It would have seemed preposterous a decade ago, but marijuana is now legal in four states, as well as in D.C. Medical marijuana is legal in some 24 states. Possession of personal marijuana has been decriminalized in 20 states and D.C. Although the rules for use, sales and growth of that menacing plant remain strict, and heavy-handed law enforcement responses are common, the states that saw fit to legalize it have been left alone since 2012.

Marijuana is not entirely harmless. Heavy use has long-term side effects, and certainly some nasty short-term sensations are possible, particularly for the inexperienced user. However, it is not physiologically addictive, and it remains impossible to overdose on. More than half of all Americans support legalized marijuana.

And yet, we seldom discuss the next step–where this all leads. What happens after marijuana is inevitably legalized? Though functioning heroin, cocaine and morphine users or even addicts can and do exist, using these more addictive substances is inherently more dangerous than smoking weed. We’re not there yet, as a nation. But given how quickly we’re shifting on weed, the easing of comprehensive drug prohibition no longer feels totally impossible.

The war on drugs is finally being discussed as the moral, practical and financial boondoggle it is. One trillion dollars, a militarized police force and a drug war that stretches into Mexico and other parts of Latin America, as well as the Middle East, causing violence in and death greater than we ever see in the U.S., has hinted at this for decades. Finally the message is getting through that something must change. But how far are we willing to go?


Earlier this month Dan Baum nearly broke the internet with his Harper’s piece on legalizing not just marijuana, but all drugs. Social media buzzed over Baum’s description of the late John Ehrlichman admitting the cynical, racist origin of his boss Richard Nixon’s official war on drugs. No one should have been surprised. That fact was easily inferred from history already, and Baum himself delved into it in frightening detail in his fantastic but now out-of-date 1996 book Smoke and Mirrors: The War on Drugs and the Politics of Failure.

© Bettmann/CORBIS

© Bettmann/CORBIS

The failure of the war on drugs never deterred people from backing it. President Nixon waved its checkered flag beginning 1971, but the United States had been going down that road slowly for nearly a century. Opium was banned in San Francisco in 1875 and federally restricted with the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. Marijuana was taxed high enough to become de facto illegal during Franklin Roosevelt’s tenure, which was also the era of Reefer Madness-style racist paranoia about what pot was doing to black men and Hispanics who might then endanger white women’s virtue. LSD, first synthesized in 1938, had been used in research previously, most famously in the Central Intelligence Agency’s notorious MKUltra experiments in the 1950s and 60s. But hippies and Timothy Leary types discovered it, and it was made a Schedule One drug in 1970. (Schedule One is the most heavily restricted class of narcotics, and it means those drugs have no redeeming medical value. Which is clearly debatable, because marijuana is currently Schedule One.)

After Nixon started the war, it got worse, then better, then literal. Presidents Ford and Carter only dabbled, but presidents from Ronald Reagan on have made it a brutal, often militarized conflict. They made the war one to be fought with armored Bearcat vehicles, SWAT raids and sometimes even helicopters and paramilitary tactics. It has fueled the building of prisons and the passing of civil asset forfeiture laws. The black market demand for drugs has increased violence and helped destroy already poor neighborhoods. It and other “tough on crime” sentiments of the past three decades propelled racially-biased programs such as New York City’s “stop and frisk.”


In spite of all the drawbacks, it does feel as if real progress is being made on marijuana policy, at last. There are rumors that President Obama could at least reschedule pot on his way out of office, since he has been much more bold on the issue during his second term. Whether that would be a great improvement is debatable. Changing weed to Schedule Two, for example, would render it as heavily controlled as serious painkillers such as oxycodone and fentanyl. However, any serious talk about changing marijuana’s federal status would have been almost unimaginable before 2012.

Even the nastiest social cons now tend to be willing to let the pot question fall to federalism. Many politicians except for stubborn dudes such as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie seem willing to at last discuss vital questions about marijuana legalization, and racial profiling, and police reform, but Baum’s Harper’s piece was such a revelation–even while he mostly advocates for a restrictive state store model of legalization–because we have barely begun to dare speak of stopping the crackdown on drugs beyond pot.

Client preparing injection at [InSite](, a safety injection facility in Vancouver.

Client preparing injection at InSite, a safety injection facility in Vancouver.

Though New Jersey cops now carry the heroin overdose-reversing naloxone, and the mayor of Ithaca, N.Y., wants to open safe injection rooms, most of the talk over hard drugs of late has revolved around the increased of use of opiates, not the idea of changing the laws. But as Baum notes, experiments with controlled heroin use for addicts have begun in Canada and Switzerland and may be used in the U.K. Mexico recently legalized marijuana for personal use. Ireland is considering decriminalization. Far beyond those toe-dips and potential plans, the most compelling experiment in changing drug laws is happening in Portugal.


With Portugal we have a model of, not legalization, but at least decriminalization. And it’s been going on long enough that substantial data on its effect is accessible. After almost one percent of the population of Portugal became addicted to heroin, in 2001 the country made the quixotic decision to decriminalize all drugs.

It’s no free-for-all in Portugal–no libertine or libertarian paradise. Trafficking is still punished in the legal system, and nearly a quarter of people are in prison over drug violations. However, that number is 20 percent lower than it was 15 years ago. Personal possession and use is more or less allowed, though if caught people are put before an administrative panel that decides what to do. According to stats from 2011, a small percentage of drug users who are found by authorities are sometimes sent to rehab or end up paying a fine. However, 81 percent percent are simply let off.

Pharmacy sign in Lisbon, Portugal. © Zoran Milich/Masterfile/Corbis

Pharmacy sign in Lisbon, Portugal. © Zoran Milich/Masterfile/Corbis

Drug use increased slightly after legalization, but it later tapered off and has declined in the 15 years since. Adult use of drugs in the past year and the past month decreased between 2001 and 2011, suggesting that though there may be other factors at play, decriminalization has at least played a positive part in the improvement of the health of the country.

HIV infection rates and drug overdose have also been reduced substantially. The latter has a basic logic to it. If you remove, or reduce, the fear of arrest, the fear of getting medical help would be reduced. And clean needles prevent the spread of AIDS and HIV.

Portugal has three overdose deaths for every 100,000 people now, which is well below the European Union’s average of 17 people per 100,000. Nations such as the U.K., Ireland and throughout Scandinavia have numbers that are all above that average. Also, synthetic replacements for marijuana and other substances, which are frequently dangerous and unpredictable, certainly more so than pot, are unpopular in Portugal, presumably because the real thing is more accessible.

There are always exceptions to the good seen from a policy change, but most sources seem to chart an improvement in Portugal, if not a panacea. The uptick in people seeking drug treatment voluntarily could look bad for decriminalization, if not for the fact that rates of use have declined overall. Portugal has also made it easier to acquire methadone and clean needles, thereby making getting off heroin, or at least doing it in a less risky manner, easier. Since decriminalization 67 percent of heroin addicts are on methadone, compared to 37 percent before.


Portugal has around 10 million people, which is less than the population of Pennsylvania. The U.S. has about 330 million. That and many other demographic factors could mean that an American experiment with decriminalization or legalization might look very different from Portugal. Mexico decriminalized possession of drugs in a “personal use” amount in 2009. Ireland is considering the same. But there is no country of even remotely comparable size that the U.S. can compare to that is making similar changes.

Americans are currently worrying over an extreme increase in heroin and pill use, as well as skyrocketing overdoses of both. This is a public health problem. But making it a criminal one on top of it helps nobody. Not to mention, though they are dangerous, opiates also build up in the system, meaning that people who need them for pain relief must ingest a great deal of them. Controlling substances often means that patients do not get pain relief, but illicit sales continue, and addiction and overdoses go on.

It makes sense not to pretend that all drugs are safe and have no potential for harm, but rather to look at the disaster that is prohibition and to try something else. Dissenters who think that Schedule One drugs (either excluding marijuana or not) are too dangerous to mess with should realize that their status as the most heavily restricted substances means that research into their potential benefits is restricted. MDMA and LSD could potentially help PTSD sufferers. We’re still not sure exactly how many ways marijuana can help people, and yes, medical marijuana is used by all sorts of people who don’t “need” it, but it may do very positive things for children with certain types of epilepsy, as well as have other potential benefits.

And though drug addiction is a serious thing, Baum notes in his Harper’s piece that in spite of the increase in heroin use lately, only eight percent of people have used the substance in the last month. And whether monthly use constitutes serious addiction is another matter. Baum writes “we don’t think of someone who drinks alcohol monthly as an alcoholic.” Functioning hard drug users are not a social good, exactly, but is locking them up or depriving them of clean needles really doing them or any of us any favors? Cheaper and dirtier drugs such as crack cocaine and meth, as well as the dangerous synthetic marijuana varieties, owe their very existence to the fact that more predictable highs are outlawed. Prohibition does not solve drug problems, but it often creates exciting new ones.

At this point we can only guess at the results of legalizing or decriminalizing drugs in the U.S. as we continue to witness how poorly the current system serves us. We do know that $1 trillion have not solved the drug problem and have helped spread prohibition’s nastiness and violence throughout Latin America and the Middle East. We do know that powers used to fight terrorism invariably somehow end up being used to go after drug sellers. We know all this isn’t working. As heroin and pill overdoses rise, the U.S. might consider following Portugal’s example and embrace harm reduction and decriminalization as a start. And then, maybe, if we’re brave enough, we can talk about legalizing every substance. Adults own their bodies, and laws that say otherwise have left us with full prisons and an addiction to policies that bring misery and violence.

Lucy Steigerwald is a contributing editor for Twitter: @lucystag.

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