Legalizing All Drugs Could Bring Public Health Benefits, Researchers Argue

What would happen if heroin, cocaine and other drugs were legal? Image: RHJPhtotoandilustration/Shutterstock.com

The idea of legalizing all illicit drugs represents a dramatic departure from the status quo, and while no country has yet taken this radical step, a new paper in the journal Drug Science, Policy and Law suggests that it may be the only way to rectify certain drug-related harms. According to the authors, legalization would allow for all aspects of drug use to be regulated, thereby resolving safety issues, expanding access to addiction treatment, and eliminating the violence associated with black market trafficking.

The researchers examine four possible models for future drug policies before concluding that legalization represents “our only way out of the public health and criminal justice crises that have been driven by drug policy globally.”

The first option to be analyzed is continuing with the punitive drug laws that currently predominate worldwide. Global efforts to eradicate drug use through prohibition began in earnest with the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs in 1961 – yet, as the study authors point out, drug use has only increased in the past six decades, with more than 20 percent of people having used cannabis illegally in certain countries.

Aside from failing to curb drug use, the researchers argue that prohibition has also made narcotics considerably more dangerous. For instance, the fact that substances must be purchased illicitly means they are not subject to quality control, and therefore often contain toxic impurities or additives. Most notably, fentanyl-laced street heroin has driven an alarming rise in overdose deaths in the US, and the authors foresee an escalation of this crisis if current laws remain unchanged.

In addition, placing the lucrative narcotics market in the hands of criminals has allowed for the creation of a horrifically violent black market, with drug smuggling networks also facilitating the trafficking of weapons, people, and illicit donor organs.

Moving on, the researchers assess the possibility of expanding current drug laws to ban the use of legal substances such as alcohol and tobacco. However, citing the shocking increase in organized crime that accompanied the introduction of Prohibition in the US in the 1920s, they conclude that re-adopting such an approach would only lead us back down a similar path.

The authors then turn their attention to the possibility of decriminalizing drugs, which would remove criminal penalties for possession while production and sale would remain illegal. Such an approach has already been adopted by Portugal, where addiction rates have plummeted since all drugs were decriminalized in 2001, allowing problem users to seek treatment rather than face time in prison.

However, decriminalization is riddled with contradictions that can only be overcome by authorities agreeing to “turn a blind eye” to the entire narcotics supply chain. After all, if people are allowed to possess drugs, then someone, somewhere, has to be allowed to sell them.

Finally, the prospect of legalization is discussed, along with strategies for regulating a legal drugs market. Doing so would prevent a “free for all” by ensuring that vital restrictions are placed on sale and use while also controlling potency. As the authors point out, legal alcohol sales do not extend to dangerous concoctions containing 100 percent ethanol, or the right to drink at work, for example.

Moreover, the paper addresses the use of highly dangerous synthetic cannabis alternatives such as Spice, which became popular in the UK due to the fact that it was initially legal, and therefore carried less risk than smoking cannabis. Yet in areas where cannabis has been legalized, the use of these harmful synthetics has dropped, illustrating how prohibitive drug laws often encourage riskier substance use.


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