The gateway theory—the idea that marijuana use acts as a bridge to drug abuse—has been largely debunked by contemporary research. For instance, Andrew R. Morral, in his paper Reassessing the Marijuana Gateway Effect, states that while the marijuana gateway could exist, the gateway effect itself is not required to explain why heavy marijuana users graduate to harder drugs. In short, those prone to heavy drug use are going to use whichever drugs they can get access their hands on. In addition, marijuana is relatively easy to gain access to.
In Holland, where marijuana has been legal for decades, crime rates have remained the same, and overall drug use has remained steady. According to a RAND study published in 2011, What Can We Learn from the Dutch Cannabis Coffeeshop Experience?, areas of Holland that were teeming with illicit drugs have been gentrified since soft-drug legalization. In Amsterdam, where coffeeshops abound, hard drug use has fallen. The RAND study suggests that this might be because casual drug users obtain marijuana in a “safe” environment, away from drug dealers who might push drugs that are more profitable on customers.
The War on Drugs
There is no doubt that prohibition leads to crime. For instance, the U.S. decreed alcohol illegal in the early twentieth century, and crime rates soared. Bootleggers—armed with specially-designed cars that could outrun police—moved millions of dollars’ worth of alcohol over a ten-year period. What’s more, the upper class was immune to the law, so long as they obtained and enjoyed their liquor discreetly. As president Obama pointed out this year, the same is true for marijuana today. Minorities are prosecuted more often simply because they cannot afford the level of legal counsel that nullifies the charges.
How dangerous is marijuana to society? The paper The Effect of Medical Marijuana Laws on Crime: Evidence from State Panel Data, 1990-2006, found that states where medical marijuana had been legalized experienced no increase in crime. Some states even saw a reduction in overall crime during the period in question. Meanwhile, socioeconomic analyst Mark Kleiman, author of Drug and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know, argues that imprisoning street-level drug dealers costs society around $100,000 per three-year sentence.
Furthermore, Kleiman argues that jailing large numbers of dealers creates a flood of thugs for cartels. As former dealers are released from prison, and having little or no prospects for work, they return to the streets. This oversupply of dealers has resulted in a pay cut for all involved: while pushers once earned around $30 an hour, the average dealer now earns less than minimum wage. While this may seem a victory for the government, keep in mind that more of those profits are now flowing to cartels and grow sites.
Kleiman points out that in developed nations, refined cocaine goes for around $3,000 an ounce. That’s almost double the price of gold. Yet in countries where the coca plant grows rampant, the drug goes for about 1% that amount. Additionally, unlike gold, the coca plant is a renewable resource. By artificially limiting supply, the U.S. is ensuring that illicit drug prices skyrocket. A kilogram of cocaine runs for around $100,000, and addicts gladly pay that price over time.
Despite the economic realities, few advocates of cannabis suggest that the government should legalize all hard drugs. The movement to legalize pot began when its medicinal value became known. As new research cements the plant’s reputation as a medicine, it is likely that full legalization will come to pass. Yet there is staunch resistance from both major political parties in the U.S. to the idea of legalizing all drugs.
Meanwhile, when marijuana becomes widely legal, the cartels will likely switch to opiate production. One thing is certain: those who are susceptible to drug addiction will seek their next high, and there isn’t much the government can do about that.