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War On Drugs: Necessary Effort Or Lost Cause?

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This 4/20, people around the country are gathering in public and in private to take part in the annual tradition of marijuana use. Thanks in part to a decades-long war on drugs, however, this activity is highly illegal, and making the choice to celebrate this day is also making a choice to break the law and risk serious consequences. The war on drugs is responsible for combating more than just marijuana though, and many broader questions remain as to whether the mission has been effective. What do you think? Can the arguments below change your mind?


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Who makes the better argument?

Neill Franklin Major Neill Franklin (Ret.), Executive Director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition

Think drugs can be dangerous? As a former police officer, I do too -- and that's why I think it's time to legalize them.

For decades, governments have tried to solve the real and serious problem of substance abuse by banning drugs and severely punishing users and distributors. By nearly every measure, this strategy has been a failure.

Drugs are cheaper, more potent and more available than ever before. Forty-seven percent of Americans admit to illegal drug use.

Prohibitionists say that if we keep doing the same thing -- only more vigorously -- we can achieve success. They're wrong.

As a narcotics cop in Baltimore, I watched as legislators voted to continually ramp up the drug war -- with more spending, more prisons and more punishment. But it didn't work. Greater enforcement only meant more people with criminal records. And arresting dealers only caused more violence as competing cartels and gangs battled it out to take over bigger shares of the lucrative black market.

So instead of just carrying out the same old prohibition strategy that clearly hasn't worked, let's try something that can: Legalization.

By "legalization," I don't mean a drug free-for-all where anything goes. I'm talking about enacting a system of regulations that tightly controls the drug trade. Bringing the drug market above ground allows us to take power -- and profits -- away from gangs and cartels.

And only when we stop wasting so much money and time arresting, prosecuting and jailing people for a health problem can we finally invest adequate resources in strategies that actually work, like treatment, prevention and education.

As someone who has seen fellow police officers and best friends killed in the line of fire enforcing our existing drug policies, I don't come to support legalization easily, and I certainly didn't arrive here because I think drugs aren't dangerous.

But I now realize that the "war on drugs" itself only makes dangerous drugs infinitely more deadly.

Because drugs are illegal, their potency and purity is unregulated and completely unknown to users. Under legalization we could have testing and labeling, but under prohibition users have no idea what they are putting into their bodies. This leads to overdose deaths.

And, because of the criminal stigma that is currently associated with drug use, many people are afraid to seek treatment for their addiction problems or are deterred from calling for lifesaving medical help during overdose situations out of fear of being arrested.

But the prohibition laws don't just make dangerous drugs even more dangerous for users; criminalization puts us all at risk. Consider that while police spent time arresting more than 1.6 million people for drug offenses in 2010, nearly four of ten murders, six of ten rapes and nine of ten burglaries went unsolved. When we stop sending police out in a futile effort to solve the health problem of addiction with handcuffs, they can focus on combating more violent crimes and keeping impaired drivers off the road.

No one is suggesting "waving the white flag" or giving up on trying to solve our drug abuse problems. But those who have been advocating for decades that we keep doing the same thing ever more vigorously have little credibility left when it comes to what effective drug control strategies for the 21st Century should look like.

The evidence is in: It's time to recognize that criminalization has never and will never be an effective drug control strategy. Let's move the trade aboveground and strictly regulate it while devoting resources to true public health strategies that will help those struggling with addiction and make the streets safer for everyone.

Neill Franklin, executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, is a retired Baltimore narcotics cop.

David G. Evans, Esq. Special Advisor, Drug Free America Foundation

The arguments for illicit drug legalization can appear to be logical and simple when they are not; they do not withstand critical evaluation and they run contrary to general experience.

The proponents of legalization ignore the fact that legal sanctions deter or delay potential abusers, thereby limiting the growth of the illicit market. Law enforcement also helps drug users/addicts into treatment through the use of drug courts that offer treatment as an alternative to incarceration. Legalization advocates claim that prisons are overflowing with people convicted for simple possession of marijuana. The truth is that just 1.6 percent of state inmates were held for offenses involving only marijuana, and less than one percent of all state prisoners (0.7 percent) were incarcerated with marijuana possession as the only charge. The numbers in the U.S. federal prisons are similar. These inmates are there for possession of huge amounts of marijuana. The average for federal inmates was 115 pounds.[FN1]

The legalization advocates also do not tell you that levels of drug use have gone down substantially since the 1970s when the "war" on drugs began. The scholarly opinion and historical evidence are clear that if drugs are legalized, then the rates of drug use and addiction will climb. This will lead to misery, more deaths, social disorder and massive spending.[FN2]

Legalizing drugs would expand the markets for drugs. For example, marijuana businesses will promote their products and package them in attractive ways to increase their market share such as marijuana "candy" or "ice cream." This is already being done in states that have "medical" marijuana laws. The number of teenage and adult users will double or triple if marijuana is legalized, which will mean an additional 17 to 34 million adult and young users in the United States.[FN3]

Despite arguments to the contrary, marijuana is addictive. The levels of THC (marijuana's psychoactive ingredient) have never been higher. Higher potency marijuana is a major factor as to why marijuana is the number one drug causing young people to enter treatment, and why there is a substantial increase in the number of Americans in treatment for marijuana dependence. [FN4]

Legalization will cause a substantial increase in economic and social costs. This will include a sharp increase in costs resulting from accident-related injuries and other health-related problems. The expansion of drug use will increase crime committed under the influence of drugs, as well as family violence. These new costs will far outweigh any income from taxes on drugs. This is the experience with alcohol and tobacco. [FN5]

Legalization will increase drugged driving and more drugged driving will mean more dead and injured drivers and their innocent victims.[FN6]

The pro-drug lobby also claims that drug-related black markets and corruption would decline. However, this can only happen by allowing drugs to be available without any age restriction and at sufficiently low prices.

The lesson from history is that periods of permissive drug laws are accompanied by increased drug abuse and that there is less drug abuse during periods of restrictive policies. In the 1880s, many drugs, including opiates and cocaine, were legal. Addiction was rampant. By the turn of the century, about one in 200 Americans was either an opium or cocaine addict. In response, the Congress passed laws to control these substances. Drug use and addiction decreased.[FN7]


[FN1] Who's Really in Prison for Marijuana?, Office of National Drug Control Policy,

[FN2] David T. Courtwright, Should We Legalize Drugs? History Answers, American Heritage, February/March 1993; Herbert D. Kleber, Our Current Approach to Drug Abuse - Progress, Problems, Proposals, The New England Journal of Medicine, February 1994; James Q. Wilson and John J. DiIulio, Jr., Crackdown, The New Republic, July 10, 1989, p.23

[FN3] Based on experience in the United States and Europe when marijuana laws have been relaxed, the number of users will double or triple. See, Speaking Out Against Drug Legalization, U.S. Department of Justice, Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Washington, DC U.S.A. 2010,, pages 46 and 57

[FN4]New Report Finds Highest-Ever Levels of THC in US Marijuana, June 12, 2008,; The Occurrence of Cannabis Use Disorders and Other Cannabis Related Problems Among First Year College Students, Addictive Behaviors 33(3):397-411, March 2008; Compton, Dewey & Martin, Cannabis dependence and tolerance production, Advances in Alcohol and Substance Abuse 1990:9:129-147; Miller & Gold, The diagnosis of marijuana cannabis dependence, Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment 1989:6:183-192; "Regular or Heavy Use of Cannabis Was Associated with Increased Risk of Using Other Illicit Drugs" Addiction, 2006; 101:556-569; "As Marijuana Use Rises, More People Are Seeking Treatment for Addiction" -Wall Street Journal, 2 May 2006; "Twenty-Five Year Longitudinal Study Affirms Link Between Marijuana Use and Other Illicit Drug Use" - Congress of the United States,14 March 2006; "New Study Reveals Marijuana is Addictive and Users Who Quit Experience Withdrawal"- All Headline News, 6 February 2007

[FN5]The Economic Costs of Drug Abuse in the United States, 1992-2002. Washington, DC: Office of National Drug Control Policy (2004)(Pub. No. 207303)

[FN6] National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Use of Controlled Substances and Highway Safety; A Report to Congress (U.S. Dept. of Transportation, Washington, D.C., 1988); O'Malley, Patrick and Johnston, Lloyd. "Unsafe Driving by High School Seniors: National Trends from 1976 to 2001 in Tickets and Accidents After Use of Alcohol, Marijuana and Other Illegal Drugs." Journal of Studies on Alcohol. May 2003; DuPont, Robert. "National Survey Confirms that Drugged Driving is Significantly More Widespread than Drunk Driving." Commentary, Institute for Behavior and Health, July 17, 2009. page 1.

[FN7] Speaking Out Against Drug Legalization, U.S. Department of Justice, Drug Enforcement Administration, Washington, DC U.S.A. May 2003,; David Corcoran, Legalizing Drugs: Failures Spur Debate, New York Times, November 27, 1989; Morton M. Kondracke, Don't Legalize Drugs, The New Republic, June 27, 1988; Abbie Crites-Leoni, Medicinal Use of Marijuana: Is the Debate a Smoke Screen for Movement Toward Legalization? 19 J. Legal Med. 273, 280 (1998)



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