International Policy Digest

Justice Department
U.S. News /31 Oct 2018

Changing How We Fight the War on Drugs

Since 2000, the United States government has spent $10.5 billion on Plan Colombia, a program designed to eradicate drug production. But last month, the United Nations released a report stating that cocaine production in Colombia is at an all-time high and that production increased by thirty-three percent between 2012 and 2017.

Plan Colombia is just one example of how current US drug policy has failed. Now it is time to try a new approach. By legalizing most drugs in the United States, the US government can decrease the budget deficit, improve the security situation in neighboring countries, and reduce the strain on its prison system. All at no additional cost to US taxpayers.

The United States has been waging an aggressive war on drugs, both at home and abroad, since the 1970s. Despite that, the production of them has grown. The war on drugs has led to stronger international criminal organizations, corrupt governments, and countries with some of the highest murder rates in the world. Meanwhile, a growing opioid crisis in the United States has caused an increasing number of Americans to overdose each year.

Current US policy focuses mostly on drug interdiction and eradication. It focuses heavily on trying to stop drug production at the source instead of trying to change the nature of the demand. The US should take a more health-based approach to the war on drugs and legalize most drugs, such as marijuana, cocaine, heroin, hallucinogens, and MDMA.

Legalizing drugs would allow the government to regulate and tax them, both ensuring the safety of consumers and increasing tax revenue. In 2017, Colorado made more than $247 million in tax revenue from marijuana. Multiply that by 50 and you have $12.4 billion in annual federal tax revenue just from marijuana. Legalizing these five types of drugs could help decrease the budget deficit, which was $779 billion for fiscal year 2018, the largest since 2012. The government could also use increased tax revenue to allocate more federal funds towards treatment centers that help heroin addicts recover and towards safe spaces that reduce their risk of overdosing.

Legalizing drugs would take power away from drug traffickers and transnational criminal organizations. If drugs were legal, the US government could buy them directly from producers or these organizations. As a result, these organizations would become licit, no longer needing to bribe government officials or use violence to control smuggling routes. Changing the nature of the US demand for drugs would decrease corruption and violence in Mexico and Central America. It would also support the people who grow marijuana, poppies, and coca, many of whom are impoverished farmers only trying to survive.

Legalizing drugs would greatly decrease non-violent criminal offenses. The US prison system has more than 450,000 prisoners locked up for non-violent drug offenses. In 2016, the US Department of Justice found that private prisons were both less safe and less effective than federal prisons. The government could make itself less reliant on unsafe private prisons by releasing a large percentage of prisoners who were convicted of non-violent criminal offenses. It could also give hundreds of thousands of people a second chance.

Some fear that if drugs are legal, particularly heroin, more Americans will become addicts. But Americans are already using illegal substances at an alarming rate and know how to get drugs if they want them. Making drugs legal and heavily regulating them could actually make them both safer to consume and harder to access. Additionally, the government could take the tax revenue it collects from drugs and use it to increase social awareness about more harmful drugs. Moreover, marijuana has been proven to help those with cancer and epilepsy and the increasing medical benefits of it outweigh the possible risks.

In 2018, it is time for a new approach. 18 years ago, Plan Colombia set out to win the war on drugs by cutting off the source of the supply. Today, we must change the nature of the demand. While Plan Colombia targeted poor farmers growing coca to survive, this policy protects them and their livelihoods. While current US policies criminalize drug producers and drug users, this policy helps them and supports them. And while US drug policies have largely wasted taxpayers’ money, this policy increases tax revenue, decreases the budget deficit, and gives many Americans a second chance at life.