Gorilla in the Room: The Expert View on Drug Legalization

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As the debate over drug prohibition develops, InSight Crime reviews the positions of leading thinkers on drug decriminalization and legalization, finding that the debate is often more nuanced than a simple yes or no.

When Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina said in January 2012 that he would support a debate over drug decriminalization, he ignited a conversation that has drawn the attention of the entire region. Even the message from Washington has shifted, with Vice President Joe Biden reiterating that the US opposes legalization, but acknowledges that it is a legitimate topic for discussion. As the sixth Summit of the Americas approaches, to be held April 14 and 15 in Cartagena, Colombia, Western Hemisphere leaders are preparing for the next stage of the debate, even though drug policy reform is not an official item on the event’s agenda.

InSight Crime has prepared a map detailing the positions of every country in the region on legalization and decriminalization. While it is useful to understand how these policies are viewed throughout the region, some experts advocate more nuanced views than the current state of the debate has allowed.

The differing positions of three leading US-based thinkers who have spent their careers studying drug policy speak to the degree of complexity of the issue.

The Latin American Perspective

Daniel Mejia, professor at Bogota’s Universidad de los Andes, argues that the “purely prohibitionist position, focused on the criminalization of consumers, has failed.” However, he does not advocate complete legalization, but draws a distinction between “hard” and “soft” drugs. Mejia argues that for cocaine and heroin, legalization would be a “simplistic and wrong” solution. For marijuana, however, legalization with active regulation and controls could be the answer.

Peter Reuter, University of Maryland professor in the School of Public Policy and the Department of Criminology, said during a 2009 speaking engagement he was skeptical of decriminalization but noted that overall consumption has not risen significantly in Portugal since it decriminalized possession of small quantities of all drugs in 2001. Later, he expressed qualified support for decriminalization, but said that in regard to cannabis, consumption was more influenced by popular culture than by government policy.

In the preface to his 2001 book “Drug War Heresies: Learning from Other Vices, Times, and Places,” co-authored with Robert MacCoun, Reuter notes that the publication “does not reach a strong conclusion about what should be done.” Later, he says full-scale marijuana legalization would produce “no major additional gains to counterbalance the increase in prevalence.”

Regarding the prohibition of cocaine and heroin, Reuter and MacCoun note, “The extraordinary prices of cocaine and heroin, the massive involvement of young minority males in center cities, foreign corruption, and the violence of the drug trades are all plausibly much increased by the nation’s decision to be highly punitive toward these drugs. Prohibition might be implemented differently with much less of this specific collateral damage.”

Mark Kleiman, UCLA Professor of Public Policy, advocates the decriminalization of marijuana (but not its commercial legalization) and the continued prohibition of hard drugs. Kleiman also suggests more specific policy reforms like adapting enforcement and sentencing to mitigate the harmful effects of the drug trade, which he says are, “Violence, neighborhood disruption, and the recruitment of juveniles.” Kleiman suggests a variety of policies to overhaul the approach to all recreational drugs, not just illegal ones: much higher cigarette and alcohol taxes, eliminating the drinking age but targeting kids with anti-alcohol abuse advertisements, and better incorporating drug addiction treatment into the health care system, to name a few.

While Kleiman and Reuter argue for a different kind of prohibition, Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, advocates prohibition be discarded altogether, at least for marijuana. In a radio interview from March 2012 Nadelmann suggests marijuana be legalized commercially. Nadelmann also suggested hard drugs be provided to addicts — but still a step short of a commercially legal regime like those that currently govern the sale of alcohol and tobacco. In addition to these steps toward a legal regulatory framework, Nadelmann’s organization advocates a host of reforms aimed at harm reduction, like supervised injection facilities (currently illegal in the US), drug replacement therapy, and clean needle access.

For each of these leading experts, legalization and decriminalization are complex issues. Beyond the difference between commercial legalization and decriminalization, a key distinction exists between the kind of drug under consideration. Each of these scholars considers that marijuana deserves a different treatment, as its use has very different public health consequences than cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine use.

While these experts hold differing positions on drug policy, they all acknowledge the opportunity for reform. They all hold positions more complex than blanket support for decriminalization or legalization of all drugs. As the hemisphere’s leaders prepare for the Summit of the Americas, the incredible complexity of both the drug policy issue and its potential solutions ensures that the process of region-wide reform will be lengthy and controversial.

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