Skip to main content

Editorial: Two Good Reasons to Want to Legalize Drugs

Submitted by David Borden on (Issue #492)
Politics & Advocacy

In a recent study published in the British medical journal The Lancet, faculty at the UK's Bristol University "proposed a new framework for the classification of harmful substances, based on the actual risks to society," according an Associated Press article published Friday. The study, led by Prof. David Nutt, ranked the various commonly used drugs, and found alcohol and tobacco to be among the top ten most dangerous -- ahead of marijuana and ecstasy, though behind cocaine and heroin.

David Borden
Nutt and his colleagues feel that Britain's current drug classification, which divides them into three different categories -- ostensibly based on their potential for harm -- is "ill thought-out and arbitrary," he told the AP. "The exclusion of alcohol and tobacco from the Misuse of Drugs Act is, from a scientific perspective, arbitrary."

One might think such talk could fuel calls for alcohol or (more likely) tobacco prohibition -- I hope not! That isn't necessarily what they are looking for -- Nutt wants more education, he said, and realism. "All drugs are dangerous, even the ones people know and love and use every day."

Marijuana's relative lack of harmfulness is one good reason to want to legalize it. Certainly it makes vividly clear the bizarre senselessness of what we are doing here in the US, where police make over 700,000 arrests for marijuana every year, about 2,000 per day.

For other drugs, paradoxically, their harmfulness is one of the best reasons for wanting to legalize them. As my friends at Law Enforcement Against Prohibition are fond of saying (and as their bumper sticker that I have stuck to back of my car exclaims), "drugs are too dangerous to leave in the hands of criminals." Especially for people who are addicted to them -- what a dangerous and tumultuous and destructive situation it must be to be tied to the criminal underground for getting the fix that you're just not ready yet to do without! A lot of people have trouble with that idea; they see the harms and the miserable condition of people who've gotten hooked on these drugs, and they can't imagine that it would be a good idea to legalize them.

An understandable reaction, but an illogical one. All of the harms we see today related to cocaine and heroin and the like are the harms that exist under the current system. At a minimum the current system did not prevent them. The idea that more people would get addicted to the drugs if they were legal is mere speculation, and to me it seems doubtful -- I wouldn't use heroin if it were legal, and only rarely has anyone who doesn't use heroin now told me that he would. In the meanwhile, the addict suffers severe financial debilitation from the high street prices created by prohibition -- often is driven to extreme measures to afford drugs that would cost pennies to produce in a legal market -- and is at risk of overdose from fluctuating purity or poisoning from adulteration. We are literally driving addicts to their deaths, who might survive, eventually maybe even recover, if we would simply allow them to acquire their drugs from a safe and affordable source.

A conversation I had at a social function a few years ago illustrates the confusion. The person I was speaking with had very decent views on the issue -- he was all for legalization of marijuana, he hated mandatory minimum sentencing, he was all for helping people with programs like needle exchange and so forth -- but he couldn't imagine legalizing heroin or cocaine.

An example he provided to me, from his personal experience, was one that illustrates my point about the fallacy of the line of reasoning. He told me about a wedding he had recently attended, at which the groom had gotten wired on cocaine and was acting out from it. It was a very uncomfortable situation for everybody, and the fact that this guy couldn't stay off of the stuff on his wedding day, in front of everybody, really said something negative to him about it. It certainly sounded like a bad scene to me.

But are there any ways it could have turned out worse? One way that it could have turned out worse is that the groom could have gotten a bad batch of the stuff, and instead of making people uncomfortable with his behavior, simply dropped dead. Such a tragic outcome would clearly have been worse than the merely uncomfortable and unpleasant one that transpired, and deaths from that very cause take place thousands of times per year in the US alone.

And that is prohibition at work. If users were getting their substances from licensed manufacturers and outlets who have a strong incentive to secure their reputations and stay on the right side of the law, it would almost never happen -- some people would still overdo it and harm themselves in that way, but only rarely from getting something other than what they thought they were getting.

So again, I find my conversation partner's reaction to the situation he witnessed to be understandable. But it is not well thought out. Just because a drug is dangerous doesn't automatically mean that banning it is a good response, and making such an assumption takes a pretty big leap of logic. The danger of a drug only raises the question of how to best respond to it, but does not answer that question.

The Bristol study is a positive contribution to the debate. Implementation of its recommendations would undoubtedly improve policies, assuming the implementation did not include any new prohibitions. But the harmfulness of a drug is only the beginning of the discussion, not the ending. Ultimately it is the consequences of prohibition -- and they are terrible -- which point to where governments need to go in drug policy. And that is to prohibition's ending.

Permission to Reprint: This content is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license. Content of a purely educational nature in Drug War Chronicle appear courtesy of DRCNet Foundation, unless otherwise noted.


Anonymous (not verified)

Your illustration of the bridegroom is but one of the downsides of prohibition. He could have died, poisoned by a bad batch, true.

Also on his wedding day he could have been arrested and jailed for possession, then fired from the job he needs to support a family. He could have been shot while procuring or while being robbed at the ATM by an addict who needed to procure. He could have been run down in the street by a cop who was high from a confiscated stash or enraged on illegal steroids.

The damage from prohibition is often random (the drive-by, the mistaken identity, the bogus ID from an informant being pressured by police), having nothing to do with drugs or irresponsibility. But the real crime is that prohibition will keep him from getting help if he has the medical problem of additiction.

Fri, 06/29/2007 - 11:35am Permalink
redwoodladysam (not verified)

that is very interesting to me that you would call addiction a medical problem, keep up the good work.


Fri, 06/29/2007 - 12:36pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

In reply to by redwoodladysam (not verified)

i think your right to because people think that its a problem but it is ok when your not hurting anyone/anything!!!!

a guy who agrees

Tue, 03/04/2008 - 4:18pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

It's such a pleasure to hear calm, informed, voices of reason articulating the obvious failure of prohibitionist reasonings. It's equally saddening to also realize that this issue isn't about making sense at all. If it were, we would have abandoned such failed policies decades ago.

Fri, 06/29/2007 - 2:32pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

It is altogether counter productive to write or say that 'marijuana is relatively harmless.' It is NOT. Marijuana is a mind-altering, intoxicating and addictive drug. Parents hear all the stories about teens who become hooked on marijuana, blow their classes and drop out. It scares them into keeping prohibition of pot. Marijauna is not a harmless drug, especially for teens. I urge all reformers to use a phrase like, 'marijuana is the least harmful of intoxicating drugs.'


Fri, 06/29/2007 - 8:10pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Earth to Howard.
It is OK to deal with reality. The reallity is that coffee is far more "dangerous" than marijuana.
Deal with it.

Fri, 06/29/2007 - 8:15pm Permalink
borden (not verified)

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

... but "relatively harmless" is still a pretty good characterization of marijuana, in my opinion. The word "relatively" implies that there is a non-zero amount of harm, at least for some people. But in the grand scheme of things, I think it is still fairly small, for marijuana. Some people overdo it, but it's not clear that marijuana is really at the root of things in those situations. Some of those people might be boozing instead, if they weren't using marijuana, ruining their livers and at risk of alcohol poisoning. I understand what you're saying, Howard, but I still think "relatively harmless" is a pretty good term. Or maybe "low level of harmfulness."

David Borden, Executive Director the Drug Reform Coordination Network
Washington, DC

Fri, 06/29/2007 - 11:12pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

In reply to by borden (not verified)

"Some of those people might be boozing instead, if they weren't using marijuana, ruining their livers and at risk of alcohol poisoning."

This could not be more true. I have had 3 friends have their lives ruined because of marijuana prohibition. Each was caught with a small amount of marijuana or paraphenalia (one with a roach clip, one with a roach, and one with a joint. that's it.) They each had to go through months of court dates to be put on probation and undergo drug testing. The problem is, marijuana shows up on a drug test for 30 days. Alcohol only shows up for about 24-36 hours. So, when these people had their marijuana taken away from them, they turned to alcohol. Each one of them. And it's been some of the saddest and most stressful times since then. They have each spiraled downward in increasing alcoholism, although none of them drank much before being arrested. Two have DUI's pending, and all three of them drink every single day now, causing significant distress in their daily lives and with their relatives and friends. Their relationships with everyone around them are cracking. They have also each turned to taking pills, which are also out of their system considerably faster than marijuana.

So, we have ripped a virtually harmless substance from them and turned them into addicts of a legal drug, alcohol. It's so sad to see that people talk so bad about marijuana, when legal drugs, such as alcohol, nicotine, caffeine, and prescription pills, are far worse, have more side effects, and destroy more lives every day than marijuana.

Fri, 05/01/2009 - 5:19pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Saying marijuana is addictive is rather like saying McDonalds is addictive. To a person in depression or for some other reason unable of controlling themselves, then either choice is bad and potentially mentally addictive. McDonalds will kill you faster than marijuana, though. So will alcohol. In either case, marijuana is not physically addictive in the way tobacco or alcohol is physically addictive. If a child is smoking pot to cope with life, be happy that they at least chose a drug that won't force them through severe physical withdrawl symptoms when they finally get the help they need for their mental disorder.

Substance abuse is quite often a symptom of a problem, and for children in school I have no doubt that it is just that the majority of the time; a symptom. In this ultra-material world of today it doesn't take much for a child to want to escape to an alternative reality. Marijuana assists in that. Marijuana is not an antidepressant, though, and should not be substituted for one. A child who is blowing off classes and drops out most likely has some underlying mental disorder (be it depression, OCD, bipolar, so on) and smoking marijuana happens to make them feel "normal." They may be self-medicating with the wrong medication. That doesn't mean marijuana is the culprit or bad medicine. When used properly, ritalin is great for some kids. When used in the wrong circumstance, you'll just get a buzz.

Please, Howard, think about it. Lots of people see things the same way as you, but you are missing the big picture and zoning in on something you think you can prevent. You cannot prevent mental disorders. You can only help people get the help they need. If you really care about the children who are dropping out of school because they are blowing off classes and smoking marijuana on the side, then quit wasting money on a drug war and start spending it on helping people deal with their underlying issues. Then you may understand that smoking marijuana, when not used to cope, is a less addictive, safer alternative to alcohol. Some people get home from work and have a beer to wind down. Others like to take a toke. Neither person is destroying their future unless they get carried away.


Sat, 06/30/2007 - 1:44pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

Regarding outcomes and possibilities and scenarios of "drugs" legal versus the last 100 years of mass insanity--I submit for your consideration: A world wherein civilized folks might enjoy a brisk cup of coca tea or coca wine, or coca-cola(the real thing) at the wedding; and the newlyweds a frisky line of unadulterated,pure, and sweet cocaine, if desired, before consumations--- as opposed to a mob of drunken wedding guests desperately combining their only legal intoxicant- booze- with their crappy prozac, alli, and coffee. People: put on your thinking caps--look back in history--Prohibitions not only don't work, they are retrograde to freedom and cultured society. That alcohol is your only legal recourse---and you wonder why the madness? Can you say "monoculture". Do you know what it means? Do you like it? If you support the drug war you are a moron.

Sun, 07/01/2007 - 12:17am Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

Mass-insanity describes prohibition perfectly. The absolute absurdity of the thing is lost on the majority, apparently, and on people who *should* know better.
There seems to be a moralistic blind-spot in people's thinking where prohibition is concerned and combatting this would seem a sisyphean task.
The prize, though, is great; the world will be a far better place when this fucking obscenity finally goes. 'Really worth waiting for!

Sun, 07/01/2007 - 9:04am Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

Ooops! I should've said, 'Worth Fighting For!!!

Sun, 07/01/2007 - 9:09am Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

War on drugs! hah! What happen to homelessness and a war on poverty? I did take my hat off when medical maintenance became available and pain clinics popped up. The powers that be want to make money so why not get pharmaceuticals making money for them. We pay an arm and leg for the drugs and gawd forbid you get arrested with pot! You'll be giving them more of your money. A circle of rich getting richer and we who need drugs for whatever reasons, go broke and can't afford food if we want to live painlessly. wow...ain't it great to be an amerikan!!

Wed, 07/04/2007 - 1:14am Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

Legalize all drugs, regulate, tax it, I really don't care what you do, but a pragmatic idea is to do something.

There were 231,000 violent crimes in the US circa 2001-06 See UCR from the FBI's records. It seems to me why I don't hear from one Candidate Ron Paul.

If does not get elected then y can forget about any changes to any drug law anytime soon.


Thu, 07/05/2007 - 1:31am Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

What bothers me is this: nobody seems to warn that this sort of reasoning ("our" interpretation of medical facts) could backfire. Indeed, another way of seeing things would be to say that alcohol and cigarettes should be outlawed as well! I am afraid that, sadly, there is a greater chance that this is how things are going to turn out ...

Fri, 07/06/2007 - 2:12pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

Quote: No paid advertising of intoxicants of any form would be permitted.

Eliminating advertising for drugs could be exceedingly difficult and possibly counterproductive. Unfortunatly, advertising is both necessary and potentially misleading. The argument that tobacco manufacturers have been marketing to young people demostrates this problem. However, without advertising, there is no demand, and without demand, there would be less supply; drugs woud then become rarer and rarer, and thus their use would be seen more and more as abnormal behaviour, and hence immoral, especially when participated in by younger people.

We must learn to accept drug use as personal freedom, promote education and intelligence, and balance raising our children with preserving their personal freedom as well.


Sun, 07/08/2007 - 2:55pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

Speaking from personal experience, it is indeed a highly effective antidepressant, even in very small quantities. It also is helpful as an antianxiety agent. Furthermore, I have found that the beneficial effects far outlast the initial 'high', what little there is of it, given the small amount used.

(I am talking here about situational depression or anxiety, not the endogenous variety. I can't speak for the usefulness of cannabis for treatment of the latter.)

Mon, 07/09/2007 - 2:22am Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree that if many of the now illegal drugs were legalized it would be a safer market for those that choose to use. It could also be an excellent source of revenue for the government.
Marijuana users would not have to worry about the possibility of their "stash" having been treated with dangerous pesticides or even another intoxicant.
People that recreationally use opiates often times over indulge in pills that contain acetometaphen (Tylenol) with can cause severe liver damage. If these people were able to purchas opium or heroin from a regulated source it would beneficial on many levels.
Cocaine is another drug that is much more dangerous becuase of its prohibition. Street level dealers and their suppliers usually use some form of "cutting agent" to increase the volume of powder in order to make more money. Often times these cutting agents can more dangerous than the cocaine itself, and the greed that leads to this behavior also accounts for a saddening amount of violence.
Besides, as it has been said by many others, you aren't going to stop people from getting high. People have been using mind altering chemicals for most of recorded history. Prohibition has not stopped it, but made it unnecessarilly dangerous for those who chose to.

Tue, 07/10/2007 - 12:30am Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

I was killing myself with those damn pain killers which are so expensive and all you do is need more. I got on methadone and now just take that once a day the pain is gone and my liver dosn't kill me like it did. Pills what a racket they don't even last for chronic pain. But methadone which is so cheap works like well better than any oxycontin, percocet, fentanyl patches ever could. I had to admit to being an opiate addict but at least I have a little bit of money and I am not all stressed out all the time wondering if I can afford pain medication so I won't have to withdraw. I wish someone would of told me about this a long time ago. Throw those painkillers away, methadone is way better and better for your body and mind.

Sat, 11/15/2008 - 7:02pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

The "War on Drugs" is a complete waste of money and life. I am convinced that the major reason law enforcement is apposed to the idea is that they are profiting of its illegality. We just keep on sending people to jail without even considering that we might be going about the whole thing the wrong way. We as taxpaying citizens should demand that thing change.

Thu, 07/12/2007 - 5:53pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

The drug war has to be the stupidest thing the US has ever done. Nobody can even come up with a valid reason to keep them illegal.

Fri, 07/13/2007 - 3:03am Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

You, know, appart from the legal and economic arguments i stumbled upon a curious philosophical study. Just sharing -

Mon, 10/13/2008 - 12:20pm Permalink

Add new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.