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Drug Policy: Legalization vs. Decriminalization

In response to those hypothesizing about the potential results of legalizing marijuana, Adam Serwer writes, “[t]he prospect of a full-fledged, commercialized marijuana industry with the web of influence that could come with it is one of the reasons I prefer decriminalization to full legalization. . . .” I fear Mr. Serwer misses the point of why legalization – not decriminalization – of drugs (let alone marijuana) is so important.

Undoubtedly, as Portugal has shown, there are great benefits to implementing a policy of drug decriminalization. However, decriminalization still maintains criminal penalties for the manufacture and sale of drugs. With production and distribution remaining in the black market, decriminalization will not curb the violence and influence of drug cartels on the Mexican border, nor relieve poor, urban, minority communities of the same. It may even increase the strength and prosperity of cartels, absent the fear of losing customers to prison terms.

The point of legalization is to end the government’s chronic civil liberties violating, money hemorrhaging “war on drugs.” Decriminalizing drugs will not achieve that end since reductions in the DEA’s budget are unlikely, given enforcement costs. Militarized police units and aggressive tactics used in SWAT raids will still be used against those who manufacture and sell drugs. Moreover, the budgetary impact of decriminalizing drugs likely pales in comparison to the potential impact that full legalization, regulation, and taxation will have.

No doubt decriminalization will be a good first step in recognizing the failure of prohibition, but it fails to address the problem as a whole.

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