With Washington and Colorado leading the charge with marijuana legalization, it seems like not a day goes by that there is some story in the press about another state considering some form of legalization. New York, Tennessee, Arizona, Florida, Maine, Oregon, Alaska, Massachusetts — the list keeps growing. Now that Washington and Colorado have broken the ice, and polls show that the issue is no longer toxic for politicians to have nuanced, reasoned positions on, reform seems to be unstoppable. If that is the case, then good. Marijuana prohibition has been one of the most stupid, costliest set of laws this country has ever had. But, if keeping marijuana illegal is such a bad idea, what about other drugs, like heroin or LSD? If legalization of marijuana recognizes that using the drug is a personal choice that government has no business prohibiting, then why not end prohibition for all illegal drugs?
One of the reasons people cite for supporting marijuana legalization is that the drug is about the safest recreational drug on the market. It’s safer than cigarettes, booze, heroin, cocaine, meth, ketamine, and pharmaceuticals. The potential for abuse is low, and there has not been one reported case of someone overdosing on marijuana. Indeed, the greatest danger to marijuana users is the justice system. The laws appear to exist for the sole purpose of putting people in jail, not protecting them from a harmful substance. Marijuana legalization just makes sense.
What about a drug that is demonstrably dangerous? Should the government continue to prosecute users and dealers?
In an interview with The Guardian, David Simon, the creator of The Wire and an authority on inner city drug culture, said, “I’m not sure you can entirely rationalize the use of hard drugs. I’m not particularly interested in the process by which you would do that. I just want to decriminalize it to the extent that, you know, we’re not creating the American gulag.” Simon hits the nail on the head. Hard drugs are dangerous. There is no argument from safety to be made for many drugs other than marijuana. Many, like heroin, have the potential to wreak havoc on users and communities. But the problem in keeping these drugs illegal lies in the scope of policing users and dealers. The laws we have on the books regarding hard drugs are far out of proportion to the problem, to the extent that the laws themselves contribute to destroying lives and communities. The unequal response of the law to the problem has to be addressed. If not with legalization, then with, as Simon states, decriminalization.
In a decriminalization regime, it would still be illegal to sell and use hard drugs, but drugs would be considered an issue of public health, not criminal justice. Users would potentially face fines for open use, but would garner no criminal records. Treatment and prevention through education would replace throwing people into jail cells and leaving them with a permanent stain on their record that would preclude them from ever truly participating in American society.
Where dealers are concerned, decriminalization would leave current punishments in place. This continues to address the source of drugs, but fails to address societal conditions whereby dealing is one of the only reliable sources of employment in some areas of this country. No relationship between dealing and opportunity has yet been made in law, and greater minds than mine are going to have to work that out, but there has to be a way to bring punishments for dealing in line with the scope of the crime.
The important thing is, simply locking people up over drugs is not working. It never worked and it never will. Rather than concede outright defeat and simply legalize and regulate all drugs, decriminalization would keep hard drugs on the margins, where they belong, but do much to make sure that people don’t stay there, as well.