(Legalization FAQ)
last update: Sept.3/96

i. Introduction

1. Prioritizing Resources
2. Harm Reduction
3. The Dutch Approach
4. Decriminalization
5. Marijuana Decriminalization, then Legalization
6. Legalization
7. Full Legalization / the 'Supermarket' model

Appendix A: Forfeiture and Mandatory Minimums
Appendix B: Industrial Hemp and Medical Marijuana

i. Introduction

It's clear to many that the War on Drugs isn't working, but the alternatives are often confusing. Legalization, decriminalization, and harm reduction aren't widely-understood concepts, so the whole thing's usually assumed to be a big mess best left to experts. Inevitably, someone whips up another drug scare, and we're stuck with the stalemate of the War on Drugs for another decade.

This file has been put together to help make clearer the different ways that current American drug policy could be changed; please distribute it as widely as possible. If you have suggestions, corrections, or additions, contact me at: This document will reside on the talk.politics.drugs FAQ site at: Thanks for reading.

1. Prioritizing Resources

'Because we live in a world of limited resources, it is not possible to do everything. It is therefore both logical and necessary to make distinctions among things that are more or less important. I have in mind at least five basic dichotomies:
1. drug use by children (top priority) versus drug use by adults (low priority);
2. marijuana smoking (low priority) versus use of harder drugs (higher priority);
3. public use of drugs (high priority) versus private use of drugs at home (low priority);
4. drug consumption (no priority) versus drug impairment (high priority);
5. occasional use (low priority) versus chronic or dependent use (higher priority).
'From these general criteria for drug policy, I would commend to the National Commission five specific goals for an effective, principled drug policy:
'1._Protect the Children_. I think this priority is self-evident and needs no discussion. I would simply add that this is the only domain in which 'zero tolerance' makes any sense at all and might even be feasible if enforcement resources were concentrated on this as a top priority.
'2._Get Tough on the Legal Drugs_. It is common knowledge that alcohol (100,000 annual deaths) and tobacco (360,000 annual deaths) far exceed the illegal drugs as sources of death, disease, and dysfunction in the U.S... I am not, however, suggesting prohibition of these drugs. That is wrong in principle and impossible in practice, as experience teaches. Nonetheless, there are more restrictive measure that can and should be undertaken...
'3. _Public Safety and Order_. Here we need policies directed toward protection of the public from accident and injury on the highway, in the workplace and from unruly disruptions in public streets, public transport, parks and other gathering places. Programs specifically tailored to accomplish this more focused goal make a lot more sense than futile and counter productive 'zero tolerance' approaches. Street-level law enforcement practices need to be reviewed to see to what extent they may actually enourage hustling drugs in the street to avoid arrests and forfeitures that might follow from fixed points of sale...
'4. _Protect Public Health_. The emphasis here is on the word 'public'. Policy should be directed toward 1. treatment of addicts on a voluntary basis and 2. true epidemiological concerns such as the use of drugs by pregnant women and the potential for transmission of AIDS by I.V. drug users. Addiction treatment is now shamefully underfunded, with months-long waiting lists in many cities. Purely individualized risks are not in principle a public health matter and are in any case trivial in magnitude compared to those now accepted from alcohol and tobacco...
'5. _Respect the Value of Individual Liberty and Responsibility_. The current administration's goal of a drug- free America, except for children, is both ridiculous -- as absurd as a liquor-free America -- and wrong in principle. This is not fundamentalist Ayatollah Land after all. A democratic society must respect the decisions made by its adult citizens, even those perceived to be foolish or risky... To say that something is 'dangerous' does not automatically supply a reason to outlaw it. Indeed, the general presumption in our society is that competent adults, with access to necessary information, are entitled to take risks of this kind as part of the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.'

Prepared Statement of Steven Wisotsky,
Professor of Law, Nova University Law Center,
before the select committee on Narcotics Abuse and
Control, House of Representatives,
Concerning: A New Beginning in U.S. Drug Policy,
September 29th, 1988.

2. Harm Reduction

'The theory of harm reduction emerges out of the community- based, public health interventions that support substance users and their communities in reducing drug-related harm. It challenges the traditional social service provision and moral/criminal/disease models of drug use by focusing on maximizing individual and community health through participation and ownership rather than repression and incarceration. Harm Reduction identifies the practices and beliefs which endanger individuals and communities, and works in a collaborative manner. Practitioners of harm reduction distinguish themselves from other service providers by their willingness to engage non-judgmentally with all people, regardless of personal values, and to face with them the harm done to and by them.'

Harm Reduction Coalition,
'Harm Reduction: An Introduction',

'The harm reduction model upholds that abstinence is the ideal goal for those using illegal drugs. Abstinence from drugs reduces drug-related harm completely. It is hoped that all individuals who use illicit substances will eventually come to give them up entirely. Proponents of Harm Reduction recognize, however, that there will always be illicit drug use (unless we can successfully eliminate every psychoactive plant and synthetic relative from the face of the planet) and that many people are simply unwilling or unable to give up drugs entirely but nonetheless could benefit from intervention...
'Working with addicts from a harm reduction perspective involves accepting that some people simply are not going to give up drugs at this time. Offering them services nonetheless, opens the door to helping these people reduce harm in some way--even an infinitesimal way--that wouldn't otherwise occur. Small reductions of harm are better than no reduction (and definitely better than exacerbation). An open door policy can result in a harm reduction snowball effect: small improvement can pave the path for further reduction of drug use and an improved lifestyle in other ways. This snowball effect can continue, eventually to the point of abstinence.'

Robert Westermeyer, Ph.D.,
'Harm Reduction and Illicit Drug Use',

3. The Dutch Approach

'Dutch drug policy aims to maintain a separation between the market for soft drugs (cannabis products such as hashish and marijuana) and the market for harder substances (such as heroin and cocaine). This is effectuated by allowing some limited freedom of movement for the retail trade and the possession of small quantities of soft drugs for individual consumption, and by trying to combat the hard drug trade in every possible way...
'Penal provisions for soft drug delicts are considerably milder than those for hard drugs. Moreover, a distinction is made between drug users and traffickers. The (border-crossing) drug trade has a high priority and great efforts are made to keep users out of the illegal circuit. Possession of soft drugs and hard drugs for commercial purposes is therefore considered a more serious offence than possession for individual consumption...
'Over the years the above mentioned legislation has lead to the establishment of the so-called coffee shops where trading in soft drugs on certain conditions is not prosecuted. Trade in hard drugs, however, is strictly prohibited. Thus the cannabis consumer is not dependent on multi-drug markets which reduces the risk of switching to harder substances...
'The majority of the coffee shops adheres to nation-wide criteria ('Regulations'). The closing down of a number of coffee shops and a more rigid police control in recent years have shown that these criteria are strictly maintained...
'Prevention, information and education are a primary concern of the Dutch drug policy. In 1991 the project 'Healthy schools and stimulants' was launched, specifically aiming at the Secundary School students. The project is carried out in coperation with the Netherlands Institute for Alcohol and Drugs, the local and provincial Public Health Services and the municipalities. The project provides information on subsequently tobacco, alcohol, cannabis and gambling for Secondary School students of an age when they generally have their first contacts with these items.'

Netherlands Institute for Alcohol and Drugs (NIAD),
Dutch Cannabis Policy Factsheet,

4. Decriminalization

'_Decriminalization_ - As the word itself indicates, decriminalization involves freeing the drug user/possessor from criminal status, and limits the punishment for drug possession (under a certain amount) to a citation and minimal fine. As passed in eleven U.S. states (Alaska, Oregon, Colorado, California, New York, Nebraska, Maine, Mississippi, Ohio, Minnesota, and North Carolina), decriminalization maintains the felony status of cultivating, distributing, and trafficking marijuana, but eliminates the incarceration of possessors of small amounts of drug for personal use.'

NASRO Issue Brief, Spring 1995 vol. 1, no.1,
'Rethinking the War on Drugs and Crime: New Approaches to Local Policy'.

5. Marijuana Decriminalization, then Legalization

'A. Step One
'Decriminalizing the use of marijuana amounts to what can be described as a half-law -- it is on the 'books' but not enforced. Several states have realized the futility of enforcement as well as the exorbitant demand for the drug and, as a result, have decriminalized marijuana on that basis. The time has come for a federal recognition of those facts. A law which labels 18 million users as criminal is absurd.
'B. Step Two
'Following the inevitable success of the decriminalization experiment should be the complete legalization of marijuana. This stage would act as the real test. Distribution and taxation of the drug would be handled the same way alcohol is dispensed -- through licensed sellers. Restrictions on time, place, and manner of sale would also apply, just as with alcohol. Public ingestion would be strictly prohibited, as would the sale of marijuana in places of public accomodation. Furthermore, stiff penalties for driving while under the influence of marijuana would be strictly enforced.

Todd Austin Brenner,
'The Legalization of Drugs: Why Prolong the Inevitable?'
_Capital University Law Review_, vol.18, 1989

6. Legalization

'_Legalization_ - Some activists in the drug reform movement call themselves 'legalizers,' implying they support freer distribution of currently illegal drugs. Legalization of drugs, however, could take many forms. The libertarian approach to legalization advocates free-market distribution of all drugs, including cocaine, heroin, and marijuana. This is perhaps the most common popular conception of legalization, yet most 'legalizers' favor a more controlled distribution. Some legalizers advocate that hard drugs be made legal like alcohol and tobacco, which implies licensing and taxation, controls on advertising and places of use, and a prohibition of sales to minors. Others believe marijuana-and not cocaine, heroin, LSD, and other 'hard' drugs-be made legal. Finally, others advocate a regulated distribution of drugs through public health facilities, whereby drugs would be legal but monitored, and addicts would have regular contact with public health professionals.'

NASRO Issue Brief, Spring 1995 vol. 1, no.1,
'Rethinking the War on Drugs and Crime: New Approaches to Local Policy'.

7. Full Legalization / the 'Supermarket' model

'Imagine... that Congress passed a law granting the freedom of drug consumption and even production and distribution the same legal protections as the rights of freedom of speech, press, religion and assembly. And imagine that 'supermarkets' existed all around the country in which drugs of every variety could be purchased at prices reflecting nothing more than retailers' costs plus reasonable profit margins and sales taxes. This is, of course, the nightmare scenario portrayed by the opponents of legalization-even if it is not the policy favored by virtually any of those identified as proponents of legalization apart from the most hardcore libertarians...
'The great advantage of this model is that it eliminates virtually all of the direct and indirect costs of drug prohibition: the many billions of dollars spent each year on arresting, prosecuting and incarcerating hundreds of thousands of Americans, the diversion of scarce governmental resources from dealing with other, more immediately harmful, criminal activities, the tens of billions earned each year by organized and unorganized criminals, much of the violence, corruption and other criminal activity associated with the illicit drug markets, the distortion of economic incentives for inner city residents, the severe problems posed by adulterated and otherwise unregulated drugs, the inadequate prescription of drugs for the treatment of pain, the abundant infringements on Americans' civil liberties, and all the other costs detailed in the extant literature on drug prohibition and legalization.
'The great disadvantage of the 'supermarket' model is its invitation to substantial increases in both the amount and the diversity of psychoactive drug consumption. What needs to be determined as best as possible are the magnitude and nature of that increase as well as its consequences. Among the more explicit assumptions of the legalization analysis is that the vast majority of Americans do not need drug prohibition laws to prevent them from becoming drug abusers. Prohibitionists typically assume, by contrast, that most Americans, and at the very least a substantial minority, do in fact need such laws-that but for drug prohibition, tens of millions more Americans would surely become drug abusers.'

Ethan A. Nadelmann,
'Thinking seriously about alternatives to the drug prohibition',
_Daedalus_ v.123:3,

Appendix A: Forfeiture and Mandatory Minimums

The War on Drugs has required dehumanizing drug-users and drug-sellers, and that has led to the 'drug exception to the Bill of Rights'. Two of these excesses permitted in the name of 'getting tough on drugs' are the forfeiture laws and the mandatory minimum laws. Modifying them to a civilized level would not require the substantial change in policy that many of the previously mentioned ideas would; for that reason, they are presented separately.

I. Forfeiture

'It's a strange twist of justice in the land of freedom. A law designed to give cops the right to confiscate and keep the luxurious possessions of major drug dealers mostly ensnares the modest homes, cars and cash of ordinary, law-abiding people. They step off a plane or answer their front door and suddenly lose everything they've worked for. They are not arrested or tried for any crime. But there is punishment, and it's severe....
'In their zeal to curb drugs and sometimes to fill their coffers with the proceeds of what they take, local cops, federal agents and the courts have curbed innocent Americans' civil rights. From Maine to Hawaii, people who are never charged with a crime have had cars, boats, money and homes taken away.
'In fact, 80 percent of the people who lost property to the federal government were never charged. And most of the seized items weren't the luxurious playthings of drug barons, but modest homes and simple cars and hard-earned savings of ordinary people.
'But those goods generated $2 billion for the police departments that took them.
'The owners' only crime in many of these cases: They 'looked' like drug dealers. They were black, Hispanic or flashily dressed...
'Says Eric Sterling, who helped write the law a decade ago as a lawyer on a congressional committee: 'The innocent-until- proven guilty concept is gone out the window.'
'_The Law: Guilt Doesn't Matter_
'Rooted in English common law, forfeiture has surfaced just twice in the United States since Colonial times.
'In 1862, Congress permitted the president to seize estates of Confederate soldiers. Then, in 1970, it resurrected forfeiture for the civil war on drugs with the passage of racketeering laws that targeted the assets of convicted criminals.
'In 1984, however, the nature of the law was radically changed to allow the government to take possessions with- out first charging, let alone convicting, the owner. That was done in an effort to make it easier to strike at the heart of the major drug dealers...
'And there was a bonus in the law. The proceeds would flow back to law enforcement to finance more investigations. It was to be the ultimate poetic justice, with criminals financing their own undoing.
'But eliminating the necessity of charging or proving a crime has moved most of the action to civil court, where the government accuses the item - not the owner - of being tainted by crime.
'This oddity has court dockets looking like purchase orders: United States of America vs. 9.6 acres of land and lake; U.S. vs. 667 bottles of wine. But it's more than just a labeling change. Because money and property are at stake instead of life and liberty, the constitutional safeguards in criminal proceedings do not apply.
'The result is that 'jury trials can be refused; illegal searches condoned; rules of evidence ignored,' says Louisville, Ky., defense lawyer Donald Heavrin. The 'frenzied quest for cash,' he says, is 'destroying the judicial system.'

Andrew Schneider & Mary Pat Flaherty,
_Presumed Guilty: The Law's Victims In The War On Drugs_,
Pittsburgh (PA) Press, August 11, 1991

II. Mandatory Minimums

'In 1986, Congress passed laws that impose mandatory sentences for drug and firearm offenses. These sentences require an offender to serve a predetermined number of years in prison based solely on the weight of a drug or the presence of a firearm. The offender is not eligible for parole and must serve the full term of his or her sentence. Many states have adopted similar laws....
_What is wrong with Mandatory Minimum Sentencing?_
[1] These laws cause prison overcrowding.
-In 1990, the number of people sent to state and federal prisons for drug offenses exceeded the number of offenders sent to prison for violent crimes... In fact, sentence lengths for first time, nonviolent drug offenses often exceed sentence lengths for violent offenders.
-With 1.3 million Americans behind bars, the U.S. rate of incarceration is 519 per 100,000 people. The U.S. rate has increased by 22 percent since 1989, and is generally 5-8 times the rate of most industrialized nations...
-Drug offenders currently make up 62 percent of the federal inmate population, up from 22 percent in 1980.
-In 1990, more than half of the federal inmates serving mandatory minimum sentences were first offenders...
[2] They tear apart families.
*Young men and women locked up for 5, 10, 15, 20 years and more, leave behind children with one caretaker and in some cases, no caretaker.
*According to the Governor of Kansas, one-third of today's inmates are children of offenders. In the next decade one half of all inmates will be children of inmates. Mandatory minimums are sowing the seeds of the next generation's prison population.
*Inmates with elderly parents may not get out in time to see their parents alive.
*Others are incarcerated so far from home that their families can rarely afford to travel the distance to visit them...
[3] They cost a lot of money...
*The department of Justice budget has grown 162 percent since the enactment of mandatory minimums in 1987, compared to the Department of Education of only 77 percent.(Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1995)...
*States spend more of their budgets on justice programs (6.4%) than on housing and the enviroment (3.8%)...
*Each day, American taxpayers are spending $3.4 million to guard, clothe, feed, and house the 60,140 drug law violators in federal prison.
*Annually, American taxpayers spend $1.24 billion to keep drug offenders in federal prison.

Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM)

Appendix B: Industrial Hemp and Medical Marijuana

A sign of the failure of current drug policy is that the economic opportunities of non-intoxicating industrial hemp and the medical potential of marijuana have so far been neglected. Most opposition to these uses of marijuana seem to be based on fears of their being part of a conspiracy to legalize marijuana in a wider sense. It may be necessary, then, to discuss the non- recreational issues of marijuana separately from recreational ones, if only for the sake of the resources that could be conserved and the suffering that could be alleviated.

I. Industrial Hemp

'Growing hemp for fibre makes sound economic and environmental sense. It is superior to all other fibres, lasts longer, and requires little or no chemical treatment.
'Growing hemp for fuel makes sound economic and environmental sense. Methanol bio-gas can run vehicles, provide cooking and heating fuel. Henry Ford proved its viability with his all-Hemp car of 1940 which ran on hemp bio- gas, and had a hemp plastic chassis (stronger than steel) - the hemp products coming from his own plantations.
'Growing hemp for pulp paper makes sound economic and environmental sense. It takes 4 times more timber to produce the same quantity of pulp for paper than it does using hemp. Hemp is a renewable resource and can be grown, harvested and processed without the need for environmentally-damaging chemicals. Rain forests can be preserved for generations to come rather than be sacrificed as pulp for tabloid reading. Hemp for pulp and paper today means forests for our childrens childrens children.
'Growing hemp for food makes sound economic and nutritional sense. Hemp seed has a higher percentage of useable protein than soya beans, sunflower and sesame. Richer in Essential Fatty Acids than flax, evening primrose or any other seed oil, it is being called 'Nature's most perfectly balanced oil'. Hemp seed oil is beneficial for cholestoral reduction and conditions the arteries and heart muscles.'

QDC Solutions -- Agroforestry

'Cannabis is the most durable of the hemp plants, and it produces the toughest cloth, called `canvass.' (Canvass was widely used as sails in the early shipping industry, as it was the only cloth which would not rot on contact with sea spray.)...
'The pulp is used as fuel, and to make paper. The seed is suitable for both human and animal foods. The oil from the seed can be used in as a base for paints and varnishes....
'Today in the U.S., hemp (meaning the roots, stalk, and stems of the cannabis plant) is legal to possess. No one can arrest you for wearing a hemp shirt, or using hemp paper. Marijuana (The flowers, buds, or leaves of the cannabis plant) is not legal to possess, and there are stiff fines and possible jail terms for having any marijuana in your possession. The seeds are legal to possess and eat, but only if they are sterilized (will not grow to maturity.)
'Since it is not possible to grow the hemp plant without being in possession of marijuana, the United States does not produce any industrial hemp products, and must import them or, more often, substitute others.'

alt.hemp Frequently Asked Questions,

II. Medical Marijuana

'In the 100 years prior to marijuana prohibition, more than 100 European and American medical journal stories were published regarding the therapeutic use of the drug known as cannabis indica, now known as marijuana.
'Today, the 5000 year history of medical marijuana has been revisited by thousands of medical patients and by doctors such as Lester Grinspoon and Tod Mikuriya.
'In 1988, DEA Administrative Law Judge Francis L. Young stated that marijuana is one of the safest therapeutically active substances known to man and that marijuana in it's natural form fulfilled the legal requirement of currently accepted medical use in the United States. (Docket 86-22)
'The DEA refused to accept the findings of this court and continues to list marijuana as a schedule one controlled substance, meaning the use of marijuana is strictly forbidden. Instead, the DEA encourages the use of dronabinol (Marinol) which has has only minor levels of success in some patients. Dronabinol is a synthetic form of THC, the therapeutically active substance in marijuana. 'Marijuana has been proven useful for in the treatment of:
              Relieves intraocular pressure
       Cancer chemotherapy 
              Relieves nausea
              Stimulates appetite
              Improves attitude
              Reduces or eliminates 'wasting syndrome'
       Multiple Sclerosis 
              Relieves muscular spasms
       Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome 
              Helps reduce stress and anxiety in many war veterans
       Menstrual discomfort and PMS relief
       Chronic Fatigue Stress Syndrome aka CFIDS'

Americans for Compassionate Use

'Physicians have both a right and a duty to be skeptical about therapeutic claims for any substance, but only after putting aside fears and doubts connected with the stigma of illicit nonmedical drug use. Advocates of medical use of marihuana are sometimes charged with using medicine as a wedge to open a way for 'recreational' use. The accusation is false as applied to its target, but expresses in a distorted form a truth about some opponents of medical marihuana; they will not admit that it can be a safe and effective medicine largely because they are stubbornly committed to exaggerating its dangers when used for nonmedical purposes.
'We are not asking readers for immediate agreement with our affirmation that marihuana is medically useful, but we hope they will do more to encourage open and legal exploration of its potential. The ostensible indifference of physicians should no longer be used as a justification for keeping this medicine in the shadows.'

Lester Grinspoon, MD, James B. Bakalar, JD,
'Marijuana as Medicine: a Plea for Reconsideration',
1876 _Journal of the America Medical Association_,
June 21, 1995 -- Vol. 273, No. 23,

End Of File

Back to t.p.d. main page