Here’s why we should decriminalize all substances (and how to do it intelligently)

Coming to a state near you. Photo courtesy qr5.

Coming to a state near you. Photo courtesy qr5.

Things are definitely starting to happen for supporters of marijuana legalization in the United States. Last November the states of Washington and Colorado voted to not only decriminalize marijuana use but to introduce legal, regulated sale of the plant. In recent years support of marijuana legalization has risen to record levels with several other states, like Missouri, looking to be the next in line.

Some legislators are taking note of this trend and believe it’s time to strike while the coal is hot, like Colorado Congressman Jared Polis (D-CO) who has introduced House Resolution 499 (or The Ending Marijuana Prohibition Act) which would remove marijuana entirely from the Controlled Substances Act, effectively decriminalizing it. While the federal government will enforce regulated distribution (under the would-be renamed Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Marijuana, Firearms and Explosives), the finer details will now be left up to states to figure out – much like Washington and Colorado have been doing already.

While there are many benefits to marijuana legalization, including new sales tax revenue and safer use, one of the most significant will be the impact it will have on every state’s overtaxed criminal justice system and overcrowded prisons and the young lives that won’t be ruined because of it. Here’s a nice, easy-to-read analysis on federal prison overcrowding which points out that 55% of the prisoners are there for a non-violent drug offense.

Turns out this is a great place to take that bachelors of drug dealing and turn it into a masters. Photo courtesy miss_millions.

Turns out this is a great place to take that bachelors of drug dealing and turn it into a masters. Photo courtesy miss_millions.

It’s sad that it takes a budget crisis to wake people up to the absurdity of locking non-violent offenders for drugs. Between the incredible recidivism rates and limited opportunities, prosecuting non-violent drug offenders only encourages more anti-social, criminal behavior. (There aren’t any easy links for this information, go read some books. I recommend “Courtroom 301” by Steve Bogira or “Going Up the River” by Joseph T. Hallinan)

If I haven’t telegraphed this already, here’s my radical suggestion for reforming the Controlled Substances Act:

  • Decriminalize all substances.
  • Keep the three different Schedules (the Schedules are different lists that supposedly categorize substances based on their “dangerousness” and addictiveness – for an adequate explanation of what the Schedules are all about, go here) and the general framework of the Act, but do a full re-evaluation that includes testimonials from dozens if not hundreds of experts
  • Allow states to decide whether or not to allow regulated use/sale of said substances.
  • Mandate drug use education classes (not propaganda like DARE) which, for drugs on the more dangerous Schedules, should be required to obtain a “drug use” license needed to legally buy and use said substance.
  • Have free, state-offered substance abuse classes for those who believe they have a problem and wish to do something about it (again, no anti-drug propaganda or exclusionist religious connotations allowed)
  • Mandated scientific studies and surveys of drug use and long term effects of these policies (instead of waiting until there are unforeseen problems and then trying to find the cause)

As it stands the alternative – what we’re doing now – is wasting taxpayer dollars (and bankrupting states) to send minor, non-violent criminals off to crime college and/or permanently limiting their opportunities as citizens. A person’s future employment, housing, and ability to vote are all influenced by their clashes with the law (especially when it comes to drug-related offenses).

And when you criminalize a vice, all you do is drive the activity into the shadows, un-regulated and dangerous where, instead of buying from a friendly cashier with a license to sell, you have to deal with potentially unpleasant individuals who must work through a network of dangerous and unsavory individuals, internationally in some cases. What better way to stop the murderous Mexican and Columbian drug cartels of great infamy than to drain the pool – produce cocaine and opiates here in the United States, just as you would tobacco or cotton. Not a single shot need be fired – if I am to be so bold.

Unfortunately this is going to take time to happen – even marijuana legalization is and will likely continue to be a struggle for a while more. As it is, it is another instance of business interests trumping the safety and welfare of the people, however government debt crunches and stubborn taxpayers might just be the impetus it takes to curtail the government bankrolling of “big pharma” and the incredibly lucrative private prison industry (sometimes referred to as the “prison-industrial complex”). Bondsmen and lawyers make substantial profits off of prohibition too.

They want you to buy their drugs from them only -- is that a "free market"? Photo courtesy foxumon.

They have only your best interests at heart. Also, buy your drugs only from them, please. Photo courtesy foxumon.

There have been volumes written about it, but drug prohibition laws are undeniably discriminatory against minorities and individuals of low socioeconomic class. Minorities, particularly black and Hispanic populations, are present at substantially higher rates in prison and for longer sentences, than whites. The system is racist and this is reflected most clearly in drug laws.

Perhaps the most overt and infamous example of this is of the felony threshold on possession of cocaine and crack. To be charged with a felony with crack, only 5 grams need be found whereas a felony for cocaine possession requires 500 grams – this is especially absurd when considering that crack is essentially a diluted form of cocaine. The difference, however, is that crack is well known as a popular drug among minorities and the impoverished whereas cocaine tends to be more popular in affluent, white circles. In 2010 this law was changed to be somewhat less discriminating, with the ratio now being 18-to-1 (still a large disparity).

Not convinced that just anyone should use dangerous drugs? Then perhaps you should eye this study published in 2010 that suggests that alcohol is much more socially destructive than the other 19 drugs tested — including heroin and cocaine.

If you are tired of seeing underfunded schools and overtaxed courtrooms, if you’re sick of hearing about your state’s budget crisis and seeing life-saving programs like Planned Parenthood put to the chopping block – if ending what are being called the “modern day Jim Crowe” laws and the unnecessary ruining of lives and families are important to you, then let’s take this first step with Congressman Polis and contact your representatives in Washington and tell them what their constituents think.