Decriminalization vs Legalization : Ending the War on Drugs

It’s election season, and there are many issues which find themselves at the forefront of our discussions day in and day out. However, one that has remained a constant presence is drug use, and everything that surrounds it. A few states have legalized marijuana, up to a certain amount, and as many as 20 states are due to have the provision on the ballot this November. The country’s mind has changed drastically about drugs since the Reagan years, and there are many more supporters than opposers when it comes to marijuana legalization. But what of the legalization, or decriminalization, of all drugs?

There have been many arguments made in favor of and in opposition to legalizing and/or decriminalizing drugs. We wanted to juxtapose those arguments together to see which one has more merit. Marijuana will be used in a few examples when discussing things like usage rates, but this will mainly examine what might happen if all drugs were legalized or decriminalized, as marijuana by itself appears to be on a path to being federally legalized in the U.S. However, many people confuse or misconstrue the difference between legalization and decriminalization, and we’re here to define, examine and weigh the pros and cons of each.

What Is Drug Legalization?

By definition, the legalization of a drug would mean that you can acquire, possess and use said drug without fear of criminal prosecution. Alcohol would be a good comparison here. It is, speaking by technicalities, a drug that could have potentially serious harm if abused. The U.S. government realized it was a fool’s errand to prohibit alcohol, and it is on the way to realizing the same thing about marijuana specifically. But what of legalizing all drugs? What are the arguments for enacting such sweeping legislation?

The one heard most often is that the government would be able to regulate the sale and taxation of drugs. This is perhaps best exemplified by Colorado, which legalized marijuana in 2014.

Marijuana legalization
Marijuana: Legal in a State Near You Image By Marcobeltrametti (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

In those two short years, the state has reported huge earnings and a tax surplus, most of which is given to state public schools. And contrary to popular belief, there are many stipulations that come with this. A person is only allowed to possess 1 oz. or less, public use is a fineable offense, and one cannot sell it privately. While the effects of marijuana in terms of health and function are considered to be rather miniscule when compared to hardcore narcotics, it can still be an indicator of what might happen should other drugs be legalized.

Another pro argument is education. Rather than focusing on preventing use, many feel it would be more beneficial if it was centered more on behavioral and social issues to be aware of when assessing whether you or someone you know may have an addiction. Studies have shown that focusing purely on prevention actually increases drug use, especially among high school-aged kids. Instead, education could also focus on potential harms, just as it already does, but presented in a way that is biological and physiological, rather than societal. That is, rather than taking the somewhat in-your-face “this is your brain on drugs” approach when discussing harms, show instead the effects a drug has on motor skills, vital organ function, and motivation to accomplish tasks.

What Is Decriminalization of Drugs?

There is an important difference between legalization and decriminalization, and that is decriminalization takes away monetary penalties and jail sentences for simple possession. It doesn’t cover use, sale or storage, for which there would still be criminal penalties. Basically, the focus becomes less on penalization and more on treatment of drug use. Those who simply possess and use heroin or cocaine would be sent to rehab or given treatment so that they could beat their potential addiction.

There is one very controversial point of decriminalization, and that is the implementation of needle exchange programs. Many believe that it only encourages hard drug use, however studies have shown that it significantly decreases new cases of HIV and actually lowers drug use. This is because it actually encourages addicts to seek treatment. The World Health Organization even found that, “there is still no persuasive evidence that needle syringe programmes increase the initiation, duration or frequency of illicit drug use or drug injecting.” Plus, it keeps random syringes and needles off the streets and makes it far less likely for a child to find them.

Examples of countries that have decriminalized drug use are few and far between, but perhaps the best indicator of what happens when drugs are decriminalized is Portugal. They elected to do this in 2001, and since then they have seen a very positive effect on their country as a whole. It’s a vastly different culture with a much smaller population than the U.S., however their experiment with decriminalizing all drugs has shown to have a positive effect on drug use and overdoses, which have both been reduced greatly.

This could also alleviate a heavy burden on taxpayers, who are feeling a heavy weight due to the exponential increase in prison population. A study done nearly 10 years ago, before marijuana legalization was even on the table, found that decriminalizing illicit drugs would save taxpayers around $20 billion per year and reduce the prison population by nearly half. Considering that the average prisoner in the U.S. costs $31,286 per taxpayer, per year, taking away criminal prosecution for simple possession and use would do more to put money back into taxpayer’s pockets than any tax cuts on the planet could.

What Are the Cons of Legalization and Decriminalization?

We have glossed over these points so far, but let’s get a little more in depth with the arguments against the legalization or decriminalization of drugs. There are many, some with more relevance than others, but they do present valid concerns when it comes to preventing new (aka, young people) drug users and addicts.

One huge downside is that no one has yet been able to figure out a way to stop is drugged driving. Breathalyzers can’t detect it, so officers are relying heavily on the field test to see if their balance, attention span and general coordination is inhibited due to drug use. In places like Arizona, however, a new law has been implemented saying that smell alone does not constitute probable cause for a search. It’s unclear whether this would affect an officer’s ability to give a field sobriety test, much the same as he could do when he smells alcohol on the driver’s breath.

Another argument against legalization and decriminalization is the belief that marijuana is a gateway drug. And not only will people be open to trying harder and more harmful drugs, but overall productivity and public safety will decrease dramatically if they are suddenly made widely available. The main thing they argue alongside this is that usage rates will increase exponentially. All of this is according to Alexandra Datig, who helped destroy Prop 19 in California, otherwise known as the Regulate, Control and Tax Cannabis Act.

A lot of the arguments from anti-drug personalities center around the idea that legalizing or decriminalizing drugs would lead to increased use, be of great harm to the children in schools, and causes incalculable misery to families. Of course alcohol and tobacco has the potential to do the exact same thing, but there are many who consider those things a harmless vice that don’t have anywhere near the potential negative effect that marijuana and other drugs would.

Would Legalizing or Decriminalizing Decrease Crime?

The unequivocal answer here, from experts, law enforcement and even drug runners themselves, is a profound yes. The most recently available data says that since President Nixon first uttered the phrase “war on drugs” in 1971, more than $1 trillion has been spent on drug prevention. In the last five years, Mexican drug cartels have seen the value of marijuana fall from $100 per kilo to $25 per kilo; because of this, they have moved to producing and smuggling other drugs into the country, such as heroin. One drug farmer even said, “I wish the Americans would stop with this legalization,” due to how much their marijuana trade was crippled by legalization. Much the same as what happened when prohibition ended, if drugs such as cocaine and heroin, along with marijuana, were at least decriminalized, the drug cartels would be out of business. 

Decriminalizing or legalizing drugs would also significantly reduce the strain and cost burden on our prison system.  Recent Department of Justice statistics show that 48 percent of Federal prison inmates are serving time for drug related charges. Given the aforementioned cost prisoners are to taxpayers, decriminalizing drugs would lift a heavy tax burden.

A more recent study suggested that $41.3 billion in expenditures per year would be saved if drugs were legalized. More than $25 billion of this would go to state governments. The money could be used to fund public schools and universities, law enforcement, roads, social security, and many other government programs. On top of this, usage among the at-risk group known as teenagers have actually gone down. And this is because the black market has essentially been eradicated. Before, a kid would go to a drug dealer; but now, their only option is a shop, just like it is with alcohol. If they’re not 21, it’s now much harder to get access to marijuana.

H.L. Mencken, a prominent journalist and writer, said of prohibition in 1925: “There is not less drunkenness in the Republic, but more. There is not less crime, but more. There is not less insanity, but more. The cost of government is not smaller, but vastly greater. Respect for law has not increased, but diminished.” He turned out to be right. While alcohol is not the same thing as heroin or cocaine, many experts agree that decriminalizing possession and use, while simultaneously placing greater focus on treatment, would decrease greatly the drug problem in the United States.

Featured Image By Lionel Allorge (Own work) [GFDL (, CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or FAL], via Wikimedia Commons

B. Clausen

A graduate of the University of Kansas, Brian Clausen is the U.S. news reporter for Dopplr. Before joining the team, he created digital content for large companies.


  • My brother does drugs and I believe that drugs shouldn’t be legal cause it messes up peoples brains and rots their teeth and you can get cancer or a stroke or die from any drug. That is why I believe that drugs shouldn’t be legal.

    • yah..u are talking but the problem is how they use those drugs,,even if they are not legalized, they will still use them

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