Based on the excellent, though occasionally derailed, discussion we were having at Opposing prohibition is not designed to be a simple solution to the drug problem, it appears that it would be good to talk definitions again.
The definitions of “legalization” and “prohibition” are sometimes used as ways to create straw men arguments, by essentially claiming that your opponents are for something else entirely.
“Legalization” has been used that way a lot. Prohibitionists will use the L word as though it necessarily means that we would need to allow major corporations to place Superbowl ads touting the self-esteem benefits for pre-teens shooting up heroin, and that pre-filled needles would be sold in shrink-wrap containers in the impulse display by the cash register at 7-11.
And then, when we say that legalization can include regulation, we get comments like:
If we want to get into parsing dictionary entries, fine, but it’s pretty disingenuous to claim that regulation is equal to prohibition in a discussion about drugs being legal or not (thereby if you’re opposed to prohibition, you’re also opposed to regulation). Conflating regulation and prohibition in a discussion of legalization is nothing more than a dishonest attempt to re-define the position of those opposed to prohibition.
Consider alcohol. Would you say that prohibition never ended? After all, alcohol has been heavily regulated for every moment of time since the years of what the history books call “prohibition.” Did the 21st Amendment end prohibition or not?
Tobacco is heavily regulated. Is it prohibited? No. Driving is heavily regulated. Is it prohibited? No.
Here are the definitions I often use:
Legalization: A status where responsible adults may legally acquire, possess, and use a particular drug, although there may be restrictions on time, place and manner. Legal does not mean unregulated. In fact, when it comes to drugs, most supporters of legalization call for some regulation and control.
Consider gasoline. It is an extremely dangerous substance — it can cause severe health problems or death if inhaled, can be fashioned into an explosive and can cause damaging fires. It is a legal substance (responsible adults may acquire, possess, and use it), but it is subject to control and regulation. It can only be sold by licensed dealers, and there are regulations as to how it may be used, in what kind of containers it may be stored, and so forth.
Legalization of drugs is fully compatible with regulatory efforts restricting access to children, forbidding use while driving or while working in safety-sensitive jobs, banning use in certain locations or situations, controlling the means for manufacture and distribution (including taxation and labeling), and creating standards for purity and potency.
Criminalization: A status where the manufacture, distribution, and/or possession of a particular drug is likely to result in criminal penalties if caught (ie, felony or misdemeanor charges, jail, fines, probation, criminal record), regardless of time, place, or manner.
Prohibition: Criminalization as public policy.
Decriminalization: American Heritage dictionary defines it as “to reduce or abolish criminal penalties for.” Theoretically, decriminalization could mean legalization (and is preferred by some drug policy reformers), except for the “reduce” option. Decriminalization is sometimes used to describe contradictory legal situations where marijuana, for example, is legal to possess and use, but not to acquire — this is a partial legalization that leaves intact certain aspects of prohibition’s dangerous side-effects.
The default status of any substance is legal.
Now it’s true that regulation, if used to improper extremes, can be indistinguishable from criminalization. For example, if the law said marijuana sales and possession were legal, but only on February 29, and not within a mile of any trees, sand, airplanes, or bodies of water, then it’s not regulation, it’s prohibition disguised as regulation.
When we have legalization, I believe that we’ll have to be vigilant to watch for the correct balance of regulation (tailored to individual drugs), evaluating potential harms, and the significant reduction (although probably not complete elimination) of the black market.