To legalize or not to legalize?

Drug legalization, a hot button topic if there ever was one, is increasingly being presented as the only remaining viable solution to a "failed" war on drugs.

In April -- at the Sixth Summit of the Americas in Cartagena de Indias, Colombia -- the legalization question played a key and controversial role as 33 heads of state gathered to discuss issues affecting the region.

Several Latin American leaders proposed legalization or regulated drug markets as strategies to end the drug cartel-related violence spreading across their homelands. The United States, however, remained firmly opposed to legalization -- citing risks of increased corruption and the potential loss of civic order.

More recently, the NAACP announced its support for a Colorado ballot initiative that will put the question of marijuana legalization to state voters this November. The organization's endorsement stands as a rebuttal to the disproportionate impact of drug war laws and enforcement on the state's black and Latino populations.

The drug war has cost billions of dollars, decimated tens of thousands of lives, and incarcerated hundreds of thousands of people across the Western Hemisphere. Legalization remains a matter of unsettled debate. And yet, the issue is not one being seriously discussed at the 2012 Republican or Democratic party conventions.

It should be.


Loading Slideshow...
  • The Public Health Argument

    "Another legal drug, nicotine, kills more people than do alcohol and all illegal drugs -- combined. For decades, government has aggressively publicized the health risks of smoking and made it unfashionable, stigmatized, expensive and inconvenient. Yet 20 percent of every rising American generation becomes addicted to nicotine. So, suppose cocaine or heroin were legalized and marketed as cigarettes and alcohol are. And suppose the level of addiction were to replicate the 7 percent of adults suffering from alcohol abuse or dependency. That would be a public health disaster. As the late James Q. Wilson said, nicotine shortens life, cocaine debases it." -- <a href="" target="_hplink">George F. Will, Op-ed in <em>The Washington Post</em>.</a>

  • The Prison Population Argument

    "First, decriminalize possession of small amounts of any drug for personal use. That will have little impact on overall demand for illicit drugs, but it will significantly reduce the arrest and incarceration of millions of people worldwide, most of whom are poor and often members of vulnerable minority groups. It will also cut down on low-level corruption by police." -- <a href="" target="_hplink">Ethan Nadelmann, founder and executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance.</a>

  • The Economic Argument

    <a href="" target="_hplink">A 2010 Cato institute study found: </a> "The report concludes that drug legalization would reduce government expenditure about $41.3 billion annually. Roughly $25.7 billion of this savings would accrue to state and local governments, and roughly $15.6 billion to the federal government. About $8.7 billion of the savings would result from legalization of marijuana, $20 billion from legalization of cocaine and heroin, and $12.6 billion from legalization of all other drugs. Legalization would also generate tax revenue of roughly $46.7 billion annually if drugs were taxed at rates comparable to those on alcohol and tobacco. About $8.7 billion of this revenue would result from legalization of marijuana, $32.6 billion from legalization of cocaine and heroin, and $5.5 billion from legalization of all other drugs."

  • The Economic Counter Argument

    "The tax revenue collected from alcohol pales in comparison to the costs associated with it. Federal excise taxes collected on alcohol in 2007 totaled around $9 billion; states collected around $5.5 billion. Taken together, this is less than 10 percent of the over $185 billion in alcohol-related costs from health care, lost productivity, and criminal justice. Tobacco also does not carry its economic weight when we tax it; each year we spend more than $200 billion on its social costs and collect only about $25 billion in taxes." -- <a href="" target="_hplink"> Gil Kerlikowske, director of the ONDCP (April 2010</a>)

  • The "It Works For Other Countries" Argument

    The report,<a href="" target="_hplink"> "A Quiet Revolution: Drug Decriminalization Policies in Practice across the Globe"</a>, finds that "countries and States as disparate as Belgium, Estonia, Australia, Mexico, Uruguay, the Netherlands and Portugal have adopted different models of decriminalization." Some countries (Spain and the Netherlands) have been moving towards decriminalization since the 1970s -- with the result that their drug use rates are lower than in the United States. -- <a href="" target="_hplink">Ernest Drucker, Huffington Post Blogger</a>

  • The "It Works For Other Countries" Counter Argument

    "For example, when The Netherlands liberalized their drug laws allowing the public sale of marijuana, they saw marijuana use among 18-25 years olds double, and the heroin addiction levels triple. They have since reversed this trend, and have begun implementing tighter drug controls. Indeed, today over 70 percent of Dutch municipalities have local zero-tolerance laws. Similarly, when the United Kingdom relaxed their drug laws to allow physicians to prescribe heroin to certain classes of addicts, they saw an entirely new class of youthful users emerge. According to social scientist James Q. Wilson, the British Government's experiment with controlled heroin distribution resulted in a minimum of a 30-fold increase in the number of addicts in 10 years." -- <a href="" target="_hplink">Drug Enforcement Administration (2010)</a>

  • The Decrease In Crime Argument

    "[Legalization] does not take away everything [from the cartels], but it would reduce it. A large part of the extraordinary profits of drug lords come from the illegal nature of their business. If you remove the illegal nature, profits will drop. When profits drop, inevitably the violence will also decrease." -- <a href="'s-casta%C3%B1eda-calls-for-drug-legalization-in-us-201110264352/" target="_hplink">Jorge Castañeda, Former Foreign Minister of Mexico</a>

  • The "Legalization Will Not Reduce Crime" Counter Argument

    "What the legalization debate has missed is that it won't be easy for ex-criminals to find a legal job, and that this may increase other criminal activities that hurt Latin American citizens more directly. In places where law enforcement is weak, diversifying a criminal portfolio is an easier way to profit than trying to break into tight legal job markets. Indeed, it is quite plausible that legalization would cause newly unemployed criminals to engage in kidnapping, extortion, robbery and other forms of local crime. A criminal outburst may be the unintended consequence of legalization." -- <a href="" target="_hplink">Viridiana Rios, Harvard Kennedy School doctoral fellow </a>

  • The Regulation Introduces Limited Safety Argument

    "Legalization does not mean giving up. It means regulation and control. By contrast, criminalization means prohibition. But we can't regulate what we prohibit, and drugs are too dangerous to remain unregulated." -- <a href="" target="_hplink">Peter Moskos, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, in U.S. News and World Report</a>

  • The Regulation Has Its Limits Counter Argument

    There is no guarantee that the FDA would be able to regulate newly legalized drugs. The agency holds limited power to control alcohol and tobacco: "The Supreme Court enunciated the strongest arguments against the FDA's authority to regulate tobacco products in FDA v. Brown & Williamson : (1) the FDCA jurisdiction does not specifically include smoking products; (2) the legislative failure of proposed amendments extending FDCA jurisdiction to smoking products; and (3) Congress' enactment of separate "tobacco-specific" legislation. In 1996, the FDA issued a final rule in which it determined that nicotine was a drug and that cigarettes and smokeless tobacco are "drug-delivery devices." A group of tobacco manufacturers, retailers and advertisers filed suit in the Middle District of North Carolina against the FDA." -- <a href="" target="_hplink">Murad Kalam, Harvard Law</a>

  • Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos's Show Me The Evidence Argument

    As the<a href="" target="_hplink"> leading producer of cocaine in the world,</a> and the third most prolific source of marijuana, Colombia has faced drug cartel related violence for over half a century. The "success" of Plan Colombia, a joint U.S.-Colombia military and intelligence project that aimed to tamp down narcotics trafficking as well as the activities of left-wing insurgent groups in the South American country, has often served as an argument against legalization. However, the <a href="" target="_hplink">United States Government Accountability Office (GAO) has deemed Plan Colombia only partially successful.</a> In April, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos hosted the 2012 Summit of the Americas, where the drug war was considered a hot-button topic. Santos <a href="" target="_hplink">said world leaders as a whole must first evaluate current initiatives before being able to find a permanent solution to the problem.</a> "If that means legalizing, and the world thinks that's the solution, I will welcome it," <a href="" target="_hplink">Santos told the Daily Mail.</a> "I'm not against it."

  • President Barack Obama's "Legalization Is Not The Answer" Argument

    President Obama has acknowledged the United State's role in the drug war. "Unfortunately, the drug trade is integrated," Obama said during the Sixth Summit of the Americas in Cartagena de Indias, Colombia in April. "And we can't look at the issue of supply in Latin America without also looking at the issue of demand in the United States." Obama opposes legalization, opting instead to fight the demand in the U.S. through education and treatment for addicts. "We've invested ... about $30 billion in prevention programs, drug treatment programs looking at the drug issue not just from a law enforcement and interdiction issue, but also from a public health perspective. This is why we've worked in unprecedented fashion in cooperation with countries like Mexico on not just drugs coming north, but also guns and cash going south." --<a href="" target="_hplink">President Barack Obama at the 2012 Summit of the Americas</a>

  • Former Mexican President Felipe Calderón's Market Argument

    The former President of Mexico (2006 - 2012) declared a war against drug cartels that has been deemed unsuccessful by many who say it has prompted more violence. Calderón has often emphasized the need for the U.S. to take responsibility in the Drug War, frequently pointing out that the supply is fueled by <a href="" target="_hplink">"the insatiable [U.S.] appetite for drugs."</a> Once fervently opposed to legalization <a href="" target="_hplink">(speaking out against California's Proposition 19), </a> the former Mexican leader mentioned the need for<a href="" target="_hplink"> "market alternatives"</a> as a solution for the drug war -- a statement many believe could mean legalization.

  • Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina's Trapped In The Middle Argument

    Caught in the middle of the drug trade's flow from South America to the United States, Guatemala's homicide <a href="" target="_hplink">rate of 41 murders per 100,000 people</a> has been attributed to the drug cartels by President Perez Molina. The violence in the country has prompted Perez Molina to advocate for legalization. "What I have done is put the issue back on the table,"<a href="" target="_hplink"> Perez Molina told CNN en Español. </a>"I think it is important for us to have other alternatives. ... We have to talk about decriminalization of the production, the transit and, of course, the consumption."


Could legalization be the answer?


HuffPost Live will be taking a comprehensive look at America’s failed war on drugs August 28th and September 4th from 12-4 pm ET and 6-10 pm ET. Click here to check it out -- and join the conversation.

This post is part of the HuffPost Shadow Conventions 2012, a series spotlighting three issues that are not being discussed at the national GOP and Democratic conventions: The Drug War, Poverty in America, and Money in Politics.

Related on HuffPost: