in Uruguay’s proposed law could result in the reduction of Uruguay’s role as a country used for drug transit for Paraguayan marijuana and Bolivian cocaine. Monitoring the outcomes of this policy change is enormously important. Sadly, there is little doubt that the new law will encourage the use and sale of marijuana and other drugs of abuse both in Uruguay and in the international marketplace.

Having spent four decades working to reduce drug use and lower the devastating public-health costs of drug abuse, I struggle to understand why so many otherwise sensible and responsible people accept the drug legalization hogwash.

Photo credit: Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

Robert DuPontRobert DuPont was the White House Drug Chief (1973-1977) under former Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. He is the founding president of the Institute for Behavior and Health.