It’s time to end prohibition and instead legalize and regulate all drugs, according to a new Reason Foundation report from a coalition of analysts and advocacy groups. Authors say the nearly century-long drug war has failed to rein in overdose deaths, reduce substance use disorders or decrease violent crime.
The new 84-page report, released on Tuesday, was produced in partnership with the National Coalition for Drug Legalization (NCDL), Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) and Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP). It covers a range of drug-related issues, but it argues broadly that “a legal and regulated market for drugs is likely to produce less dangerous outcomes for both society at large and the individuals who choose to consume drugs.”
“I think America is at a crossroads,” Geoffrey Lawrence, the lead author of the report and the research director for the Reason Foundation, told Marijuana Moment. “The drug war has failed to achieve any of the goals espoused by the key interest groups, whether it’s keeping drugs out of the hands of kids or preventing overdoses or just increasing human freedom.”
“All of those metrics have gone the wrong way under the current approach to drugs,” Lawrence added, “and so maybe there’s an appetite for discussing how a regulated market might work better at achieving all those things.”
Described in the foreword by NCDL founder Veronica Wright as a “living document” that will change “as new information and data arrive,” the report discusses the many facets that would go into drug legalization, from repealing the federal Controlled Substances Act (CSA) to various regulatory, financial, restorative justice and medical considerations.
“Much conversation and work has been done to detail why we should legalize drugs,” Wright says, “but not enough effort has been done to show people how we can successfully legalize drugs in the current regime.”
The Drug Legalization Handbook shows prohibition has failed and how legalizing, regulating, testing, and taxing drugs could produce better outcomes for all involved. @PoliceForReform @ssdpofficial @ncdl_legalize @CatoInstitutehttps://t.co/CGKWtueB7z
— Reason Foundation (@ReasonFdn) October 31, 2023
Of particular note in the report is its prescription to end prohibition by, as one chapter proposes, “eliminating the Controlled Substances Act.” Written by two authors from the Cato Institute, the chapter argues that advocates get it wrong by trying to craft excessive policy.
“As illustrated by recent state-level debates over marijuana legalization, people worry a lot about how to legalize drugs,” it says. “They suggest regulation, taxes, new state agencies, and more in an effort to convince voters—and themselves—that they are serious about getting it ‘right.’ But this focus on legalizing drugs the ‘right way’ misses the mark.”
“Repealing the federal laws that treat drugs differently than other products is the best way forward,” Jeffrey Miron and Erin Partin, the Cato authors, conclude. “There is no need for government to design rules and regulations for the sale of drugs: markets arise when needed. Letting the market solve a problem created by the government is the best possible outcome.”
While the new report follows the theme of drug legalization, Lawrence at the libertarian-minded Reason Foundation said it represents “a compilation of opinions” from contributing authors. Not every author, he acknowledged, would necessarily agree with such a laissez-faire approach.
The following section, for example—written by Lawrence himself and LEAP co-founder Howard Wooldridge—suggests state medical and adult-use marijuana laws as a sort of blueprint for how regulation of other drugs might work, pointing to best practices around production, lab testing, packaging and labeling, advertising, product tracking and preventing sales to minors.
“Each of these regulatory components could be replicated and extended to other drugs to create a safe and secure supply channel for those individuals who will seek out drug use regardless of its legality,” they write. “As with cannabis, states could license suppliers, conduct extensive background checks of those who own or work for these licensees, and require training where appropriate.”
Some changes might have to be made, they note. For harder drugs, regulators might set purchase or possession limits by taking into account the amount of a substance that could cause overdose or even require that drugs be consumed on site rather than allow retail sales. The chapter notes that Oregon’s commercial psilocybin market, for instance—which they describe as “one model for other states that choose to facilitate a commercial supply chain for safe consumption”—requires that the substance “only be administered by a trained and licensed professional in a clinical setting” and that “consumers are never permitted to take psilocybin home for unsupervised use.”
Jeffrey Singer, an Arizona surgeon and senior fellow at the Cato Institute, writes in a section on drug therapy that substance use is a personal choice that carries risks and should be dealt with accordingly.
“Clinicians commonly recommend harm reduction strategies, including medications, to their patients whose lifestyle choices may cause them harm—harm caused by obesity, poor nutrition, or risky activities,” Singer says. Similarly, people who use drugs should be able to access harm reduction resources such as syringe services, overdose prevention centers and safe supply programs, which he describes as “programs giving people access to unadulterated, pharmaceutical-grade drugs to prevent withdrawal.”
“Drug use, drug dependency, and substance use disorder involve personal choices that, when undertaken responsibly, do not threaten or harm others,” Singer concludes. “In a free society, they should be approached like other lifestyle choices, with respect for autonomy and an emphasis on harm reduction.”
Lawrence and Wright both anticipate that state governments will continue to act ahead of the federal government to create regulated markets for currently illicit drugs. They recommend establishing regulatory boards “with authority to govern licensed businesses” for the sake of public health and safety. The section advises against governments manufacturing or selling products directly, however, citing risk of federal prosecution or asset seizure.
The pair also call for strict product manufacturing and testing standards to be sure that products contain listed ingredients and no adulterants. “All batches should be held in quarantine with the wholesale manufacturer until it has obtained clean testing results assuring users the batch is free of potentially harmful contaminants,” they write, recommending that the results be summarized on product labels.
As for restorative justice to repair harms inflicted by the drug war, authors Wright and Jacob James Rich, a Reason Foundation policy analyst, push back against the approach taken by many states with cannabis legalization. Specifically, they advise against using revenue from cannabis taxes, for example, to fund community reinvestment programs and other restorative justice initiatives.
“This approach simply drives up the price for consumers legally purchasing cannabis,” they write, “discouraging people from participating in the legal and regulated market.”
Instead, they suggest a form of individual reparations. “Following tort law traditions, it is arguably appropriate to compensate the victims of these actions through payment of financial damages,” they write, but say that it’s “not clear yet how policymakers should approach this compensation.” The goal should nevertheless be “to target specific individuals who were directly harmed by drug enforcement policies, giving cash transfers to victims in almost all situations.”
“In communities that the drug war has disproportionately devastated, individual-level compensation actually serves as a community investment,” the pair reason, “because the residents who benefit will in turn spend money locally and build a stronger neighborhood. To the extent the drug war was executed in a racially discriminatory way, granting damages directly to the harmed individuals is most equitable and will help bring about racial justice.”
The section doesn’t specifically mention social equity licensing programs, which have been adopted in some form by many state marijuana licensing systems, though it does include a footnote referencing an April study by Lawrence at the Reason Foundation that found social equity programs “aren’t helping victims of the drug war” but have instead “unintentionally created new versions of the war on drugs.”
In the report’s conclusion, Lawrence and Wright urge a compassionate approach to drug use that emphasizes the autonomy of consumers. “We should return to a society that respects the freedom and independence of all individuals to live as they see fit as long as they don’t harm others,” they write. “This includes respecting others’ choices to experiment with drugs other than alcohol and to inculcate a culture of responsible use.”
Education about substances, for example, should “balance the relative risks and potential benefits or cultural contexts of their use,” the section says. And for “individuals who succumb to addiction and can no longer balance their responsibilities with drug use, society should extend compassion while encouraging recovery services as we already do with alcohol.”
“We cannot ignore human nature,” the authors write. “If enough individuals wish to purchase any commodity, someone will find a way to supply that commodity even if the government calls it contraband. This gives rise to illicit markets, which have become pervasive in America.”
Earlier this month, a separate report from the International Coalition on Drug Policy Reform and Environmental Justice attacked the global drug war from an entirely different perspective, arguing that prohibition has ravaged critical ecosystems, undermined efforts to combat climate change and caught up vulnerable populations in a cycle of poverty and prosecution.
Affiliated organization with the environmental justice coalition include Health Poverty Action, LEAP Europe, SOS Amazônia, the Transnational Institute (TNI) and the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). While the new Reason report focuses on the United States, the other paper represents Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Myanmar, the Netherlands and the U.K.
Both reports come amid a changing global mindset about controlled substances, even as the drug war rages on. A United Nations agency report in September highlighted human rights concerns raised by the war on drugs, urging member states to shift from punitive drug-control policies to an approach rooted in public health. Dealing with drugs as a criminal problem, it said, is causing further harm.
UN experts and global leaders echoed those points in June as part of World Drug Day.
In 2019, the UN Chief Executives Board, which represents 31 UN agencies including the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), adopted a position stipulating that member states should pursue science-based, health-oriented drug policies “including the decriminalization of drug possession for personal use.”
Latin American and Caribbean countries also recently agreed to rethink the drug war. Under the current, punitive approach, “the expected results have not been obtained when combating the world drug problem, leaving in many cases the underlying problems to be solved and exploiting and exacerbating vulnerabilities of our territories and societies,” according to a joint statement issued by 19 nations.
Nevertheless, a recent report by the organization Harm Reduction International found that wealthy countries gave nearly $1 billion to further the global drug war.