The other day I publicly stated that I support the efforts across the country to decriminalize marijuana. Reception was predictably mixed, though I appreciate the fact that more and more Christians are at least willing to have a reasonable discussion on this topic. I would like to continue this discussion in a few more posts, because I think the discussion on decriminalization is a critical one that we as a nation must have.
I certainly took some heat for my post endorsing the legalization of marijuana, so let me do what I do best, and give them something more criticize me for: I support the decriminalization of drugs, period.
This isn’t because I think everyone should run out and do drugs- I don’t. I support the decriminalization of drugs because I actually think it is the best way to deal with the problem, and is ultimately in the best interest of society.
Having a paradigm shift of this issue didn’t come quickly to me. In fact, I don’t think I really considered it in true depth until my step-sister died a few months ago from a heroin overdose. She was just a year older than me.
I don’t expect a paradigm shift to come quickly to you, either. However, this is an important discussion to have at a critical time in our history, and my prayer is that more people will engage this topic thoughtfully and with a willingness to reconsider the old views we brought to the party with us. We don’t have to immediately or even ultimately agree– but let us reason together. I’ll be laying out some of my reasons in a series of posts, but today I begin with a premise:
The war on drugs is a failure– because as with most things, making something illegal doesn’t make something go away. (To test this theory, just tell a 2nd Amendment supporter that you want to ban guns, and they will explain it to you.)
The United States has been fighting a war on drugs for decades. When making things illegal didn’t work, we decided to prescribe harsh penalties for those caught with illegal drugs. We put more cops on the street to make more arrests, we built bigger prisons, and we handed out longer sentences for sale and possession. We took an abolition + severe penalty approach to dealing with drugs in society…
And it didn’t work.
In fact, one could argue that the criminalization of drug use has made everything worse. This is precisely what Americans experienced a century ago with the prohibition with alcohol– it created more problems than it solved. This is why, when smarter people did smarter things, they repealed prohibition and opted for regulating a product that will always be in a supply/demand relationship.
Once government bans something, it immediately sends it into the shadows of society. Illegal transactions conducted away from the eyes of society breed situations of violence and exploitation, leaving no remedy for victims. Those buying or selling become at enmity with those who enforce the law, sometimes functionally becoming at war with the law. Unregulated commerce even invites those who sell it to become at war with each other. The product being sold, since illegal, is unregulated, untested, and cannot be controlled in a way that makes consumers safer. The entire situation invites more crime and more violence than if the transaction were conducted in the light of day.
When we push transactions into the shadows, bad things happen.
This is what happens when you try to abolish something when the demand for it remains in place. It is what would happen if we tried to ban all guns (the one area where I whole heartedly agree with the gun enthusiasts). It is what would happen if we tried to ban all abortions. It shouldn’t be a shock that this is also what happens when we ban drugs.
When we invite transactions to be conducted in the light of day, under the regulation and accountability of the law, we have infinitely more possibilities to address a variety of issues that make life better, safer, and healthier for everyone– for all of society.
The United States has spent over 1 Trillion dollars fighting the war on drugs since 1971, yet we did not reduce the prevalence and usage of drugs. If making something illegal and throwing people in prison solved problems, we wouldn’t be having this discussion today. Instead, we had to build bigger prisons and have had to dig more graves. We’ve arrested nonviolent offenders for simple possession, given them excessive prison sentences, and then subjected them to a life of marginalization due to the life-long impact of a criminal record– one that can be next to impossible to move beyond.
Even the slightest criminal sentence can be a life sentence, in so many ways.
Like our ancestors discovered during the era of prohibition, the abolition approach to issues in society doesn’t even work. Often, it just compounds the problem.
I don’t know how else to spell it out for you, so let me be as direct as possible: What we are doing isn’t working.
So here’s my question: If it isn’t working, why do we keep doing it?
Isn’t it time to think more creatively?
Countries such as Portugal have already decriminalized all drugs and have opted for a holistic, comprehensive approach to dealing with drugs in society to great success. Even on a small scale, we have seen success in the United States with the decriminalization of marijuana in several states. Places like Colorado have realized that conducting this commerce in the light of day brought in revenue for the state, and did not result in an increase of drug use.
The fear people have towards legalizing drugs is unwarranted. It seems counterintuitive, but sometimes that’s how we find better solutions for everyone.
I get it– legalizing drugs is a massive paradigm change, and I expect it will be a process for many. However, we can’t escape the fact that what we’ve been doing has destroyed more lives than it has saved, and it is time to try a different way.
I believe the first step in trying a different way involves inviting these transactions– transactions that will occur anyway– to be conducted in the light.