Drug liberalization is the process of eliminating or reducing drug prohibition laws. Variations of drug liberalization (also spelled liberalisation) include drug relegalization, drug legalization, and drug decriminalization. The reasons given for this include the failure of current policies, the revenue to be raised from taxing drugs, the right of adults to live their life without interference from the government and the reduction in crime it is claimed will come with liberalization.
The 1988 United Nations Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances made it mandatory for the signatory countries to “adopt such measures as may be necessary to establish as criminal offences under its domestic law” (art. 3, §1) all the activities related to the production, sale, transport, distribution, etc. of the substances included in the most restricted lists of the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs and 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances. Criminalization also applies to the “cultivation of opium poppy, coca bush or cannabis plants for the purpose of the production of narcotic drugs”. The Convention distinguishes between the intent to traffic and personal consumption, stating that the latter should also be considered a criminal offence, but “subject to the constitutional principles and the basic concepts of [the state’s] legal system” (art. 3, §2).
As a result the prison population throughout most of the world exploded, partly due to the tightening of anti-drug laws, under the influence of the 1988 Convention. The subsequent prison crisis and lack of positive impact on drug use prompted various depenalisation and decriminalization reforms. The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) defines decriminalization as the removal of a conduct or activity from the sphere of criminal law; depenalisation signifying merely a relaxation of the penal sanction exacted by law. Decriminalization usually applies to offences related to drug consumption and may include either the imposition of sanctions of a different kind (administrative) or the abolition of all sanctions; other (noncriminal) laws then regulate the conduct or activity that has been decriminalized. Depenalisation usually consists of personal consumption as well as small-scale trading and generally signifies the elimination or reduction of custodial penalties, while the conduct or activity still remains a criminal offence. The term legalization refers to the removal of all drug-related offences from criminal law: use, possession, cultivation, production, trading, etc.
Drug liberalization proponents hold differing reasons to support liberalization, and have differing policy proposals. The two most common positions are drug relegalization (or legalization), and drug decriminalization.
Drug re-legalization calls for the end of government-enforced prohibition on the distribution or sale and personal use of specified (or all) currently banned drugs. Proposed ideas range from full legalization which would completely remove all forms of government control, to various forms of regulated legalization, where drugs would be legally available, but under a system of government control which might mean for instance:
- mandated labels with dosage and medical warnings,
- restrictions on advertising,
- age limitations,
- restrictions on amount purchased at one time,
- requirements on the form in which certain drugs would be supplied,
- ban on sale to intoxicated persons,
- special user licenses to purchase particular drugs.
The regulated legalization system would probably have a range of restrictions for different drugs, depending on their perceived risk, so while some drugs would be sold over the counter in pharmacies or other licensed establishments, drugs with greater risks of harm might only be available for sale on licensed premises where use could be monitored and emergency medical care made available. Examples of drugs with different levels of regulated distribution in most countries include: caffeine (coffee, tea), nicotine (tobacco), ethyl alcohol (beer, wine, spirits), and antibiotics.
Full legalization is often proposed by groups such as libertarians who object to drug laws on moral grounds, while regulated legalization is suggested by groups such as Law Enforcement Against Prohibition who object to the drug laws on the grounds that they fail to achieve their stated aims and instead greatly worsen the problems associated with use of prohibited drugs, but who acknowledge that there are harms associated with currently prohibited drugs which need to be minimized. Not all proponents of drug re-legalization necessarily share a common ethical framework, and people may adopt this viewpoint for a variety of reasons. In particular, favoring drug re-legalization does not imply approval of drug use.
Portugal abolished all criminal penalties for personal possession of drugs, including marijuana, cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine. When it was passed, critics said it would open the country to drug tourists and make the drug problem worse. However, once the results were released from a report called "Drug Decriminalization in Portugal: Lessons for Creating Fair and Successful Drug Policies" by Glenn Greenwald, released by the Cato Institute, came out, the impact of Portugal's new legislation became obvious. The report found that in the 5 years after drugs were decriminalized, drug use among teens dropped, rates of new HIV infections from sharing dirty needles dropped, and the number of people seeking treatment for addiction more than doubled. Portugal boasted the lowest rate of lifetime marijuana use in people over 15 years of age at 10%. To put that into perspective, America lifetime marijuana use rate in people over 12 is 39.8%. Lifetime use of an illegal drug among 7th to 9th graders fell from 14.1% to 10.6%, drug use in older teens fell, lifetime heroin use in 16-18 year olds fell, new HIV infections in drug users fell 17%, deaths related to hard drugs were cut by more than half, treatment for drug addiction rose, as well as saved money on enforcement while increasing funding for treatment. Portugal’s drug usage rates are now among the lowest in the EU for virtually every substance.
Drug decriminalization calls for reduced control and penalties compared to existing laws. Proponents of drug decriminalization generally support the use of fines or other punishment to replace prison terms, and often propose systems whereby illegal drug users who are caught would be fined, but would not receive a permanent criminal record as a result. A central feature of drug decriminalization is the concept of harm reduction.
Drug decriminalization is in some ways an intermediate between prohibition and legalisation, and has been criticised as being "the worst of both worlds", in that drug sales would still be illegal, thus perpetuating the problems associated with leaving production and distribution of drugs to the criminal underworld, while also failing to discourage illegal drug use by removing the criminal penalties that might otherwise cause some people to choose not to use drugs. However, there are many that argue that the decriminalization of possession of drugs would redirect focus of the law enforcement system of any country to put more effort into arresting dealers and big time criminals, instead of arresting minor criminals for mere possession, and thus be more effective.
Portugal is the first country that has decriminalized the use of all drugs, to positive results. Anyone caught with any type of drug in Portugal, if it is for personal consumption, will not be imprisoned. Spain and Italy have since followed Portugal's example.
There are numerous economic and social impacts of the criminalization of drugs. Prohibition increases crime (theft, violence, corruption) and drug price and increases potency. In many developing countries the production of drugs offers a way to escape poverty. Milton Friedman estimated that over 10,000 deaths a year in the US are caused by the criminalization of drugs, and if drugs were to be made legal innocent victims such as those shot down in drive by shootings, would cease or decrease. The economic inefficiency and ineffectiveness of such government intervention in preventing drug trade has been fiercely criticised by drug-liberty advocates. The War on Drugs of the United States, that provoked legislation within several other Western governments, has also garnered criticism for these reasons.
Prices and consumption
Much of the debate surrounding the economics of drug legalization centers on the shape of the demand curve for illegal drugs and the sensitivity of consumers to changes in the prices of illegal drugs. Proponents of drug legalization often assume that the quantity of addictive drugs consumed is unresponsive to changes in price; however, studies into addictive, but legal, substances like alcohol and cigarettes, have shown that consumption can be quite responsive to changes in prices. In the same study, economists Michael Grossman and Frank J. Chaloupka estimate about the price of cocaine have found that a 10% reduction in the price of cocaine would lead to a 14% increase in the frequency of cocaine use.:459 This increase indicates that consumers are responsive to price changes in the cocaine market. There is also evidence that in the long run, consumers are much more responsive to price changes than in the short run,:454 but other studies have led to a wide range of conclusions.:2043
Considering that legalization would likely lead to an increase in the supply of drugs, the standard economic model predicts that the quantity of drugs consumed would rise and the prices would fall.:428 However, Andrew E. Clark, an economist who has studied the effects of drug legalization, suggest that a specific tax, or sin tax, would counteract the increase in consumption.:3
Proponents of drug prohibition argue that many negative externalities, or third party costs, are associated with the consumption of illegal drugs.:183, :2043 Externalities like violence, environmental effects on neighborhoods, increased health risks and, increased healthcare costs are often associated with the illegal drug market.:3 Opponents of prohibition argue that many of those externalities are created by current drug policies. They believe that much of the violence associated with drug trade is due to the illegal nature of drug trade, where there is no mediating authority to solve disputes peacefully and legally.:3 :177 The illegal nature of the market also affects the health of consumers by making it difficult to acquire syringes, which often leads to needle sharing.:180-181 Prominent economist Milton Friedman argues that prohibition of drugs creates many negative externalities like increased incarceration rates, the under treatment of chronic pain, corruption, disproportional imprisonment of African Americans, compounding harm to users, the destruction of inner cities and harm to foreign countries. Proponents of legalization also argue that prohibition decrease the quality of the drugs made, which often leads to more physical harm, like accidental overdoses and poisoning, to the drug users.:179 Steven D. Levitt and Ilyana Kuziemko point to the over crowding of prisons as another negative side effect of the war on drugs. They believe that by sending such a large number of drug offenders to prison, the war on drugs has reduced the prison space available for other offenders. This increased incarceration rate not only costs tax payers more to maintain, it could possibly increase crime by crowding violent offenders out of prison cells and replacing them with drug offenders.:2043
A Harvard economist, Jeffery Miron, estimated that ending the war on drugs would inject 76.8 billion dollars into the US economy in 2010 alone. He estimates that the government would save $41.3 billion for law enforcement and the government would gain up to $46.7 billion in tax revenue. Since President Nixon began the war on drugs, the federal drug-fighting budget has increased for $100 million in 1970 to $15.1 billion in 2010, with a total cost estimated near 1 trillion dollars over 40 years. In the same time period and estimated 37 million nonviolent drug offenders have been incarcerated. $121 billion was spent to arrest these offenders and $450 billion to incarcerate them.
Size of the illegal drug market
Estimates about the size of the international drug market range from $300-$500 billion dollars, making up approximately 8% of global trade. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime estimated that in 2010, the international drug market has a value of over $300 billion, making it larger than the gross national products of all but 21 nations.
The cultivation, use and trade of psychoactive and other drugs has occurred since civilization's existence. In the 20th century, the United States government led a major renewed surge in drug prohibition called the "War on Drugs." It was only in the 20th Century that Britain and the United States outlawed cannabis. The British had gone to war with China in the 19th Century in what became known as the opium wars to protect their valuable trade in narcotics.
Motivations claimed by supporters of drug prohibition laws across various societies and eras have included religious observance, allegations of violence by racial minorities, and public health concerns. Those who are not proponents of anti-drug legislation characterize these motivations as religious intolerance, racism, and public healthism.
Various proponents of drug liberalization wish to repeal these laws for reasons ranging from individual rights-based defenses of liberty, to consequentialist arguments against the economic and social outcomes of drug prohibition. Starting in the 20th century, large organized movements to overturn existing drug laws formed around the world. The most vocal of these groups exist in liberal democracies, and typically attract liberal and libertarian supporters, although drug liberalization itself is a non-partisan issue and may be supported by adherents of any ideology.
The campaign against alcohol prohibition culminated in the Twenty-first Amendment to the United States Constitution repealing prohibition on December 5, 1933, as well as liberalization in Canada, and some but not all of the other countries that enforced prohibition. However, many laws controlling the use of alcohol continue to exist even in these countries.
Current proponents of drug liberalization seek the repeal or softening of drug prohibition laws, most commonly cannabis but also including other controlled substances such as alcohol, tobacco, opiates, stimulants, psychedelics, dissociatives, prescription drugs, and others.
Drug liberalization around the world
On December 14, 2009, the Czech Republic adopted a new law that took effect on January 1, 2010, and allows a person to possess up to 15 grams of marijuana or 1.5 grams of heroin without facing criminal charges. These amounts are higher (often many times) than in any other European country, possibly making the Czech Republic the most liberal country in the European Union when it comes to drug liberalization, apart from Portugal.
Under the law, possession of the following amounts or less of illicit drugs is a misdemeanor subject to a fine equal to a parking ticket:
- Marijuana 15 grams (or five plants)
- Hashish 5 grams
- Magic mushrooms 40 pieces
- Peyote 5 plants
- LSD 5 tablets
- Ecstasy 4 tablets
- Amphetamine 2 grams
- Methamphetamine 2 grams
- Heroin 1.5 grams
- Coca 5 plants
- Cocaine 1 gram
Sale (not purchase) is still a criminal act. Possession of “larger than a small amount” of marijuana can result in a jail sentence of up to one year. For other illicit drugs, the sentence is two years. Trafficking as well as production (apart from growing up to five plants of marijuana) offenses carry stiffer sentences. The Czech Republic now joins Portugal as a European country that has decriminalized drug possession.
The drug policy of the Netherlands is based on 2 principles:
- Drug use is a public health issue, not a criminal matter
- A distinction between hard drugs and soft drugs exists
Cannabis remains a controlled substance in the Netherlands and both possession and production for personal use are still misdemeanors, punishable by fine. Cannabis coffee shops are also illegal according to the statutes.
However, a policy of non-enforcement has led to a situation where reliance upon non-enforcement has become common, and because of this the courts have ruled against the government when individual cases were prosecuted.
On June 14, 2010, the Stoltenberg commission recommended implementing heroin assisted treatment and expanding harm reduction measures. On 18 June 2010, Knut Storberget, Minister of Justice and the Police announced that the ministry was working on new drug policy involving decriminalization by the Portugal model, which was to be introduced to parliament before the next general election. Later, however, Storberget changed his statements, saying the decriminalization debate is "for academics", instead calling for coerced treatment. In early March, 2013, minister of health and care services Jonas Gahr Støre proposed to decriminalize the inhalation of heroin by 2014 as a measure to decrease drug overdoses. In 2011 there were 294 fatal overdoses, in comparison only 170 traffic related deaths.
In 2001, Portugal became the first European country to abolish all criminal penalties for personal drug possession. In addition, drug users were to be targeted with therapy rather than prison sentences. Research commissioned by the Cato Institute and led by Glenn Greenwald found that in the five years after the start of decriminalisation, illegal drug use by teenagers had declined, the rate of HIV infections among drug users had dropped, deaths related to heroin and similar drugs had been cut by more than half, and the number of people seeking treatment for drug addiction had doubled. However, Peter Reuter, a professor of criminology and public policy at the University of Maryland, College Park, suggests that the heroin usage rates and related deaths may have been due to the cyclical nature of drug epidemics, but conceded that "decriminalization in Portugal has met its central goal. Drug use did not rise."
English speaking North America
The cultivation of cannabis is currently illegal in Canada, with exceptions only for medical usage. However, the use of cannabis by the general public is tolerated to a certain degree and varies depending on location and jurisdiction, and a vigorous campaign to legalize cannabis is underway nation-wide. The sale of marijuana seeds remains legal.
In 2001, the Globe and Mail reported that a poll found that 47% of Canadians agreed with the statement, "The use of marijuana should be legalized" in 2000, compared to 26% in 1975. A more recent poll found that more than half of Canadians supported legalization. However, in 2007 Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government tabled Bill C-26 to amend the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act to bring forth a more restrictive law with higher minimum penalties for drug crimes. Bill-26 died in committee after the dissolution of the 39th Canadian Parliament in September 2008, but the Bill has subsequently been resurrected by the Canadian government twice.
Throughout the United States various people and groups have been pushing for the legalization of marijuana for medical reasons. Organizations such as NORML and the Marijuana Policy Project work to decriminalize possession, use, cultivation, and sale of marijuana by adults, even beyond medical uses. In 1996, 56% of California voters voted for California Proposition 215, legalizing the growing and use of marijuana for medical purposes. This created significant legal and policy tensions between federal and state governments. Since then, 17 more states have legalized and regulated medical marijuana. State laws in conflict with federal law about cannabis remain valid, and prevent state level prosecution, despite cannabis being illegal under federal law (see Gonzales v. Raich). On Tuesday 6 November 2012 Colorado and Washington state legalized possession of small amounts of marijuana for private recreational use, and created a process for writing rules for legal growing and commercial distribution of marijuana within each state. 
Australia has one of the highest percentages of marijuana smokers in the world. Australians have been advocating for the legalization of cannabis since the early 1970s with the Cannabis Research Foundation of Australia in Victoria. Other active groups in the later 70s included the Australian Marijuana Party and the Marijuana Petition Organisation. During the 1980s, an independent Australian chapter of NORML was established and became the main force in the Cannabis Campaign until the early 1990s. In 199?, HEMP (Help End Marijuana Prohibition) was established and continued the fight for law reform. In 2010, HEMP qualified as a political party and will be fielding candidates in elections where possible.
In 2011, the Cannabis Campaign seemed to experience a renaissance in Australia, no doubt due to developments worldwide, with many new groups appearing in different states, using social media as a conduit and forum. Since 1985, the Federal Government has run a declared "War on Drugs" and while initially Australia led the world in 'harm-minimisation' approach, they have since lagged. In 2012, the think tank Australia 21, released a report on the decriminalization of drugs in Australia.
In 2011, the Liberal Democrats in the UK adopted a policy of moving towards the Portugal model of decriminalisation and advocating treatment rather than prosecution. The Green Party also support the legalisation of cannabis. Alan Duncan is also a Conservative MP well known for his advocacy of a free market for drugs.
There are also numerous single issue marijuana parties devoted to campaign for the legalisation of cannabis exclusively.
- Drug policy reform
- US Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906
- Drug prohibition law
- Arguments for and against drug prohibition
- 2011 Global Commission on Drug Policy
- 2009 Latin American Initiative on Drugs and Democracy
- The War We Never Fought: The British Establishment's Surrender to Drugs
- Proceedings of the Special Committee on Illegal Drugs, Senate of Canada, May 28, 2001
- Article arguing in favor of liberalization of drugs http://robertnielsen21.wordpress.com/2012/07/23/legalise-cannabis/
- Drug Policy Reform in Practice: Experiences with alternatives in Europe and the US, Tom Blickman & Martin Jelsma, Transnational Institute, July 2009.
- Illicit drug use in the EU: legislative approaches, EMCDDA thematic papers, Lisbon 2005
- After the War on Drugs: Blueprint for Regulation, Transform Drug Policy Foundation (12 Nov 2009)
- Tobacco regulation: Saving livings vs personal freedom, Transform Drug Policy Foundation (3 Feb 2010)
- Reformers and not 'pro-drug' Mr Costa, Transform Drug Policy Foundation (7 Dec 2009)
- Drug Decriminalisation in Portugal: Lessons for Creating Fair and Successful Drug Policies
- Glenn Greenwald, "Drug Decriminalization in Portugal: Lessons for Creating Fair and Successful Drug Policies", The Cato Institute, April 2, 2009,
- Drugs in Portugal: Did Decriminalization Work?, Time (26 Apr 2009)
- Portugal Decriminalized All Drugs Eleven Years Ago And The Results Are Staggering, Business Insider (17 Jul 2012)
- Szalavitz, Maia (April 26, 2009). "Drugs in Portugal: Did Decriminalization Work?". Time.
- Thornton, Mark. "The Economics of Prohibition".
- Clark, Andrew E. "The Economics of Drug Legalization". Retrieved 4/1/12.
- Grossman, Michael; Frank J. Chaloupka (1998). "The Demand for Cocaine by Young Adults: a Rational Addiction Approach". Journal of Health Economics (17): 428.
- Kuiemko, Ilyana; Steven D. Levitt (2003). "Empirical Analysis of Imprisoning Drug Offenders". Journal of Public Economics 9–10 (88).
- Miron, Jeffrey A.; Jeffrey Zwiebel (1995). "The Economic Case Against Drug Prohibition". Journal of Economic Perspectives 4 (9).
- Friedman, Milton (1/11/98). "There's No Justice in the War on Drugs". New York Times.
- Debusmann, Bernd (12/3/08). "Einstein, Insanity and the War on Drugs". Reuter. Retrieved 4/1/12.
- Miron, Jeffrey A.; Katherine Waldock. "The Budgetary Impact of Ending Drug Prohibition". The Cato Institute.
- The Associated Press (5/13/10). "After 40 years, $1 trillion, US War on Drugs Has Failed to Meet Any of its Goals". The Associated Press. Retrieved 4/1/12.
- Reuter, Peter; Victoria Greenfield (2001). "Measuring the Global Drug Market". World Economics 4 (2): 160.
- United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (2010). "2010 Report: Cutting the Threads of Drugs, Crime and Terrorism". The UNOCD 2010 Report: 44.
- New drug guidelines are Europe's most liberal, The Prague Post, December 23, 2009
- http://www.encod.org/info/NORWEGIAN-COMMISSION-RECOMMENDS.html ENCOD.org: Norwegian commission recommends drug policy reform
- http://www.dagbladet.no/2010/06/18/nyheter/knut_storberget/narkotika/narkotikapolitikk/innenriks/12188316/ Dagbladet
- http://www.abcnyheter.no/borger/101228/justisministrenes-nei-til-avkriminalisering ABC Nyheter
- Drug Decriminalization in Portugal: Lessons for Creating Fair and Successful Drug Policies, Glenn Greenwald, Cato Institute, April 2009
- Szalavitz, Maia (26 April 2009). "Drugs in Portugal: Did Decriminalization Work?". TIME. Retrieved 23 May 2009.
- "The Government of Canada Tables Legislation that Penalizes Producers and Traffickers of Illegal Drugs" (Press release). Canadian Department of Justice. November 11, 2007. Retrieved September 6, 2010.
- "39th Parliament - 2nd Session: Bill C-26". LEGISinfo. Parliament of Canada. August 30, 2010. Retrieved September 6, 2010.
- "Government Re-Introduces Legislation to Fight Serious Drug Crimes" (Press release). Canadian Department of Justice. February 27, 2010. Retrieved September 6, 2010.
- "Government Re-Introduces Legislation to Crack Down on Organized Drug Crime" (Press release). Canadian Department of Justice. May 5, 2010. Retrieved September 6, 2010.
- "NORML Policy on Personal Use". NORML. 2004-10-03. Retrieved 2008-08-26.
- "Legalization of Marijuana in Washington and Colorado". reuters. Retrieved 10 January 2013.
- Transform Drug Policy Foundation - A UK-based think-tank that works to develop systems for control and regulation that can be applied globally.
- Law Enforcement Against Prohibition - Run by retired law enforcement professionals who oppose prohibition.
- Voluntary Committee of Lawyers - a New York based network of judges and lawyers opposed to current federal drug laws.
- NORML (US National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) - a US wide network of activists seeking to liberalize cannabis legislation.
- Re:Vision Drug Policy Network - an organisation for young people aged 16–25 campaigning against prohibition.
- The Report of the Canadian Government Commission of Inquiry into the Non-Medical Use of Drugs - 1972 - The LeDain Commission Report
- Drug Law Reform in Latin America - a joint project of the Transnational Institute (TNI) and the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA)
- Draft Plan for Legalization from LIFE - an example of a policy formulation proposed for substance legalization