Bill Harrison


This conversation is closed.

Should we legalize hard drugs in the US and elsewhere? If not, what pragmatic (not moralistic) arguments justify continued criminalization?

Elizabeth Pisani, a self-described "public health nerd", makes an extremely persuasive case that governments should make the highly cost-effective decision to pass out needles and condoms in order to prevent HIV.

Today, I read that a mass grave was found with 116 dead bodies, victims of drug-traffickers in Mexico.,0,1508583.story

So, should we legalize hard drugs in order to take away some of the financial power from drug lords and reduce the incentive for violence in the drug trade?

Argument from reason:
Profit from drugs is extremely high because they can only be obtained illegally. Because drug sellers cannot use the legal system to enforce deals, they must enforce contracts extra-legally (with guns, violence, etc.) By financing drug-traffickers' weapons and operations, the drug trade makes other crimes more possible/likely. Legalizing hard drugs in the US a) removes the major market for drug cartels in Mexico, thus removing a huge source of financing for violent, organized crime, and b) provides a non-violent method of dispute resolution for the distributors in the US, possibly saving lives.

Argument by analogy/history:
So, given that ending Prohibition took a huge chunk out of the finances of organized crime:

Argument from authority:
And given that very smart Harvard professors think drugs should be legalized:

I take it as self-evident/overwhelmingly obvious that we should pass out needles and condoms to prevent disease, as Ms. Pisani suggests. But given the aforementioned reasons, should we legalize hard drugs in the US and elsewhere? If so, are there other/better arguments for legalization than the ones I've given? If not, what pragmatic arguments justify continued criminalization?

  • thumb
    Jun 3 2011: Crime does generate huge profits. We can look at our own history to see this effect. Prohibition made alcohol very profitable for gangs. The same is true for other drugs today.

    Needle sharing and use has been reduced just by places providing free needle exchange. I know there is one in Syracuse NY, and if I remember correctly, I had a guest speaker in high school from the clinic who said that the program was reducing use.

    The key is public policy can make things safer. It just needs to be used effectively.
  • Apr 18 2011: Regarding addiction, drugs that give no rise to physical depedency (THC, LSD, Psilocybin, DMT, etc) are not devoid of potential psychological dependency. But then, how can anything we indulge in NOT be considered subject to psychological dependency. In the same way that a person can succumb to the habits of excessive drinking or over-eating, a person can also be said to be exposed to the inclination to indulge in any action whatsoever, whether it be socially accepted or not.

    Through prohibition, the problem has been portrayed to be in the drugs themselves and the effects they tend to have on society; but the problem rests with the individuals engaging in such behaviors abusively and excessively. If it is just for us to forbid the the use of psychoactive substances, simply because the abuse of its activity holds the risk of causing personal/communal detriment, then what keeps us from forbidding any activity that holds this same risk (sex, exercising, gambling, gaming, eating, living, etc ).
  • thumb
    Jun 12 2011: Hard drugs are already prescribed across the world.

    Too many jobs would be lost by legalizing drugs, much more than it would create. The profit of drug trafficking while at the same time fighting a war or drugs spending billions of tax payers money is simply too high to be jeopardized by legalization. How many people are in jail right now for drug use/possession?
  • thumb
    Jun 3 2011: The U.N.'s Global Commission on Drug Policy (which included Kofi Annan) recently put out a report urging the decriminalization of drugs.,0,1200377.story

    It is their job to look at drug policy and come to an objective conclusion on what ought to be done. These are not stupid people, presumably.
    • thumb
      Jun 3 2011: Good find!
    • thumb
      Jun 21 2011: The US will always veto against decriminalization, unless they get to produce and distribute it themselves... worldwide. But then this will call for a worldwide ban on marijuana farming. I don't mention opiates or coca since the US already run those two...
  • thumb
    Apr 30 2011: Those nay sayers have to take responsibility for past transactions. Legalization has caused a damn thing. Never the less people who support our present policy of drug prohibition will not accept the responsibility for what has happened over the past four decades.
  • thumb
    Apr 16 2011: I agree that all drugs should simply be legalized. The prohibition of controlled substances like cocaine and heroin haven't worked and will not work any better than the prohibition on alcohol in the 18th Amendment. A simple economic analysis reveals the reasons why: any time there is a significant demand for a product or service, and that product/services isn't sanctioned by the law, it will spring up on the black market. As you pointed out, since the drugs are hard to come by due to law enforcement operations, the price of them is very high, and since criminals cannot form contracts, their trade is inevitably accompanied by violence in direct proportion to the amount of money generated by their business. Since it is a multi-billion dollar industry, competition is cutthroat and violence is high. The government can try to wipe out suppliers all they want, but as long as the demand persists (and there is no reason that it won't), the trade will find ways of getting around shortages, which will just drive prices further up anyway.

    By removing the prohibition against drugs, we can dramatically lower crime, stabilize the border and reduce the amount of immigration from Mexico somewhat,and open up a new revenue source for the government. We should then concentrate more on treating addicts and educating kids about drugs, and enact all of the necessary and proper regulations to ensure that they are not sold to people under 21, for instance, and that they can't be advertised, etc. I think that over time, the demand for illegal drugs would decrease gradually following a lifting of their prohibition. It's just a personal hunch, but I believe that not too many new people will become buyers when they are no longer buying drugs from their friends at school, or shady dudes in the park, but at drug stores with black box warnings.
  • Apr 15 2011: A few of us in the UK started to try to get some honesty and some humanity into the generally statistical discussions on what is, in fact, a deeply personal issue. We don't have a stand on which way drug policy should go - just that SOMETHING needs to change because current policiies are clearly a disaster.
  • thumb
    Apr 14 2011: A pragmatic answer is that we cannot handle the effects of the drugs that are currently legal and their consequences. Addictions and their impact on the people surrounding the addict (especially chldren) drains resources, productivity and hope from society at large. To add more is a scary idea that will enslave milions more- all with th justificatioin of profit for alcohol companies, cocaine producers or others who manufacture and supply drugs.
    • thumb
      Apr 14 2011: Hi Debra, thanks for your response.

      I agree with you that drug addictions are terrible for individuals, their families, and society at large. I just don't agree that legalizing drugs would necessarily lead to more addictions.

      Smoking cigarettes is legal, but most people don't smoke because it's stupid and no longer cool. Likewise, if crack-cocaine or meth were legal, I don't think most people would run out and start smoking crack or meth. In fact, the money that we save from policing drug lords and prosecuting and imprisoning users could instead be used to run rehabilitation centers.

      "To add more is a scary idea that will enslave millions more" - this makes me think that the arguments against legalization are based upon fear rather than reason. Both drugs and addictions are scary, and therefore they should be illegal, doesn't really seem to consider all the other ways we could limit drug use if it was legal.

      Legalization doesn't necessarily mean more drug use or addiction.
      • thumb
        Apr 15 2011: There are not currently any projections or statsthat I am aware of on how many would be addicted but let's be real. When the tobacco companies and their advertising began to be challenged in first world countries they simply moved to third world countries where there were no laws against the kind of advertising and promotions that addict children- little children who do not have a chance.. All you have to do is investigate the techniques which are routinely outlawed in North America and you will discover the tricks and techniques that are used against children in the name of profit. It sounds like liberality, sunshine and roses and free love to suggest that addictive substances can be handled by people - but you forget the power of the profit motive. All you have to do is look at the opium wars of history to understand what one power who was bent on profit and trade could do to another civilzation. I cannot imagine the power of one or or two forced exposures to crystal meth. I have in neuroscience classes seen Meth addicts and their brains which look like swiss cheese. Even if you are one of the gifted and strong ones that could sample and resist why would you condemn your fellow human beings to such torture?I may be the least fearful woman you ever met and yet even I have the common sense to be frightened of substances that can be phyisically addictive.
        • thumb
          Apr 15 2011: well lets be super real drugs like -THC,MDMA,LSD,DMT, have 0 PHYSICAL abuse potential, making them automatically safer in that reguard than OXY or other various opiod drugs. and seirously where are all these addicted chidren? and there parents? i wasnt even offered drugs till later on in high school. and it wasnt like they were free. most children who abuse drugs early typically find them at home. but the subect is too stigmatized to be talked about rationaly in most family homes. AND your right! meth is terrible, but the last thing these people need when there at there lowest than to be subjected to a county prison. AND isnt all drug trade spurred by prohibition? so really we are just killing ourselves

        • thumb
          Apr 16 2011: I don't understand your argument here. Why would legalizing hard drugs here automatically make them legal in third world countries? It wouldn't, so I don't see why or how the companies which sold them would be able to exploit the children of third world countries--this isn't cigarettes or McDonald's we're talking about here. The simple act of legalizing drugs does not mean that we are condemning anyone to any sort of fate...we are simply making a trade that some people participate in legal as opposed to illegal. This will actually allow us to help more addicts, because they will no longer face the fear of prosecution for their drug use, and will be more willing to seek treatment.

          Also, I think we should be a little more specific when we talk about legalizing hard drugs--it's not as if they would be able to sell their product with no strings attached. There would be numerous strict regulations that drug companies would have to abide by in order to operate--the whole process of drug use, which happens now without any oversight, would be made much safer.
    • thumb
      Apr 15 2011: i think i have a right as a human adult to consume whatever drugs i wish. if communities reached out and actually communicated with people with substance abuse isues and treated this as a health issue rather than criminal i think we would have far less issues around it. we CANNOT tell and then punish people for making decisions like this. AND i also do not think they should be legalised, just decriminalised. id rather deal with my dealer and support friends than pay taxes to people who abuse them and create a monolpoly over a new industry.
      • thumb
        Apr 15 2011: Tim, I used to tell my children when adults were acting wonky that just because someone is in a big body does not mean that they are grown ups. I'm not big on the risk/reward ratio of some drugs like crystal meth.
        • thumb
          Apr 15 2011: then tell your kids that, raise them right and maybe theyll bring it up to you again if they ever encouter that. but theres no proof to thinking use is always tied to availability.
        • thumb
          Apr 15 2011: and to be honest im not big on that same ratio in reguards to COKE A COLA
    • Apr 15 2011: Hey Debra - this is a really good argument and not many people make it very well. If you're interested in setting out your argument at slightly greater length, we'd love to have you as a guest writer at E mail to discuss further. Regards. Cara
    • thumb
      Apr 16 2011: I think you're overestimating the popularity of drugs. A lot of people use them, to be sure, but these same people are going to use drugs regardless or not whether their illegal. By the same token, I don't believe that many people who are not using drugs now will begin using them once they are legal. In fact, I think there is reason to believe that drug use will decline: the use of hard drugs will carry an enormous social stigma when legalized, and one that will hardly be able to be kept secret, since consumers of these products would have to be them at outlets instead of on the street. Naturally, know employer would hire a person who takes drugs, and this would further dissuade any curious people from becoming new users simply because such substances are no longer illegal.
  • thumb
    Jul 7 2011: i think i am one who would vote AGAINST a blanket legalization. becuase thats irresponsible. DEcriminalize psychedelics including mdma for use in therepy, maybe even alow ability to prescibe them. for meth and the related, just decriminalize, i think Heroin should be able to be prescribed, as some do manage to use without total destruction and it could help those get off of it. weed should be legalized to the fullest extent, imo. incredibly difficult to pull off, but a "card" to buy certain drugs would be cool, if it involved a simple psyc test and background check.
  • Jul 7 2011: Wait wait wait Tony...

    The reason we should NOT legalize/decriminalize the drugs is because the prison industrial complex will lose money/jobs?

    I'm hoping your entire post was sarcastic, but I can't tell.
    • thumb
      Jul 7 2011: it wasnt, i dont think. which is sad.
  • thumb
    Jun 19 2011: Whether or not drugs are legal or illegal, they still have to be purchased by users. The majority of people in our correctional facilities are drug and/or alcohol addicted and many crimes are committed to obtain money to buy drugs...assault to steal money, breaking and entering to steal goods which can be sold or traded for drugs, etc. Legalizing drugs may cause a shift of power in the drug cartels, but it probably will not change the scenario of users committing crimes against people. It seems like the legalization of drugs would cause this underlying problem to escalate even more, as drugs were more easily available. It is pretty easy to get drugs right now, even though they are illegal...users need to have money to purchase them.

    Passing out needles and condoms to prevent HIV may change someone's behavior to prevent a disease, and does not seem comparable to legalizing drugs, which will cause drugs to be more available, but does not necessarily change the user's behaviors or need to obtain money to buy the drugs...unless with legalization, we are planning to pass out drugs as well!
  • Jun 1 2011: Bill,

    I will give you two arguments, although most likely neither one will be to your liking.

    Argument from Reason:

    Hard drugs create a euphoric feeling in the user generally termed a "high".
    Euphoric feelings are addictive, they are why we want a good life.
    Joining the first two, hard drugs contain the capacity for addiction (along with anything which induces or entices a euphoric response.)
    When addicted to something, a user will go to great lengths to ensure the next "fix".
    As the addiction strengthens, these lengths grow.
    Much household abuse is a result of drugs, many murders are people looking for drug money (including a double axe murder which occurred less than 2 miles from my house).
    Thus, hard drugs should be illegal.

    Argument from History:
    Remember, crime rates in the US hit all time lows during the prohibition.

    Argument from Culture:
    A huge majority of American's profess belief in the Bible or in Biblical ideals. (
    The Bible is expressly against any mind-altering substances.
    Recognizing this condemnation and striving for a good life, the substances were criminalized.

    My answer:
    This world is messed up... really messed up. It won't matter if you legalize drugs, people will still abuse people.

    I remember a movie, "That's what I am" which had a simple formula:

    Human Dignity + Compassion = PEACE

    Until you have something similar to that, then you will still see 116 bodies in a ditch, it's the way the world is.

    Personally, I do not use drugs for the same reason I don't drink coffee or overindulge in salt or sugar. I prefer natural high's. Rather than blast my palette with course overemphasized feelings, I take delight in the subtle joys of life.

    Hope you enjoyed!
    • thumb
      Jun 1 2011: Your first argument is sensible but can easily be distorted with the fact any substance or non-substance can be abused to the point where there is addiction. Video games, gambling, sex, alcohol, cigarettes, working out, hunting, the list goes on. Cops are cops to get the adrenaline rush from a chase, a crime in progress, and/or a bust. Getting high in their own way.

      To say people who would do anything for their next fix would lead to criminal behavior is without reason. People steal for profit daily, to think all these people are addicts is an unsound argument. Also to consider that these people who steal are only stealing to get money for their drugs is also unsound.

      Many murders are for drug money? Really? Here I thought most murders occur in war, gang violence, serial killers, and suicides.

      Second argument: Prohibition was where crime rates were the highest, this is where you are wrong. Some of the original gangs and mafias can trace back to prohibition and bootlegging alcohol. Also some of the original counterfeiting for money came from those times.

      I agree completely there are natural highs to be enjoyed in life. I agree people are ill-educated on how to live life to the fullest and to be truly happy. I even agree what separates people the most are superficial details involving cultures. However if people were educated in these terms, hard drugs would prove only to benefit.

      As of now hard drugs being illegal puts restrictions on our personal freedoms which is completely ridiculous because that makes it more appealing and interesting and make it taboo, and guess what the more people are said not to do something, the more they want to do it. Reverse psychology. Look at my drug abusing generation, the illegality means nothing, they will do it, in fact the fact it is illegal advertises hard drugs more than it would being legal. BECAUSE you would never hear about them then!
      • Jun 1 2011: I agree that my argument was not very well put together, allow me to revise.

        First, video games, sex, alcohol, cigarettes, etc. are addictive and cause people to act out in many ways. However, they do not offer the same intensity high as drugs (speaking not out of experience, but from general knowledge). In addition video games, cigarettes, and other mild addictive do not have the same mental state altering capabilities. People murder for sex, they kill while drunk. In the same way people will do anything for drugs. I have witnessed friends come begging for money to get the next high, I have seen them ruin their lives and regret every minute of it. In addition, "mild" hard drugs such as crack cocaine are gateways towards drugs like heroine.

        I should revise my statement about murders. While a significant number are drug related, many are not. Please note that I am not including war as murder since most war today is well intentioned and (hopefully) falls under the category of a just war. But that is not the question at hand.

        I will retract my statement about the prohibition. The data I was referencing has recently been retracted. I should have checked on my sources before doing that.
  • thumb
    May 6 2011: If any of you 'explorers' have ever had a synesthesia under the influence of drugs, I have posted a thread asking for your experiences. If you do not know that word it just means perceiving sounds from colours, or colours with numbers or one sense giving you informaton in the form of another sense.
    They believe that Shakespeare might have been a natural synesthete and many creative people and artists are as well.

    Looking forward to hearing your experiences!
    The Thread is called "the man who tasted shapes" after a book by that name.
  • thumb
    Apr 15 2011: Yes, as a great comedian (Bill Hicks) once said, "drugs aren't the problem stupid people doing drugs are problem. Same old story all the time, some dude does acid and tries to fly by jumping off a building. When was the last time you saw ducks go up an elevator to fly north? They take off from the ground! One less idiot, good."

    There is a BIG difference between a person who researched the drug they are doing and a person who has no idea what to expect upon consumption. A person who read about and gathered information about a drug before they tried it, KNEW WHAT TO EXPECT before hand and was able to mentally prepare for it. Someone who didn't freaks out and does stupid stuff some of the time.

    Education about drugs will prevent drugs from being miss used while having their potential for good to be maximized.

    Addiction? So, video games, sex, gambling, working out and other non-substances addictions are better? It is all about moderation; teach it, practice it, and do not be afraid to call someone out on their problems that are killing them slowly.

    It is hard for me not to tell a fat person to drop the burger, but I have to, to be "civil". Although obesity is not only a cause of over 12 causes of illness, it is just down right disgusting to eat more than what you need to survive (that part is my opinion of course).

    The problem isn't drugs, drugs are awesome they allow you to think alternatively and in new perceptive, plus the colors!! The problem is the education revolved around drugs.

    Seriously marijuana is still a crime... talk about a natural medicine that will benefit so many for such a low cost being labeled more dangerous than cocaine and crack. Idiocracy I say!
    • thumb
      Apr 15 2011: exactly. ^ cocain is a schedule 2 that tells you just how screwed the system is.
      • thumb
        Apr 15 2011: Tim, although I love people agreeing with me, I love more people who do not!

        It is just obvious how screw up the system is, because people allow others to convince them of an invisible problem without doing the appropriate research themselves. Then they take legal drugs that are worse than the illegals.

        I mean we can give zoloft (cocaine) to kids but dam if you can have some!