Legalization Facts by Pete Guither Heading Image
Constructing Legitimate Arguments

If you believe the government has the authority to prohibit drugs,
it's not enough to say that certain drugs should be illegal because they're dangerous to individuals or society. You must show:
  1. that they are dangerous,
  2. that criminalization actually significantly reduces the danger,
  3. that criminalization is the best way to reduce the danger, and
  4. that the side effects of criminalization won't be worse.
Otherwise the argument is meaningless.

When it comes to drugs, drug policy, and the charged "legalization" word, lots of people have very strong, sometimes emotional, opinions based on personal experience, connections to tragic situations, a sense of justice, and years of hearing arguments framed in a certain way.

Unfortunately, in many situations, people are (with full good intention) passionately repeating arguments that are not valid and may even result in the opposite of the person's actual intent.

We're going to explore what it actually means when someone calls for the legalization of, or the continued criminalization of, certain drugs. Let's start with some:


Legalization: A status where responsible adults may legally acquire, possess, and use a particular drug, although there may be restrictions on time, place and manner. Legal does not mean unregulated. In fact, when it comes to drugs, most supporters of legalization call for some regulation and control.

Consider gasoline. It is an extremely dangerous substance -- it can cause severe health problems or death if inhaled, can be fashioned into an explosive and can cause damaging fires. It is a legal substance (responsible adults may acquire, possess, and use it), but it is subject to control and regulation. It can only be sold by licensed dealers, and there are regulations as to how it may be used, in what kind of containers it may be stored, and so forth.

Legalization of drugs is fully compatible with regulatory efforts restricting access to children, forbidding use while driving or while working in safety-sensitive jobs, banning use in certain locations or situations, controlling the means for manufacture and distribution (including taxation and labeling), and creating standards for purity and potency.

Criminalization: A status where the manufacture, distribution, and/or possession of a particular drug is likely to result in criminal penalties if caught (ie, felony or misdemeanor charges, jail, fines, probation, criminal record), regardless of time, place, or manner.

Prohibition: The combined efforts by government entities and others to enforce and promote criminalization.

Decriminalization: American Heritage dictionary defines it as "to reduce or abolish criminal penalties for." Theoretically, decriminalization could mean legalization (and is preferred by some drug policy reformers), except for the "reduce" option. Decriminalization is sometimes used to describe contradictory legal situations where marijuana, for example, is legal to possess and use, but not to acquire -- this is a partial legalization that leaves intact certain aspects of prohibition's side-effect (see below). Because of these confusions, for the purpose of this guide, we go with criminalized and legalized.

The default status of any substance is legal. (For information on how certain substances became criminalized, see here and here.)

Arguing Against Legalization

Those who advocate for the continued criminalization of drugs (ie., against legalization) tend to do so for one of the following motivations:

  1. They have a genuine concern about the danger of drug abuse to society and individuals,
  2. They have a selfish interest in continuing the drug war (financial gain, political power, etc.) that has nothing to do with the well-being of society,
  3. They're more interested in inflicting punishment on certain groups/types of individuals than in reducing harm (see SadoMoralists).
Those who reside entirely in category 2 and 3 are not interested in actually participating in the debate or contributing anything positive as relates to drug policy. So let's focus on those with genuine interest in the well-being of society.

... who will argue:

Drugs are Dangerous

This is where arguments usually get bogged down. Time and time again, you'll see discussions supposedly about "legalization" (or opposing legalization) when nothing is discussed except the dangers of drugs. It is also one of the most common tactics of prohibitionists -- to proclaim a particular danger related to a particular drug and say "See, this is why drugs need to be illegal," when in fact the argument says nothing of the kind.

Cars, aspirin, sky-diving, chocolate, jogging, stress, and electric saws pose significant dangers to individuals and society. Yet it would be ludicrous to assert that merely stating a danger related to one of these things was sufficient justification to make that thing illegal.

Yet we do that without thinking when it comes to drugs.

This is not to say that we shouldn't have discussions about the various dangers connected with different drugs. We must. But such discussions are irrelevant to the question of criminalization/legalization, unless certain criteria are met below.

There are plenty of other places with detailed discussions about the relative dangers of drugs. See Erowid for the most comprehensive detail on the effects of different drugs. But it's important for us to move on to the more neglected, yet crucial, elements of reason and evidence necessary for a valid argument.

Does Prohibition Work?

Unless we know that criminalization will actually be successful at reducing the danger of drugs to individuals and society, there is no point in using it, regardless of the amount of danger caused by drugs. Additionally, assuming it can be shown that criminalization reduces the danger, it's important to have an idea of the amount of danger reduction.

Prohibition depends on three primary techniques:

  1. Stopping the availability of drugs (interdiction, eradication)
  2. Using criminal penalties as a deterrent
  3. Arresting dealers/users

• Interdiction/Eradication

___DEA Seizures in Kilograms___
Year Cocaine Heroin Marijuana
2007 96,713 625 356,472
2006 69,826 805 322,438
2005 118,311 640 283,344
2004 117,822 672 264,714
2003 73,720 789 254,188
2002 61,594 705 195,644
2001 59,426 752 271,785
2000 58,627 546 331,964
1999 36,167 351 337,832
1998 34,448 371 262,176
1997 28,630 399 215,348
1996 44,765 320 190,453
1995 45,326 876 219,830
1994 75,051 491 157,182
1993 55,158 616 143,030
1992 69,323 722 201,507
1991 67,016 1,170 98,601
1990 57,031 532 127,694
1989 73,592 758 286,167
1988 60,826 730 347,306
1987 49,668 512 629,892
1986 30,333 371 599,166
Total 1,383,373 13,753 6,096,733
From 1986 to 2007, the DEA seized 1,383,383 kilograms of cocaine. That is over 3 million pounds or 1.3 billion grams. You'd think that with that much success in interdiction, that it would have had an incredible effect on price and availability (and this doesn't even include eradication efforts in source countries).

And yet, in the nearest comparable time period as estimated by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, in the United States, from 1990 to 2005, the average street price of cocaine (adjusted for inflation) dropped from $284 per gram to $107 per gram, and there has been no long-term effect on availability.

Supply/Demand/elasticity. The Economic Theory of Illegal Goods: The Case of Drugs by Gary S. Becker, Kevin M. Murphy, and Michael Grossman, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.

• Deterrence

• Arresting Dealers/Users

interestingly, the more prohibition effort expended, the more inelastic the demand, as it reduces the number of casual users and the substitution options.

Under construction. More to come soon. Send questions and suggestions to pete (at)