In the wake of calls from several Latin American leaders to end the failed war on drugs, a new report by an international alliance of major Western Hemisphere nations flags the potential benefits of decriminalization and/or legalization. Although the 200-page Organization of American States report shies away from drawing conclusions, it definitively states that “a public health approach is needed to address drug use” and that “decriminalization of drug use needs to be considered as a core element in any public health strategy,” while incarceration “runs counter to this strategy.” In a cost/benefit analysis, the report also identifies the significant potential benefits of legalization, while noting that countries seem poised at this point only to legalize marijuana:
Legalization could substantially reduce the criminal justice costs of enforcement of prohibitions, which has dominated estimates of total spending on drug control in countries as different as the United States and the Netherlands. The costs of crime itself, generated primarily by illegal status and enforcement, dominate estimates of the social costs of drugs. Enforcement costs, however, would not disappear entirely. Ensuring that sellers comply with regulatory restrictions, for example of not selling to youth, requires law enforcement efforts, though these costs are likely to be smaller than amounts currently spent in many countries on drug enforcement.
Morbidity and mortality could also decline for legalized drugs. The illegal status of the drugs is a primary cause of overdoses, both because it creates uncertainty about the purity of what is being purchased and because it encourages use of adulterants that can themselves have dangerous effects. In a regulated legal regime, the drugs sold would be of known purity and ingredients would be listed on the label. HIV, long associated with heroin injecting, might be substantially reduced if heroin users no longer had to conceal their habits and share needles. Increased use and dependence would cut into these gains, as these drugs still present health risks even when purity is known and use does not have to be clandestine.
Additional consequences of legalization could include reductions in market-related disorder and criminal violence, as well as reductions in corruption of the criminal justice system and of political authority more generally. This assumes that countries are capable of putting into place and implementing effective regulatory regimes that do not result in a large parallel black market for drugs, an assumption that is somewhat doubtful in light of Chapters 6 and 8 of this Report, which note the linkage of violence in many countries in the region to weak institutions subject to penetration by drug trafficking organizations. […]
Negative consequences must also be taken into consideration. It is impossible to know with certainty how much drug use and dependence would increase in a legalized regime, but it is reasonable to assume that greater availability, under conditions of legality and especially if commercialized, would lead more people to use drugs.
The report goes on to explain why legalization is likely to lead to increased experimentation and possibly drug dependency. These issues, however, could be separately addressed through public health policies that would better address drug dependency whether or not a legalization regime is in place.
The group makes explicit that the report is not intended to be conclusory, but only to present information and options. But the objective tone makes all-the-more compelling the report’s identification of numerous potential benefits and significantly fewer costs. As Drug Policy Alliance Executive Director Ethan Nadlemann points out, “it would have been inconceivable just two years ago that the OAS – or any multilateral organization – would publish a document that considers legalization, decriminalization and other alternatives to prohibitionist policies on an equal footing with status quo policies.” He cites evolving U.S. views, as well as strong calls from Latin American leaders to end the drug war that prompted plans for a United Nations summit, as key to this shift, and predicts that the report “is sure to have legs in a way that few reports by multilateral institutions ever do.” The report has already been endorsed by Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and will be presented to the 35 member states in June.