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Back to Archives | Back to March 2005 Contents 

Drug Legalization: Why It Wouldn't Work in the United States

By Edmund Hartnett, Deputy Chief and Executive Officer, Narcotics Division, New York City Police Department, New York





he issue of drug legalization is a complex one. Most Americans do not favor it, yet there is a strong and very vocal lobby in the United States that feels that legalization would be the proper course to take. When this vocal minority raises the issue in any community, citizens look to the police chief to speak to the issue. Police chief are encouraged to borrow from this article as they prepare their speeches.

Proponents’ Arguments
Proponents of drug legalization believe that the current policies regarding drugs have been harmful to individuals, families, and society as a whole. They strongly oppose current drug laws and policies for a variety of reasons. Some see the laws as an impingement of individual freedoms. Some see them as a colossal waste of government resources citing the opinion that the legalization of drugs could produce millions in tax revenues while at the same time putting drug dealers out of business and ensuring quality controls in the production of drugs. Some feel that legalization would reduce overall crime. Some argue that the laws are a form of institutionalized racism designed to keep minorities as a permanent disenfranchised underclass by keeping them in prison, addicted, or completely dependent on government aid. Others take what they view as a humanitarian approach, arguing that certain substances should be made legal for medicinal purposes. Some have chosen to refer to the issue as harm reduction instead of drug legalization in an apparent effort to soften the issue and give it a more humanitarian tone. Still others view the prohibition against drugs as an inherently flawed and impossible strategy that has exacerbated crime and violence and has contributed to a sense of despair and hopelessness for millions of Americans.

It is also interesting to note that the proponents of legalization include supporters from across the political spectrum, from progressives on the far left to libertarians on the far right. Liberal Democratic Congressman Charles Rangel is adamantly opposed to drug legalization, while conservative icon and columnist William F. Buckley has long been a proponent of making drugs legal. Congressman Rangel has referred to legalization as “a very dangerous idea” that should “be put to rest once and for all.”1

Opponents to Legalization
Although it is clear the majority of U.S. citizens are in favor of keeping the use, sale, and possession of drugs illegal, much of the writing from the antilegalization viewpoint comes from law enforcement and government officials. Former New York City Mayor Ed Koch once described drug legalization as “the equivalent of extinguishing a fire with napalm.”2 Although many acknowledge that the so-called war on drugs has had mixed success, they believe that the alternative would have catastrophic effects on the nation. They believe that the legalization of drugs would increase use, lead to more experimentation by youth, and exacerbate the existing deleterious effects that drugs have on society. They are of the opinion that government subsidization of addicts would have crippling effects on the economy. They also feel that legalization would help to create a large black market for drugs. Antilegalization proponents also point out that drug dealers and hardcore addicts would not suddenly become productive, law-abiding members of society. The antilegalization point of view is that dealers will still be involved in crime and violence and that users will still need to support themselves by engaging in criminal activity. Basically, they believe that the legalization of drugs would lead to increases, not reductions, in crime because there would be more addicts and because of the aforementioned black market. Also, opponents of legalization often cite statistics that show that drug prevention initiatives, drug awareness curricula in schools, and drug treatment programs are working. They point to the fact that there are fewer addicts today than there were 20 years ago.

Drugs and Crime
There are two schools of thought on the issue of drug legalization and crime. Do drugs cause crime? Does drug use inevitably lead to crime? If drugs were made legal, would there be less crime? If the government subsidized addicts, would they still engage in criminal conduct? What would happen to drug dealers and drug gangs if drugs were legalized? Although the issue is complex, both groups agree that drugs and crime are inexorably linked.

Many legalization supporters believe that property crime, particularly burglary, larceny from persons (purse snatchers, chain snatchers, and pickpockets), auto theft, theft from autos, and shoplifting would decrease by 40-50 percent if drugs were made legal. Similarly, many believe that the terms “drug-related murder” and “drive-by shooting” would become outdated once drugs were legalized. In their view, turf wars would be eliminated because there would no longer be a need to fight for one’s turf.

Additionally, there are those who point out that drug enforcement is a waste of valuable law enforcement resources since statistically most drug users do not get caught. Thus, the deterrent effect of criminalization is lost. Todd Brenner uses the example of marijuana arrests. In 1987 approximately 25 million people in the United States used marijuana, the most easily detectable drug, yet only 378,000 arrests were made; roughly one arrest for every 63 users.3 His point is that the public would be better served if the police targeted crimes in which they had a better success rate. Also, legalization supporters believe that once drugs were legalized, the government could pay less attention to drug-related crime and spend more time and money on treatment, rehabilitation, education, and job training programs. Other benefits cited would be reduced prison populations, more manageable caseloads for judges and attorneys, and better relations between the public and the police.

Many believe that traditional organized crime would be seriously affected by legalization. Benjamin and Miller write: “The Mafia would not disappear, because organized crime would be able to survive on other criminal activities, such as loan sharking, gambling, prostitution, and child pornography. But drug legalization would remove the backbone of organized crime’s profits, causing it to diminish in importance.”4

Opponents to legalization obviously do not see legalization as a panacea that will make crime go away. They see a clear connection between drug use and crime and, perhaps more importantly, between drug use and violence. Joseph Califano, the author and a member of President Johnson’s cabinet, stated: “Drugs like marijuana and cocaine are not dangerous because they are illegal; they are illegal because they are dangerous.”5 The DEA reports that six times as many homicides are committed by persons under the influence of drugs than those looking for money to buy drugs and that most arrestees for violent crimes test positive for drugs at time of arrest.6 Speaking to a Congressional subcommittee on drug policy in 1999, Donnie Marshall, then deputy administrator of DEA, spoke of drug use, crime, and violence. He said that there is “a misconception that most drug-related crimes involve people who are looking for money to buy drugs. The fact is that most drug-related crimes are committed by people whose brains have been messed up with mood-altering drugs.”7

Legalization opponents are convinced that the violence caused by drug use “will not magically stop because the drugs are legal. Legal PCP isn’t going to make a person less violent than illegally purchased PCP.”8 Susan Neiberg Terkel echoes these sentiments by saying that legalizing drugs “cannot change human nature. It cannot improve the social conditions that compel people to engage in crime, nor can it stop people from using drugs as an excuse to be violent.”9 The belief is that drugs, legal or not, often lead to violence. Erich Goode, a SUNY professor and a proponent of harm reduction, writes: “It is extremely unlikely that legalization will transform the violent nature of the world of heavy, chronic drug abuse very much. That violence is a part of the way that frequent, heavy drug users live their lives; it is systemic to their subculture.”10

It is interesting to note that the federal approach to drugs and crime is not solely linked to arrest and incarceration. In Congressional testimony in 1999, Barry McCaffrey, then-director of the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy, stated: “We cannot arrest our way out of our nation’s drug problem. We need to break the cycle of addiction, crime, and prison through treatment and other diversion programs. Breaking the cycle is not soft
on drugs; it is smart on defeating drugs and crime.”11

Public Health Concerns
Opponents of legalization seem to be just as committed as the prolegalization lobby. They believe that the legalization of drugs would have devastating effects on public health, the economy, quality of life, American culture, and society as a whole.

The advocacy group Drug Watch International points out that drugs are illegal “because of their intoxicating effect on the brain, damaging impact on the body, adverse impact on behavior, and potential for abuse. Their use threatens the health, welfare, and safety of all people, of users and nonusers alike.”12 Legalization advocates contend that the same statement could be made about alcohol.

William J. Bennett, former director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, responds to that claim, arguing “that legalized alcohol, which is responsible for some 100,000 deaths a year, is hardly the model for drug policy. As Charles Krauthammer has pointed out, the question is not which is worse, alcohol or drugs. The question is, can we accept both legalized alcohol and legalized drugs? The answer is No.”13 Morton M. Kondracke of the New Republic magazine discusses another comparison between drugs and alcohol: “Of the 115 million Americans who consume alcohol, 85 percent rarely become intoxicated; with drugs, intoxication is the whole idea.”14

Legalization opponents believe that our already burdened health care industry would be overwhelmed if drugs were legal. This would come in the form of direct results of drug use (more overdoses, more AIDS patients, and more illness stemming from addiction) and indirect results of drugs (more injuries due to drug-related violence, accidents, and workplace incidents). They also believe that legalization would increase the number of emergency room visits, ambulance calls, and fire and police responses. The ONDCP reports that in 2002 direct health care costs attributable to illegal drug abuse were $52 billion.15

In addition, legalization opponents disagree with legalization advocates regarding whether legalization would increase drug use. Legalization opponents believe that drug use would increase dramatically if drugs were made legal and easy to obtain. William J. Bennett uses the example of crack cocaine. He writes: “When powder cocaine was expensive and hard to get, it was found almost exclusively in the circles of the rich, the famous, or the privileged. Only when cocaine was dumped into the country, and a $3 vial of crack could be bought on street corners, did we see cocaine use skyrocket —this time largely among the poor and disadvantaged.”16 The DEA also takes issue with the legalization lobby on the link between easier access to drugs and an increase in addiction from a humanitarian standpoint: “The question isn’t whether legalization will increase addiction levels —it will—it’s whether we care or not. The compassionate response is to do everything possible to prevent the destruction of addiction, not make it easier.”17

Drugs Tied to Terrorism
In the aftermath of September 11, it was evident that enormous amounts of money were part of a global terrorist network. Much of this money was hidden in ostensibly legal outlets, primarily banks, investments, and charitable organizations. They were correctly targeted by law enforcement agencies and, in many cases, frozen; thereby denying terrorists access to the money. Many experts believe that terrorists are now using narcotics trafficking to fund their activities. Although much of this activity seems to be centered in the Afghanistan and Pakistan region (sometimes referred to as the Golden Crescent in law enforcement circles), all international narcotics investigations now have to add terrorism to their list of concerns. Legalization would only exacerbate this problem and put more money into the terrorists’ bank accounts.

The DEA has identified links between drug suppliers and terrorism. Their investigations, again primarily in Afghanistan and Pakistan, have shown connections among traffickers in heroin and hashish, money launderers, and al Qaeda members. They also suspect a drug-related connection involving al Qaeda and the train bombings in Madrid. According to DEA, “The bombers swapped hashish and ecstasy for the 440 pounds of dynamite used in the blasts, which killed 191 people and injured more than 1,400 others. Money from the drugs also paid for an apartment hideout, a car, and the cell phones used to detonate the bombs.”18

Economy Issues
Legalization advocates claim that if drugs are legal it will be a financial windfall for the American economy. They believe that all the public funds now wasted on the enforcement of drug laws and related matters could then be used for the good of society in areas such as education, health care, infrastructure, and social services. As mentioned earlier, some believe that drugs could eventually be taxed and thus create much-needed revenue. The DEA’s response is: “Ask legalization proponents if the alleged profits from drug legalization would be enough to pay for the increased fetal defects, loss of workplace productivity, increased traffic fatalities and industrial accidents, increased domestic violence and the myriad other problems that would not only be high-cost items but extremely expensive in terms of social decay.”19

Medical Marijuana
The antilegalization point of view rejecting the use of marijuana to ease the pain of those suffering from a variety of illnesses and conditions may appear harsh and insensitive. Their view is that there are safer, more effective drugs currently available and that there is therefore no need to rely on medicinal marijuana. The DEA states that the “clear weight of the evidence is that smoked marijuana is harmful. No matter what medical condition has been studied, other drugs have been shown to be more effective in promoting health than smoked marijuana.”20 They also believe that many proponents of the use of medicinal marijuana are disingenuous, exploiting the sick in order to win a victory in their overall fight to legalize drugs. They point to studies that show that marijuana smoke contains hundreds of toxins, similar to cigarettes, and that prolonged use can lead to serious lung damage. This, they feel, can only exacerbate existing health problems, especially for people with compromised immune systems. The DEA cites the fact that marijuana has been rejected as medicine by the American Medical Association, the American Glaucoma Society, the American Academy of Ophthalmology, the International Federation of Multiple Sclerosis Societies, and the American Cancer Society.21

Harm Reduction
The term “harm reduction” is anathema to the antilegalization lobby. They believe that “harm reduction, a cover-all term coined by the legalizers, is a euphemism encompassing legalization and liberalized drug policy, and can best be defined as ‘a variety of strategies for making illicit drug use safer and cheaper for drug users, at the expense of the rest of society, regardless of cost.’”22 The passion surrounding the issue of harm reduction is illustrated by Drug Watch International: “Harm reduction abandons attempts to free current drug users and encourages future generations to try drugs. It asserts that drug use is natural and necessary. Rather than preventing harm and drug use, harm reduction feebly attempts to reduce the misery level for addicts. Harm reduction forsakes a portion of the population, often the poor and minorities, to lifetime abuse of drugs.”23

Opponents of harm reduction see it as a very dangerous message. They complain that, instead of addressing and eventually eliminating the problems of addiction, harm reduction creates a situation that prolongs the agony of the addicted, their families and their community.

Public Reaction
A 1998 poll by the Family Research Council showed that eight out of 10 responders rejected the legalization of cocaine and heroin. The same poll asked whether they would support making these drugs legal in a manner similar to alcohol; 82 percent responded “No.” A 1999 Gallup poll revealed that 69 percent of Americans are against the legalization of marijuana. In addition, another Gallup poll showed that 72 percent were in favor of drug testing in the workplace. However, one of the better indicators of the public’s disdain for drugs is the fact that an estimated 50 million Americans who have used drugs in their youth have now rejected them.24

The U.S. Department of Justice National Drug Intelligence Center (NDIC) reveals some additional alarming statistics. In 2002 an estimated 35.1 million people aged 12 or older reported using an illegal drug within the past year; approximately 3.2 million people were drug-dependent or drug abusers.25 Based on this set of figures, there is still a significant demand for drugs in America and multitudes willing to supply the drugs. It is this demand for drugs that is at the heart of the issue. Speaking from a law enforcement perspective, it is clear that we can make millions of drug arrests, but if we don’t address the demand side of the problem, the best we can hope for is maintenance of the status quo.

Progress in this regard has been achieved and considerable inroads have been made through years of proactive prevention and education efforts. By 1999 the Office of National Drug Control Policy reported that drug use in America had been cut in half and cocaine use was reduced by 75 percent.26 Nevertheless, in spite of these promising statistics, the across-the-board nature of the drug problem in America indicates that we are far from declaring victory.

Speaking Out
The process of completing this project has led to a reexamination of my personal opinions and values on the issue of drug legalization. I assume that it is normal to be introspective when exploring both sides of a broad and complex problem. As a parent, a citizen, and a law enforcement official, I am clearly a stakeholder in this issue. I was concerned that my views in light of my police background would make me sound like an ideologue. As a public administrator, I hope that I reinforced my opinions against the legalization of drugs with sound logic and analysis.

My research allowed me to see the issue from a broader outlook. I now understand the pro-legalization viewpoint much better. Although I am still strongly opposed to the notion of drug legalization, I realize that, for the most part, they are Americans, from a broad field, who are truly committed to a cause in which they believe. Although they are pursuing a course that is dangerous for America, I respect their passion and edication. But they are woefully wrong on this issue.

I encourage police executives to speak out against drug legalization, and I hope the information in this article has provided some of the resources they need as they prepare to make these speeches. ■

1 Charles B. Rangel, “Legalizing Drugs: A ‘Dangerous Idea,’” in Drugs: Should We Legalize, Decriminalize, or Deregulate?, ed. Jeffrey A. Schaler (New York: Prometheus, 19998), 74.
2 Susan Neiburg Terkel, Should Drugs Be Legalized? (New York: Franklin Watts, 1990), 16.
3 Todd Austin Brenner, “The Legalization of Drugs: Why Prolong the Inevitable?,” in Drug Legalization: For and Against, ed. Rod L. Evans and Irwin M. Berent (LaSalle, Ill.: Open Court, 1992), 173.
4 Daniel K. Benjamin and Roger Leroy Miller,
Undoing Drugs (New York: Basic Books, 1991), 175.
5 U.S. Department of Justice, Drug Enforcement Administration, “Fact 7,” Speaking Out against Drug Legalization (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, November 2002), 2; available at (www.usdoj.gov/dea/demand/speakout/index/html).
6 U.S. Department of Justice, Drug Enforcement Administration, “Fact 7,” Speaking Out against Drug Legalization, 2.
7 Donnie Marshall, testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives, Committee on
Government Reform, Subcommittee Criminal Justice, Drug Policy, and Human Resources, June 16, 1999; transcript available at (www.usdoj.gov/dea/pubs/cngrtest/ct061699.htm).
8 Carolyn C. Gargaro, “Drug Legalization? Drugs Should Not Be Legalized; Just Say No to Drug Legalization” (1999): 5; available at (www.gargaro.com).
9 Terkel, Should Drugs Be Legalized?, 91.
10 Erich Goode, Between Politics and Reason: The Drug Legalization Debate (New York: St. Martin’s, 1997), 129; see text of chapter 7, available onlineat (www.druglibrary.org).
11 Barry R. McCaffrey, “The Drug Legalization Movement in America,” testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives, Committee on Government Reform, Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, Drug Policy, and Human Resources, June 16,1999, 20; transcript available at (www.drugwatch.org).
12 Drug Watch International, “Drug Legalization,” no. 3 in the “Truth and Lies” series (October 1995): 1; available online at (www.drugwatch.org).
13 William J. Bennett , “Mopping Up after the Legalizers: What the ‘Intellectual’ Chorus Fails to Tell You,” in Drug Legalization: For and Against, ed. Rod L. Evans and Irwin M. Berent (LaSalle, Ill.: Open Court, 1992), 226.
14 Morton M. Kondracke, “Don’t Legalize Drugs: The Costs Are Still Too High,” in Drug Legalization: For and Against, ed. Rod L. Evans and Irwin M. Berent (LaSalle, Ill.: Open Court, 1992), 284.
15 U.S. Department of Justice, Drug Enforcement Administration, “The ‘Secondhand Smoke’ Effects of Drugs on Society”: 5.
16 Bennett, “Mopping Up after the Legalizers”: 225.
17 U.S. Department of Justice, Drug Enforcement Administration, “Fact 6,” Speaking Out against Drug Legalization, 2.
18 U.S. Department of Justice, Drug Enforcement Administration, “Secondhand Smoke”: 16.
19 U.S. Department of Justice, Drug Enforcement Administration, Speaking Out against Drug Legalization, 17.
20 U.S. Department of Justice, Drug Enforcement Administration, “The DEA Position on Medical Marihuana” (May 2004): 2.
21 U.S. Department of Justice, Drug Enforcement Administration, Speaking Out against Drug Legalization, 19.
22 Sandra S. Bennett, “The Drug Decriminalization Movement in America,” testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives, Committee on Government Reform, Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, Drug Policy, and Human Resources, June 13, 1999; transcript available at (www.drugwatch.org).
23 Drug Watch International, “Harm Reduction,” no. 2 in the “Truth and Lies” series (May 1995): 1; available at (www.drugwatch.org).
24 McCaffrey, “The Drug Legalization Movement in America”: 5.
25 U.S. Department of Justice, National Drug Intelligence Center, National Drug Threat Assessment 2004.
26 McCaffrey, “The Drug Legalization Movement in America”: 13.

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From The Police Chief, vol. 72, no. 3, March 2005. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.








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