Magann: A Better Framework

America must fix its ineffective drug policies.

by Matthew Magann | 5/4/18 2:00am

 According to a recent survey by College Pulse, a majority of Dartmouth respondents have violated the law; until this past fall, they could have faced jail time. New Hampshire has since done away with that penalty, but every one of these students could still face substantial fines. Their crime? Smoking weed.

New Hampshire recently decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana. Even still, possession of more than three-quarters of an ounce invokes criminal penalties, including possible jail time. Under current law, the majority of students at Dartmouth should face civil or criminal penalties for marijuana use. That’s clearly unwarranted; most students here are no danger to society, and their use of marijuana hardly constitutes grounds for criminal proceedings.

The pragmatic argument for marijuana legalization –– that it reflects societal norms and cuts down on needless government spending — is a strong one. Legalizing marijuana, the most commonly-used illicit drug in America, would drastically reduce arrest and imprisonment rates and cut revenue for criminal organizations. Most importantly, legalizing a substance regularly used by 22 percent of Americans would cease the criminalization of otherwise law-abiding citizens.

That’s not to mention the impact of marijuana legalization on other social issues. There’s a racial element to drug enforcement; though whites and blacks use marijuana at similar rates, black Americans are arrested for marijuana possession at a rate multiple times that of white Americans. Legalizing marijuana would eliminate this inequality. And don’t forget about immigration. Many of America’s undocumented immigrants fled drug-related violence in Latin America. Legalizing marijuana could cut revenue for cartels, stemming the flow of immigration; whatever effects this reduction might have, it could reduce domestic tension around immigration policy.

But for all the practical benefits of marijuana legalization, one argument outshines them all: the argument for personal freedom. The state ought to restrict the actions of a person only when those actions threaten the freedom of another person. For instance, murder is illegal, because murdering a person violates the victim’s freedom. Using marijuana, though, harms no one but the user. Yes, marijuana has negative health effects, but so do similar substances, like alcohol, tobacco and unhealthy food. Marijuana’s damaging effects does not give the state the right to interfere in citizens’ personal lives. If people choose to jeopardize their own health, so be it. It’s none of the government’s business.

Marijuana legalization, of course, does not need to result in marijuana promotion. Marijuana is a health hazard, and the government should certainly attempt to reduce its prevalence. The country has seen great success in the campaign against tobacco. Instead of outlawing personal consumption of tobacco products, the government focused on education about the dangers of tobacco. The campaign worked. Rates of tobacco smoking have plummeted from 42.4 percent of adults in 1965 to just 16.8 percent in 2014. Compare that to Prohibition, which, though less catastrophic than popularly imagined, criminalized ordinary Americans and exacted a whole range of societal costs. Marijuana legalization is justified, both in principle and in practice. The government has no right to curb on moral grounds the private actions of an individual.

But thankfully, decriminalization won’t lead to catastrophe, as we know from precedent. Look at the case of Portugal, which in 2001 decriminalized drug possession and use. Since then, drug use rates have declined, synthetic drugs have lost most of their market and the rate of drug-induced death has hit three per million — compare that to America’s 197 per million. Yes, criminal penalties have a deterrent effect, but that effect is small and far outweighed by the drawbacks. It is right to disapprove of hard drugs, but drug laws need to progress beyond the kneejerk reaction of punishing drug users. Instead, laws must focus on policies that actually tackle drug abuse.

Decriminalizing drug use seems counterintuitive, but it works. In the current model, the government unjustly intervenes in the private lives of individuals, with little to show for it save for an epidemic of drug abuse and the world’s second-highest incarceration rate. The U.S. should scrap criminalization and replace it with a more effective system. Government can fully legalize, tax and regulate some drugs, like marijuana, that don’t pose an extreme risk to public health. But the government should, in conjunction with expanding access to treatment, decriminalize personal use. To combat drug abuse, decriminalization remains the best option.