Talk about the legalization of illicit drugs always raises some eyebrows, but what do proposals for legalization actually entail? The term ‘decriminalization’ may be more appropriate when addressing this issue. When decriminalizing certain illicit drugs, all restrictions would not be lifted entirely. Current laws regarding public intoxication and operating vehicles under the influence would not be discounted. Essentially, legalization would simply result in a decrease in the number of people who are arrested and incarcerated solely for the use or possession of the drug. So, why should we legalize some illicit drugs? What are the potential benefits of supporting proposals for legalization?
What makes the intake of certain drugs illegal?
Legal drugs can either be purchased over the counter or with a prescription from a medical doctor. Illegal, or illicit, drugs cannot legally be manufactured, bought or sold in the United States. And some other drugs are legal if used as intended or prescribed, but illegal when abused. According to the Controlled Substance Act (CSA) there are a number of factors considered when determining which classification a drug or other substance will be assigned to. These factors include:
- Its actual or relative potential for abuse
- Scientific evidence of its pharmacological effect, if known
- The state of current scientific knowledge regarding the drug or other substance
- Its history and current pattern of abuse
- The scope, duration, and significance of abuse
- What, if any, risk there is to the public health
- Its psychic or physiological dependence liability
- Whether the substance is an immediate precursor of a substance already controlled under this subchapter
Drug classifications, also called schedules, can be complicated and confusing. Many illicit drugs can have similar effects on the body as legal substances. For example, psychoactive drugs are substances that impact one’s central nervous system and state of consciousness. Marijuana, cocaine, and lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) are just a few. Interestingly enough, caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol also fall into this category.
The Price Tag on Criminalization
According to the data of the United States Sentencing Commission (2022), 31.3 percent of federal offenders in 2021 were incarcerated for drug offenses, representing a 6.5 percent increase from fiscal year 2020. An increase in the number of offenders in prisons for drug crimes translates into increased costs and a demand for funding that comes from the taxpayer’s pocket.
Continued criminalization of drug use leads to exorbitant costs for drug enforcement and incarceration, straining federal and state government budgets. In the Fiscal Year 2021 Budget Request, the Federal Bureau of Prisons requested $7,711 million to operate a system that manages 175,248 offenders.
Legalizing some illicit drugs would not only cut down on the crowding in United States’ jails and prisons, but it would simultaneously save taxpayer’s a significant amount of money. Given many successful state-led initiatives to legalize marijuana, it may be time to reclassify marijuana, legalizing its recreational use nationally.
Focusing on Substance Abuse Treatment Rather Than Punishment
Until drug laws are changed at the Federal level, we will continue to see people imprisoned for drug use and possession. But research has revealed that incarceration is rather poor at deterring future drug use and related crime and it does nothing to address drug abuse and addiction.
As classified by The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), the standard for classifying mental disorders, drug abuse is a psychological condition. The correctional system currently approaches substance abuse disorder as a bad behavior that needs to be corrected, rather than a mental illness that needs to be treated. In the process, we are draining public funds for treatment and other supportive services. With the lack of adequate treatment, many of the imprisoned individuals will relapse upon their return to the community, further increasing the prison population.
Ultimately, American citizens are paying to uphold a current method of enforcing drug laws that is ineffective in decreasing the prevalence of drug abuse and crime and makes little, if any, effort to rehabilitate people who are struggling with substance abuse disorders.
If an individual is struggling with a drug addiction or substance abuse disorder, they need treatment, not punishment.
By: Brianna Bowling, Senior in EKU’s Criminal Justice Program
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“Fiscal Year 2021: Overview of Federal Criminal Cases.” United States Sentencing Commission, April, 2022, https://www.ussc.gov/sites/default/files/pdf/research-and-publications/research-publications/2022/FY21_Overview_Federal_Criminal_Cases.pdf
“FY 2021 Budget Request At A Glance.” United States Department of Justice, https://www.justice.gov/doj/page/file/1246666/download
“The Controlled Substances Act.” United States Drug Enforcement Administration, https://www.dea.gov/drug-information/csa#:~:text=The%20Controlled%20Substances%20Act%20(CSA,and%20safety%20or%20dependence%20liability.