To Legalize, or Not to Legalize?

Ethan Nadelmann ("Think Again: Drugs," September/October 2007) succumbs to the intoxicating allure of the legalization argument. It’s hard to blame him; legalization does appear to offer an escape from problems such as "corruption, violence, and organized crime." But legalization only offers an illusory fix. The problems Nadelmann links to the war on drugs would linger ...

Ethan Nadelmann ("Think Again: Drugs," September/October 2007) succumbs to the intoxicating allure of the legalization argument. It’s hard to blame him; legalization does appear to offer an escape from problems such as "corruption, violence, and organized crime." But legalization only offers an illusory fix. The problems Nadelmann links to the war on drugs would linger well after any end to it.

Although Nadelmann is quite satisfied with "removing coca from international antidrug conventions," he is silent about his feelings toward cocaine, the more powerful product derived from coca. Imagine a world where all drugs were legal. Vials of cocaine would be produced by multinational corporations and sold alongside packets of cigarettes and bottles of alcohol at local stores. Instead of needle-exchange programs, coupons for free needles would be distributed in periodicals, perhaps even in Foreign Policy. The needles themselves would be made available near vending machines that dispense a drug, say methamphetamine, just as matches are sold near some tobacco machines. Does Nadelmann not consider that an alarming prospect?

Moreover, even if certain drugs were legal and commercial, it is likely that governments, in the name of civil order and public health, would still feel compelled to restrict levels of intoxicating and addictive chemicals present in drugs. A black market for drugs with higher concentrations of intoxicating compounds would spring up and be operated by criminal groups, just as they are today. And just as the end of Prohibition in the United States did not eliminate or reduce organized crime and violence — or lessen the use and abuse of alcohol — legalizing drugs is unlikely to produce any significant improvement.

The ways in which drugs are entrenched in a vast array of international economic, political, and security issues did not occur suddenly; they evolved over time through the intentional and unintentional efforts of numerous actors, both legitimate and illegitimate. The trade cannot be quickly reversed or controlled with available resources, even with the sustained and combined will of the international community.

When it comes to drugs, we must accept an uncomfortable paradox: There will always be a drug trade in some form that will exist alongside continued prohibition on the sale of drugs or restrictions on their consumption. But if legalization occurs in the way Nadelmann envisages, the world would simply become a nightmarish illusion — one to which we wished we’d never succumbed.

-Paul Rexton Kan
Assistant Professor of National Security Studies
U.S. Army War College
Carlisle, Pa.


Nadelmann has an easy target when he attacks the rhetoric of the international drug control regime. There’s no doubt that a "drug-free world" is nonsense, and even those who utter the phrase know that. The idea cannot be a serious basis for drug control policies, and even its value as a rhetorical device is debatable. Moreover, it has also been used to justify the rejection of "harm reduction" policies such as needle-exchange programs and safe injecting facilities. Even though evidence of their effectiveness is weaker than advocates are willing to admit, these programs have suggestive evidence of benefit, no serious evidence of any harm, and a compelling logic and humanity.

The first half of Nadelmann’s essay argues for harm reduction, but the last section shifts smoothly to legalization. As we argued in Drug War Heresies (Cambridge University Press, 2001), there is little doubt that legalizing cocaine and heroin would reduce many of the harms that most concern us now. Crime would fall dramatically, the drug-market disorder that is the bane of so many inner-city communities would disappear, and, with careful planning, the connection between HIV and injecting drugs could be broken. What is less clear, however, is how much drug use and drug dependence would increase. Even if heroin use increased by 50 percent, society would probably be better off without the ill effects of prohibition. But if it increased by 500 percent (still well below the levels of alcohol or tobacco dependence), society would probably be worse off. The average dose of an illegal drug would surely cause less harm in a regulated regime, but if the number of those doses were to increase markedly, the total harm to society could rise rather than fall. Legalization might be a good policy option. But its advocates must accept the uncertainty of predicting any potential consequences and acknowledge the transformation — rather than complete elimination — of the drug problem that would remain.

-Robert MacCoun
Professor of Public Policy
Goldman School of Public Policy
University of California, Berkeley
Berkeley, Calif.

-Peter Reuter
School of Public Policy
University of Maryland
College Park, Md.

Nadelmann’s article reflects the intense polarization of the current U.S. drug policy debate. One side advocates "prohibition only," which relies on law enforcement, incarceration, and eradication of drug crops in foreign countries. The other side favors legalization of drugs that are currently outlawed, such as heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, and marijuana. Nadelmann, who supports legalization, ignores a range of effective approaches that lie between these two policy extremes.

Contrary to Nadelmann’s view, demand reduction can be effective even if drug abuse will never be entirely eliminated. Antismoking campaigns, which have cut smoking rates by almost half in the United States since 1965, are not intended to reduce harm, as Nadelmann believes, but rather to get smokers to quit or prevent them from starting in the first place. Like smoking, drug addiction is a chronic, relapsing disease. With similar investments in prevention and treatment, drug use and addiction can also be reduced. But federal support for demand reduction is now about one third of the total drug budget, and treatment is available for only one in three of those who need help. Many prominent groups, including the American Medical Association and the American Bar Association, promote essentially a public-health approach to drug problems, which greatly increases education, early intervention, and access to treatment. The best way to cut drug consumption is through demand-side programs, not legalization or prohibition.

-Mathea Falco
Drug Strategies
Washington, D.C.

Ethan Nadelmann replies:
Mathea Falco is mistaken when she argues that the current drug policy debate in the United States is intensely polarized. In fact, it barely exists. The debates that are happening focus on issues such as drug treatment, criminal sentencing, needle exchange, medical marijuana, and government funding. Few people advocate either wholesale prohibition or legalization — myself included. I explicitly support a range of options between those two extremes. Indeed, the organization that I founded and direct, the Drug Policy Alliance, is probably the leading organization in the United States doing exactly that.

Falco and I agree, however, that drug abuse problems are best addressed by public-health approaches that emphasize early intervention and access to treatment. It’s a shame that zero-tolerance policies and drug-free ideologies so often stand in the way of embracing evidence-based interventions that have proven successful elsewhere.

Paul Rexton Kan is right that a black market for drugs will always exist in some form. But that trade would be far less destructive if the market for drugs were legally regulated rather than kept in the hands of criminals. Kan’s facile caricatures of a post-prohibition world are a poor excuse for refusing to think seriously about how best to reverse the extraordinary costs and harms of persisting with punitive prohibitionist policies.

Robert MacCoun and Peter Reuter note that "legalization might be a good policy option," but we must be wary of its potential impact on drug use and dependence rates, which cannot be reliably predicted. Their well-considered comment gets it just right.

I do not argue that legalization is the answer to the drug problem, but rather that it is the question that needs to be amply and honestly considered. The global drug prohibition regime has become the devil we know — its harms and failings tolerated and ignored beyond all reason. It demands critical assessment, but too often it is insulated by the power of vested interests, by simple inertia, and by dogmatic rejection of legalization as a sort of secular heresy. It’s time to open the debate.

A decade of Global Thinkers

A decade of Global Thinkers

The past year's 100 most influential thinkers and doers Read Now

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola