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Going All the Way for Legalization

Submitted by David Borden on

Many reformers are comfortable to say that they want to end drug prohibition. Why, then, are many major players in drug policy reform eager to avoid the big L word? Apprehension about legalization may be due in large part to the absence of a vision of our world without the drug war. But leaders and grassroots advocates can no longer blame this lack of vision on a scarcity of professional research and effective pro-legalization public outreach. There are great resources available to reformers today that will enable our movement to advance legalization and finally answer the great question: “and replace drug prohibition with what?”

One recent evening, I stopped by my favorite neighborhood café. Sandra, who works behind the restaurant counter, struck up a conversation that found its way to the topic of drug policy. Sandra wanted to know whether I favored making the drug laws harder or more lenient. I explained how ending drug prohibition would significantly cut crime, reduce harm to users by allowing for the oversight and regulation of substances, and relieve law enforcement to focus on violent crime. Much to my surprise, Sandra promptly said that I had her vote to legalize drugs. In the space of five minutes, I had managed to gain Sandra’s confidence for a legal and regulated market for currently illegal drugs. This café chat reaffirmed my conviction that the time has come for the drug policy reform movement to publicly consider legalization. It is time for the drug policy reform movement to sharpen our demands and consider organizing a citizen’s lobby for the legalization of all drugs.

The public has always been the pivotal force behind the greatest reform movements in American history. Calls for equal rights for people of color and women were answered by the masses and led to massive institutional change. Most recently, contempt with proposed federal laws that would criminalize illegal immigrants led to massive nationwide demonstrations by the very undocumented persons at the center of the bulls-eye. These large scale efforts to change laws and transform society were largely driven by simple, fundamental messages that resonate with people because they have either directly and adversely been impacted by a policy, or have an intimate understanding of its harm.

Our movement has an umbrella large enough to embrace advocates who identify all along the spectrum of prohibition alternatives. There are treatment advocates, decriminalizers, medicalizers and legalizers. And there are many nuanced, drug and drug law-specific groups positioned along this spectrum. I was reminded of this upon attending the 2005 International Drug Policy Reform Conference last November with the help of a scholarship from DRCNet. One stroll through the conference’s exhibition space presented me with many options for drug policy reform, but not necessarily a lasting impression of a common policy goal that the movement as a whole has decided upon. Apart from “ending drug prohibition,” the movement splinters when the question of “and replace it with what?” is presented. Two conference participants, a self-identified retired lieutenant colonel and a doctor, exclaimed their frustration at a lack of a shared strategy for toppling prohibition during a panel discussion on legalization. “I have been here for two days listening for a vision of the possibility… what the hell are we here for?,” exclaimed the colonel. The doctor’s diagnosis was equally troubling; “I cannot find one resolution that I can sign or … any kind of plan of action that leads us in a direction.”

Consensus on a long-term vision for the movement’s policy goals is troubled not only by the composition of our movement, and the lack of a shared common identity that electrifies the public, but also the presence of prominent leaders in our movement who doubt the public’s ability to absorb an argument for legalization. This is not surprising given that the public considers the proposal contemptuous at best, and members of Congress welcome it about as strongly as they have proposals to institute randomized drug testing on Capitol Hill! Discussion on the merits of legalization in our movement continues to feel a bit risky and unconventional. And many of us continue to ask: who is to say that the implementation of a legal framework for currently illegal drugs would not lead to an explosion of crime, and the widespread swamping of emergency rooms with overdosing first-time users?

However, several reform organizations are message modeling and producing great resources to help the wider reform community develop a unified and confident voice for legalization. Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) has been making the case for legalization before skeptical, conservative-minded audiences for years. LEAP’s Executive Director, Jack Cole, explained to conference participants that he “always talk(s) about legalization because … (it) is going to take care of all of (the) problems” that the movement is trying to solve.

In Vancouver, community coalition Keeping the Door Open (KDO) is demonstrating how to put on town-hall meetings that rock – bringing law enforcement, politicians, government health officials, clergy, drug takers and the general public to the table to discuss replacing prohibition with a regulatory system. Together, LEAP and KDO provide excellent examples of how to engage the legalization issue with elected officials who are often never given the opportunity to seriously consider the proposal, or to people who have been fed drug war propaganda their whole lives and would normally denounce notions of legalization with knee-jerk precision.

One of the greatest challenges that reformers have faced with legalization is settling on what this scheme will look like. “That’s what people want to hear about,” said Efficacy’s Executive Director, Cliff Thornton. “What’s going to happen when these drugs do come inside of the law?” Some prominent leaders in our movement have dismissed legalization as a policy goal because conceptualization is deemed too difficult, and the reform movement is too fractured to agree on one legal framework that could then be put to the public arena for consideration. And yet, two organizations recently took a dive into the unknown and emerged with groundbreaking reports that lay the foundation for arguing a strong case for legalization.

U.K. based Transform Drug Policy Foundation (TDPF) defines and details various regulatory options in its 2004 report “Options for Control: After the War on Drugs.” The report clearly outlines how pragmatic, evidence-based legal frameworks will replace value-led abstinence-based drug policies, and discusses moral and political kinks that will need to be worked out to ensure this global transition. Additionally, TDPF has produced “Effective drug policy: Why journey’s end is legalization.” This web-based paper could be useful in addressing our movement’s fractured views on long-term strategy by identifying common ground that “incrementalists” such as medicalizers and decriminalizers share with legalizers. “As reformers we need to know what (the) broad picture looks like. Our movement has already “got some pretty good ideas,” TDPF’s Executive Director, Danny Kushlick reasoned, “and …I think we have the intelligence and resources to produce this picture.”

In Seattle, King County Bar Association’s (KCBA) Drug Policy Project recently authored “Effective Drug Control: Toward a New Legal Framework.” This report advocates the demolition of federal prohibition in favor of regulatory systems at the state-level complete with a legal market and institutionalized harm reduction measures. Additionally, a Canadian society of public health physicians, the Health Officers Council of British Columbia, has produced a fantastic report that details why the Canadian government should adopt a regulatory scheme as the best means of improving public health factors and reducing drug-related harms. Through visionary research, TDPF, KCBA and the Health Officers Council have provided a massive opportunity to shift the legalization debate beyond the musings of academia to the backpacks and laptops of drug policy reform activists.

Our reform community has a plethora of talented souls and resources to undermine prohibitionist assertions that legalization will only lead to doom and gloom. We can demonstrate to the public how drug war bureaucrats are undermining the public trust and wrongfully asserting their morality upon the world. And everyone in the movement has a role to play.

Naturally, our movement’s call for legalization would likely be met with loud, stiff resistance. The politicians and the public are often afraid of change. Incrementalism is virtually the law of the land when it comes to changing public policy. That’s okay. Let the politicians balk, and let Partnership for a Drug Free America air a TV spot condemning our view. By starting fresh, our movement will get the worst of this process over with. Anytime a bold and controversial statement is made, there is certainly going to be noise. Yet, the clamoring can’t continue forever, and people will eventually start to listen when they realize that legalization does not mean ending all government controls on psychoactive substances. The civil and women’s rights movements began in the same way, and gained momentum through vision, clear demands and perseverance.

By combining all of the various strengths and energies of the reform community, we can adopt a clear mission and vision that will appeal to most members of our society. As Danny Kushlick contends, our movement must “have a very clear … vision of what a legally controlled, regulated drugs market looks like” in order “to provide an exit for policy makers.” Undoubtedly, politicians and grassroots advocates alike will respond more readily to a concise and definitive message that gives them a strong sense of what a legal and regulated drug trade will mean for our nation and our world. Then arguments can reasonably be implemented that explain how the legalization model is pro-public health, pro-family, pro-community, pro-law enforcement and very pro-American. Promoting values that win elections and stir popular sentiment certainly can’t hurt our movement’s cause.

In the wake of last year’s DPA Conference, several reform organizations from around the world have pressed ahead with realizing a vision for legalization by collaborating on a uniform strategy for ending prohibition by the year 2020. This emerging “2020 Group,” as it was reported in the Drug War Chronicle, will not only serve to further propel the larger drug policy reform movement towards embracing a legal framework, but also provide reformers with more tools to become true believers in legalization. And as Cliff Thornton once related to a gathering of reformers, “If you truly believe” that legalization is the right course of action for our world, your conviction is “going to emanate from your body and bring people in like you wouldn’t believe.”

Here are the Resources:

Law Enforcement Against Prohibition,

Keeping the Door Open,

British Columbia Health Officers “A Public Health Approach to Drug Control in Canada,”

Transform Drug Policy Foundation “Options for Control: After the War on Drugs,”

Transform Drug Policy Foundation “Effective drug policy: Why journey’s end is legalization,”

King County Bar Association, Drug Policy Project “Effective Drug Control: Toward a New Legal Framework,”


Editorial: Tell Me Why, Drug War Chronicle, 11/18/05,

Feature: “2020 Group” Begins Building an International Drug Reform Movement, Drug War Chronicle, 5/12/06,

Editorial: Making Sure Drugs Kill, Drug War Chronicle, 5/26/06,

The 2005 International Drug Policy Reform Conference,

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