Study finds drug policy alternatives beyond legalization, prohibition

By Janet Gilmore, Public Affairs



Professor Robert MacCoun is author of a new research book on alternatives to the strict legal prohibition of marijuana, cocaine and heroin.

14 November 2001 | Neither a zero-tolerance plan nor a blanket legalization approach is the answer to reducing the nation’s drug use and the drug-related problems that plague society, according to a new research book by Berkeley psychologist Robert MacCoun.

The best methods fall within a range of options within those two extremes - options that are often overlooked.

In his book, “Drug War Heresies” (Cambridge Press, 2001), MacCoun, a Berkeley professor of public policy and law, and coauthor Peter Reuter, a professor of criminology and public affairs at the University of Maryland, College Park, offer a comprehensive look at legalization. The book offers the first multidisciplinary, objective analysis of alternatives to the strict prohibition of marijuana, cocaine and heroin use.

“I don’t think we’ll ever have a drug-free society,” said MacCoun. “It’s not a war that you win. It’s a problem that you manage.”

Based on 10 years of research, the book explores the nation’s previous encounters with prohibition and regulation, including alcohol and tobacco use.

“We really were agnostic when we started this project,” said MacCoun. “We really tried to be honest brokers, looking at evidence from both sides.”

The book not only looks to the nation’s history for answers, but also evaluates drug policies being tried in western Europe and elsewhere.

“Recent innovations in western Europe suggest that we don’t have to choose between a heavily punitive war on drugs and a libertarian free-market,” argued MacCoun.

Western European countries, which have a lower drug addiction rate than the United States and fewer drug-related crime problems, have tried a range of intermediate options.

For example, Switzerland has shown that heroin can be provided safely to addicts, who seem to commit fewer crimes and find more employment as a consequence. South Australia allows citizens to cultivate small quantities of marijuana without criminal penalty, a policy that keeps these individuals away from hard drug users and the violence of the black market.

MacCoun contends that such options are often ignored by U.S. leaders, who seek to project a tough, anti-drug image and paint advocates of alternative approaches as disloyal or drug promoters.

“In this country, we don’t really have a serious debate,” said MacCoun. “Politicians act tough out of timidity — they are afraid to be seen as soft on drugs. And intellectuals are quick to find fault with the war on drugs, but they haven’t been very serious about thinking through the alternatives. So, our goal is to elevate and inform the debate.”

MacCoun and Reuter conclude that legalization proponents are essentially correct in their claim that drug prohibition, especially as currently practiced, is a major source of drug-related harms. Prohibition fosters the conditions that encourage income-generating property crime, violence among drug sellers, a $50-billion black market, frequent drug overdoses and the sharing of dirty needles.

But the authors also found that any form of legal commercial sales would significantly increase the amount of drug use in society. Even if each drug user consumed fewer drugs, an increase in the total number of people using drugs could translate to more problems, overall, for society.

Further, they argue that the United States’ history with alcohol, tobacco, and gambling suggests that legalization along with regulation is not the answer. The business community’s enormous lobbying power and aggressive marketing efforts would be expected to weaken quickly any government regulation of drugs.

“Given the inability to make a compelling case for legalization, society has to work out how to make prohibition work more effectively and more humanely,” Reuter contends.

Before offering conclusions, the book provides a comprehensive evaluation of the effect of legalization on individual drugs.

Legalization of marijuana offers modest risks, but also only modest societal rewards, the authors point out. Marijuana use is not linked to violent crime nor significant property crime, so elimination of a black market for marijuana would not have a major impact on crime.

As for cocaine, the researchers found no model drug program under which the drug might be effectively regulated in the United States. The risks associated with increased use of that drug would be so high that they would outweigh the benefits of eliminating the black market-related problems and public health concerns that accompany prohibition.

Similarly, they found no effective model for commercially regulating heroin use. However, they found some promise in a heroin maintenance program established in Switzerland in the 1990s. That clinic-based program provided heroin on a regular basis to more than 800 hard-core users. At the end of the clinical trials, no overdoses were reported, crime rates dropped and employment increased.

If such clinical trials continue to prove successful and more countries implement such programs, MacCoun said, U.S. policy makers may have to weigh the morality of supplying addicts with heroin versus the morality of ignoring a program that helps these users and perhaps helps society in general.


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