The United States is in the midst of a trend of drug legalization, and at any given time, you can likely look around to see a new legislation supporting legalized cannabis in almost any given state. At the same time, the increasing prevalence and acceptance of legalized marijuana is leading to increasing acceptance of legalization for other drugs. For example, in September of 2017, California created a legislation to consider legalizing psilocybin mushrooms.
As a parent, these trends are probably concerning. Should you support legalizing drugs, which will potentially lead to the legalization of harder and more dangerous drugs? Or should you hold a firmer stance to protect your children from drug use and from a society where drug use is accepted?
The answers to these questions are complex, but perhaps more so than they first appear. For example, legalizing drugs doesn't necessarily correlate with higher drug use over the long-term, only safer and more regulated drug use. But, there are still multiple factors to consider.
Illegalizing Drugs Doesn't Affect their Availability
In 1924, the United States passed a law effectively banning heroin from legal sale. The drug, which had been introduced just 30 years earlier, had become an epidemic, with over 200,000 people estimated to be addicted, a term that was then coined 'heroinism'. However, the ban did very little to prevent the sale of the drug. Instead, criminal organizations imported it, sold it on the streets for an inflated price, and it eventually led to the Sicilian Mafia shifting their attention away from low-level rackets and extortion to an industry smuggling opium and heroin – which would not end for over 50 years.
This same story repeats itself for nearly every banned drug, ranging from cocaine to marijuana. Once banned the drug is imported by criminal organizations in the area, often at a massive profit as prices skyrocket. This goes on to fund other criminal operations in the area, promoting rather than reducing crime.
Legal Drugs Are Safer and More Regulated
While it's been proven that drugs remain available whether they are legal or not, as a parent, your primary consideration is likely the safety of your child. If they are using, they will likely be using anyway. Unfortunately, street drugs, or illegal drugs, are often cut with dangerous substances, affecting their quality and safety. For example, morphine tablets are strictly regulated, must contain the same strength and potency, and must contain a specific number of ingredients that are safe for human consumption. Any individual can easily determine a safe dose.
On the street, the chemically similar heroin is often cut as much as 60% with chemicals like strychnine, which, when introduced into the bloodstream, can cause severe damage. When combined with factors such as needle sharing, using water from contaminated sources such as toilet bowls and puddles, and drugs which can vary as much as 200% in strength, and illegal drugs are extremely dangerous. And, with doses typically sold in bags with no recommended dose, overdosing is easy and rampant. For example, more than 17 million people in the United States use opioids illegally, resulting in a nationwide average of 90 opioid related deaths per day.
It's Easier to Teach Safe Practices for Legal Drugs
While legalization wouldn't entirely prevent opioid overdoses and poisoning, legalization does ensure better safety standards and better overdose prevention. People picking up a prescription are given information on how to take their drugs safely, are given easy to measure doses, and are often given REMS (Risk Evalutation and Mitigation Strategies) to prevent dependence. Dependence and addiction still develop, and frequently, causing many people to turn from over the counter painkillers to illegal street drugs – but people, even heavy addicts, tend to be significantly safer while using over the counter medication.
While multiple organizations work to combat the lack of information about safe drug use and products such as Naloxone are distributed to prevent overdose, these efforts are not widespread enough. Users cannot overdose on the drugs currently being legalized, like marijuana, but legalization has contributed to open discussions, public information, and a lack of stigma, leading to increased regulation and safety standards and increased awareness of how to use or smoke marijuana safely.
Legalization Does Not Increase Use
While most of us think that legalization contributes to an immediate rush to buy drugs, this rush is only temporary. In fact, Colorado, which legalized marijuana in 2014, has a teen marijuana usage below the national average, or a decrease from when cannabis was illegal in the state. Studies show that 21.2% of Colorado teens use cannabis at least occasionally, compared to 21.7% at a national level.
Similar statistics can be found internationally. In the Netherlands, where cannabis has been legal since the 1970s, approximately 8% of the population use the drug. That's a stark contrast to the United States, where a national average of 16.2% remains the norm. However, legalization has not been tested with harder drugs, which are more addictive. Heroin was legal in the 1800s and early 1900s, leading to a massive wave of dependence and addiction. But, it was also marketed as non-addictive and as safer alternative to morphine for tuberculosis and other cough-related diseases. People weren't taking it to 'get high' they were taking it while unaware of the danger. Therefore, any speculation on what would happen if hard drugs were legalized today is just that, speculation. With no existing data to show what would happen if dangerous drugs were legalized and regulated, it is extremely difficult to determine what might happen if users were given information and safety precautions at the same time.
Legalizing Drugs and Crime Rates
Illegal drug use and crime are inexorably linked. Persons who are addicted to a substance are more likely to behave recklessly, to involve themselves in crime or petty crime to get more of their substance, and are more likely to behave aggressively and dangerously around others. There is limited data available to determine what might happen in the face of legalized drugs. For example, in Colorado, crime rates spiked dramatically as smugglers were lured to the area with the option to buy marijuana cheaply and legally to smuggle out to other states to sell it at a high profit. Similarly, the Netherlands, which allows cannabis growth for personal use and cannabis sale, but not commercial cannabis production often sees large-scale smuggling organizations importing cannabis into the country. But, with no data available to show what would happen if every state legalized cannabis and there was no illegal market, it is difficult to determine what might happen.
Legalizing drugs is a controversial topic, but with increased safety and regulation on the line, it could benefit rather than harm those interested in trying those substances. With more information available, drugs available from regulated, and therefore safer, sources, and the ability to more easily discuss drug use with parents and teachers, many teens could be prevented from abusing drugs and developing diseases or injury, or abusing drugs and developing an addiction. However, there are potential setbacks as well.
Legal or not, long-term drug use can be habit forming. If your child is using, you can get them help. A rehab facility will offer confidentiality, support, and the therapy and treatment your child needs to overcome their addiction.
If you or your loved one is struggling with addiction, you can talk to us about addiction treatment programs at our affordable drug and alcohol rehab that fit your needs, contact us today. The Anaheim Lighthouse is a modern and effective addiction treatment center in Southern California.