The Drug War After Cannabis Is Legalized

What happens to the War on Drugs once cannabis is legalized?

One of the original arguments for decriminalizing marijuana in the 1970s was that it would enable the criminal justice system to concentrate resources on the manufacture, sale and use of more dangerous drugs. In other words, take the resources devoted to marijuana laws and re-allocate them to the fight against heroin, cocaine and other drugs (which, in modern times, would include methamphetamine).

Would legalization of cannabis allow for an intensified fight against other illegal drug markets?

This seems logical and, among some folks, is a persuasive argument in favor of legalized cannabis.

However, there is also a real possibility that without illegal cannabis the drug war would collapse altogether. One reason law enforcement is so opposed to cannabis legalization is that they are well aware of this possibility. It’s all in the numbers.

The National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) provides detailed data on the number of people who use illegal drugs. The threat cannabis legalization presents to the drug war is summed up in Table 1.1A, which details types of illicit drug use among people age 12 and older on a lifetime, past year and past month basis.

People who have used illicit drugs in the past year, also known as annual drug users, provide not only the market for the illicit drug trade, but also the market of people subject to arrest for drug possession. Possession arrests are the basic activity in the War on Drugs. Not only do they provide steady work to police making the arrest but also to the rest of the criminal justice system—case processing, probation supervision, incarceration, mandatory drug treatment programs and other activities that guarantee funding and salaries. Furthermore, this mass of people, tens of millions of people, represent the collective threat illicit drug use poses to the country, a threat to the very social fabric of America.

So, just how many people are annual drug users? What happens to that number when cannabis users are no longer included in this group? The NSDUH provides answers to these questions.

There were just over 44 million annual illicit drug users in 2014, a significant threat to societal wellbeing and an obvious social problem according to the drug war’s advocates. The number of monthly illicit drug users was about 24.5 million, also a considerable amount of the population, justifying a well-founded and aggressive law enforcement response.

But here is the problem.

What happens to those figures when you subtract cannabis users? Because the annual illicit drug users include 35 million cannabis users and the monthly illicit drug users include 19.8 million cannabis users.

All of a sudden, there aren’t enough illicit drug users out there to justify the funding of the drug war.

To be fair, some cannabis users only use cannabis and some use other illicit drugs as well. According to NSDUH, there are 19.7 million annual and 8.6 million monthly users of illicit drugs other than marijuana.

But there is another problem that becomes more obvious when cannabis is removed from the table.

What do most people think of when they think about illicit drugs? They think about heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine and perhaps MDMA (ecstasy). The abuse of prescription medicine, such as opiates used in pain relief, is a significant public health problem—but one often disassociated with illicit drugs.

Indeed, even the recent increase in heroin overdose deaths is being disassociated from the general phenomena of street drugs and illicit drug markets—primarily because the problem is affecting more middle-class households.

Just take a look at how the issue of promoting treatment over imprisonment for people addicted to pain pills has suddenly become a popular issue for Republican presidential candidates.  Governor Chris Christie has made this a priority issue in his campaign, and he should be commended for it. But it is also a sign of how the abuse of prescription medicine is being redefined as a public health problem, rather than a matter for the criminal justice system.

Getting back to the NSDUH data, among the different types of annual drug users accounting for the 19.7 million annual users of illicit drugs other than cannabis are 15 million illicit users of psychotherapeutics (including 10 million users of illicit pain killers).

In other words, once cannabis is out of the picture, there really are not that many illicit drug users out there to justify large law enforcement budgets.

Setting aside people who abuse prescription medicine, there are 4.5 million cocaine users, 4.4 million users of hallucinogenic drugs, 1.3 million methamphetamine users and about 900,000 heroin users. In rough numbers, there will be only 11 million annual users of illicit drugs and less than 4 million monthly users.

Can illicit drug use by 4 million monthly users justify the War on Drugs?

Perhaps not, and this may be one of the main reasons drug warriors are opposed to cannabis legalization. Without illegal cannabis, they just don’t have that much to do, and their budgets will be significantly reduced. They already know this. It’s time the public learned about it as well.

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