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New drug policy study reveals legalization is not the only alternative to America's "war on drugs"
08 November 2001

By Janet Gilmore, Media Relations

Berkeley - 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.

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


Robert MacCoun, University of California, Berkeley, professor of public policy and law

That is the conclusion of a new research book by psychologist Robert MacCoun, a University of California, Berkeley, professor of public policy and law, and economist Peter Reuter, professor of criminology and public affairs at the University of Maryland at College Park.

Their book, "Drug War Heresies" (Cambridge Press, 2001), offers a comprehensive study of legalization. It is 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. And, 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 as 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."

In their book, 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, the authors argue that the United States's 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 quickly weaken 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.

The authors conclude that a sound drug policy should not only seek to reduce drug use, which exacerbates problems of crime, unemployment, poor parenting and other societal ills, but also to lessen the societal harms that accompany drug prohibitions, such as diseases that spread as addicts share dirty needles, and other public health consequences.

The authors reached these conclusions after exhaustive research, which included interviews with European policy makers, original research into the nation's prohibition and regulation of vices such as alcohol, and the evaluation of research from a dozen countries.

The carefully documented book explores both the pros and cons of legalization. And, it encourages individuals to distinguish decriminalization (the elimination of criminal penalties for possession of small quantities of drugs) from the more radical notion of allowing legal commercial sales of a drug.

Reuter believes the book will provide sound data to a drug policy debate that is currently driven by strong emotions and insufficient or unreliable research. The book evaluates the effect of legalization on each individual type of drug.

The researchers concluded that legalization of marijuana offers modest risks, but also only modest societal rewards. 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, the researchers 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.

In fact the researchers' book devotes an entire chapter to the issue of values and tradeoffs. They note, for example, that legalizing certain drugs would significantly reduce drug-related violent crimes in low-income urban areas, but would increase the number of middle-class drug users.

According to the authors, the most promising solutions must integrate traditional law enforcement, treatment, and prevention with programs that directly address the harms that accompany prohibition.

"This books shows that there isn't an easy answer," said Reuter. "You have to work at this one."

The study was funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation in a grant to the RAND Drug Policy Research Center.