Hardly High Time to Legalize Drugs


The Global Commission on Drug Policy (a high-profile group that includes former world leaders) issued a report at the beginning of June urging the international community to revisit the concept and overall effectiveness of the “war on drugs.” The report advocates for four core principles that should govern future international drug strategies and a prescription of 11 recommendations for action.

While the group’s argument that the global drug problem is more than an enforcement challenge, and requires attention to socio-economic issues and public health, the report’s push for countries to consider legalization models is inherently flawed. The international community already has a failed legalization model on the books: cigarettes. If the global failure to prevent criminal enterprise from controlling the tobacco trade is any example, legalizing drugs would likely increase illicit sales, boost profits for transnational groups, and amplify public health risks.

The U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy published several rebuttals to the Global Commission’s report. They defend the legitimacy of the Obama administration’s anti-drug strategy, acknowledge the need for more comprehensive solutions to manage offenders, and reject legalization as a threat to public health and safety. Politics aside, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has published numerous papers debunking legalization from a number of angles, including economics and enforcement.

In truth, both sides of the legalization debate make a compelling argument and support assertions with facts, figures, and targeted examples. To make an extreme generalization, advocates on each side assert that their line of reasoning will result in less drug-related crime and violence, less drug abuse, and an overall safer global community.

What no one seems to examine is the fact that the international community already struggles to clamp down on criminal involvement in and protection from cigarettes, a legal drug (nicotine) that is considered the second-most globally trafficked item after illegal narcotics. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) estimates tobacco “diversion” costs the U.S. an estimated $5 billion annually, though experts suggest the number could be much higher. Like illegal drugs, cigarettes are trafficked by organized criminal groups and profits go to funding other illegal activities, including terrorism. According to UN statistics, in some regions like West Africa up to 80% of the cigarette market deals with illegal or counterfeit goods, meaning sales only profit criminal enterprise.

It is clear the bloody turf war being fought by drug trafficking organizations in Mexico and Central America has amplified public interest in finding a solution to the “war on drugs.” Given the 40,000 killed in Mexico in the last four years and a possible spillover of violence across the border, there is a reason calls for legalization are on the rise. The Global Commission’s report states the goal of legalization would be to “undermine the power of organized crime and safeguard the health and security” of citizens.

However, it is a known fact that criminals and terrorists profit from the illegal sale of cigarettes and public health suffers from dangerous chemicals used in counterfeit tobacco products. The idea that legalized drugs, an arguably more compelling product to divert or fraudulently produce, would not suffer the same fate is as ridiculous as attempting to convince the Surgeon General that smoking is good for you.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons