“I think what everyone believes and agrees with, and to be frank myself, is that the current approach is not working, but it is not clear what we should do,” said Prime Minister Stephen Harper after a 2012 meeting with leaders of governments from the Americas.1 The topic of discussion was the War on Drugs that has ravaged South America for decades. After offering that candid response, Harper was quick to distance himself from advocates of drug liberalization.
“There is a willingness to look at the various measures that can be taken to combat that phenomenon, but just in terms of simple answers like legalization or criminalization, let me remind you of why these drugs are illegal. They’re illegal because they quickly and totally, with many of the drugs, destroy people’s lives and people are willing to make lots of money out of selling those products.” 2
He was correct on both points. The War on Drugs is not working, and drugs can destroy lives. The fact that drugs are bad does not mean that prohibition cannot be worse. After all, few would dispute that alcohol can be extremely harmful, yet no one seriously thinks that prohibition is a reasonable alternative.
Many politicians are reluctant to take steps toward liberalizing drug policy, fearing that it would be like opening Pandora’s Box. Legalize marijuana, and eventually the government will legalize heroin, goes that line of thinking. The notion that marijuana is a gateway drug that leads to use of stronger drugs underpins that mentality.
Others think that marijuana is harmful in and of itself.
The difficulty with the public discourse on drug policy is that it often ignores the tradeoffs inherent in regulating substances. For instance, legalizing marijuana would ease pressure on the criminal justice system. On the other side, liberalization advocates attempt to gloss over the social cost of drugs. There seems to be reluctance on their part to acknowledge that there are legitimate grounds for restricting access to some substances.
This paper lays out a more nuanced approach to drug policy. Soft drugs such as alcohol and marijuana should be regulated and taxed. Drugs that are more likely to have a deleterious health effect should not necessarily be legalized, as there can be a strong case for dissuading production. Instead, they should be decriminalized. Production and trafficking would remain criminal activities. Harder drugs that are more addictive, and more likely to lead to destructive behaviour, such as crystal meth, should remain illegal.
Some will argue that governments should legalize all drugs in order to combat gang violence. However, there are trade-offs. While it is difficult to justify incarcerations and gang violence associated with the prohibition of marijuana, some amount of gang activity and cost to the justice system are warranted in order to restrict access to the most destructive illegal drugs on the market.