Legalization defined

We’ve had a number of discussions recently regarding Drug WarRant’s position on legalization and the definition of legalization so I thought it was a good time to re-cap the official stance of this site (individual readers’ mileage may vary).

bullet image Drug WarRant supports and fights for the legalization of all recreational drugs.

Ah, but what does that mean? Here are our definitions.

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: The combined efforts by government entities and others to enforce and promote criminalization.

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 destructive aspects of prohibition’s side-effects. Because of these confusions, for the purpose of this site, we tend to prefer the terms criminalized and legalized.

The default status of any substance is legal.

Obviously, this means that legalization is a huge field. There is everything from completely unrestricted to extremely heavily regulated within the realm of legalization. While we certainly have opinions as to what the proper set of policies may be for any particular drug, the one certain thing is that we must start with a position of “legal.”

bullet image Drug WarRant supports and fights for a legal regime that dramatically reduces the destructive effects of prohibition.

While we have opinions as to the ideal set of regulations for any particular drug, the most important thing is to reduce the many harms of prohibition. A legalized regime is only proper if it makes the black market largely unprofitable. This doesn’t mean that we have to eliminate the black (or grey) market altogether, but regulations must not be so strict (or taxes so high) as to be, from a market perspective, indistinguishable from prohibition.

Even ridiculous taxation on cigarettes by some states has largely managed to avoid a black market explosion. Most people prefer to buy legally and are willing to pay a premium to do so, and the black market has costs that the legal market does not.

This leaves a fairly large set of options open regarding taxation and regulation without returning to the violent black market fueled by prohibition. We look forward to the day when we can have the inevitable discussions (and arguments) about what the appropriate amount of regulation is for each drug.

But first, legalization.

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17 Responses to Legalization defined

  1. Hey, anyone here well-versed in the writing of citations? Am preparing testimony for public hearings on a medical marijuana bill and have included a quote from Francis Young’s 1988 decision on NORML’s 1st marijuana-rescheduling petition. Would be grateful if someone could show me the proper way to cite the following source:

    Drug Enforcement Administration
    In The Matter Of
    Docket No. 86-22
    FRANCIS L. YOUNG, Administrative Law Judge
    DATED: SEPTEMBER 6, 1988
    (quote is on p.58)

    By the way, thanks Clay for helping me locate this!

  2. Pingback: Girls Center » Blog Archive » Exact same-Intercourse Custody Fight Could Adjust Florida Legislation Definition Of Motherhood …

  3. Benjamin says:

    You should have a bit on the status of prescription drugs as it fits into these terms. I’d say prescription drugs are legalized, but with highly restrictive regulations that require you to pay an expensive specialist to obtain the drug.

  4. Francis says:

    One of the points I like to make is that “legal” and “illegal” are abstractions. As the saying goes, “to pass a law means nothing; to enforce a law means everything.” So we’re not really talking about whether drugs should be “legal.” What we’re REALLY talking about is VIOLENCE. What we’re really talking about is whether we should be sending men with guns to arrest our fellow citizens and lock them in cages for what they choose to put into their own bodies. And yes, I use that formulation about “men with guns” and “cages” a lot. And there’s a reason for it. It’s easy for the drug warriors to defend prohibition at the level of abstraction. It’s considerably more difficult to defend its ugly reality.

    By the way, I still remember the first time I heard someone use that line to describe the drug war when I was first getting interested in the reform movement. It had a very powerful effect on me. Previously, I had thought of the drug war primarily as a “stupid” policy. At that moment, the enormity of the injustice of the drug war “clicked,” and it was shortly thereafter that I decided to become more than just a passive observer.

  5. Ayuh says:

    “Even ridiculous taxation on cigarettes by some states has largely managed to avoid a black market explosion.”

    I disagree. Check out the border cigarette stores in NH, people come from NY and buy carloads of smokes. Stolen and otherwise untaxed smokes are going to become more common but the production and distribution networks are still in their infancy, as more states increase tobacco taxes they will flourish and proliferate.

    • Pete says:

      It’s not an explosion, it’s a whimper. Sure, the same thing exists with fireworks at the borders of states where they’re legal. But it’s not like the black market you have with illegal drugs.

      Yes, I’d rather get rid of all the black market, but what I’m saying is that I’d even accept the black/grey market that exists with cigarettes compared to what we have now with illicit drugs.

      The point is that even with obscene and unreasonable levels of taxation (and their variance between states) the MAJORITY still buy their cigarettes legally.

      This torpedoes the ignorant rants of the prohibitionists who claim that any amount of taxation at all and the black market will take over.

      • allan says:

        as a smoker of both cannabis and tobacco I can safely say I’ve always bought my cigs from a legal vendor. And… I’ve never bought my ganja from anything but an unlicensed seller. I have grown my own herb but never my own tomacco…

      • Ayuh says:

        “It’s not an explosion, it’s a whimper.”

        I think it’s more like the fuse burning. Wait for it! Only a matter of time before good connections routinely carry smokes and pseudophedrine.

        “This torpedoes the ignorant rants of the prohibitionists who claim that any amount of taxation at all and the black market will take over.”

        Actually they are correct on that one. Any amount of taxation and the black market will take over, not at once but as taxation increases. And the taxation WILL increase.

  6. Bairnsfather says:

    Gasoline is a good example.

    I think a good “game” could be played using a common household item. A substance that good parents routinely tell their children to use. In fact many parents have to practically force their children to perform this activity with this toxic substance.

    A substance which includes dire warnings on the label such that if it’s ingested, even an amount as small as a pea, a poison center should be called IMMEDIATELY! A substance many parents tell their children to put in their MOUTHS up to three times per day!

    Depending on the circumstance many more statements could be added for the hype effect of the punchline. And the punchline is toothpaste.

  7. Duncan20903 says:

    “The more things change, the more they stay the same”

    …and now a lesson in Massachusetts electoral history:

    Evans: On marijuana, voters will lead
    By Richard M. Evans/Guest columnist

    Mar 05, 2012


    In 1928, the eighth year of Prohibition and five years before Repeal, Massachusetts activists collected signatures to put a Public Policy Question on the ballot in 36 of 40 senate districts, giving voters an opportunity to “instruct” their senator to support a resolution to Congress and the President for repeal of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution.

    PPQs are non-binding questions that give voters, in the words of former Attorney General and Governor Paul A. Dever, an opportunity “to apprise their senators and representatives of their sentiments upon important public questions.” With correct paperwork and sufficient signatures, PPQs can appear on general election ballots to reveal where voters really stand on important public questions, like whether to repeal prohibition or perpetuate it.

    A staggering 63 percent of the votes on the 1928 PPQ supported repeal, but the legislature declined to act, as vocal public sentiment remained solidly in support of the status quo. To condemn prohibition in public was to defend saloons and the worst excesses of alcohol. To acknowledge the futility of enforcement was defeatist. Prohibition was regularly scorned in private and defended in public.

    Galvanized by the expressed sentiment of voters, reform activists hit the sidewalks again, this time to put a bombshell on the 1930 ballot: a binding initiative to repeal the state’s prohibition laws altogether, replacing them with nothing. The effect of the voter-enacted law would be to eliminate the authority of state and local police to arrest people for booze, and cede to the federal government the full responsibility and burden of finding, arresting, prosecuting and punishing violators.

    Like the 1928 PPQ, the 1930 initiative passed by another staggering 63 percent margin. Only Franklin County disapproved it. In Barnstable, Dukes and Nantucket Counties the results were razor-thin, as bootlegging provided good employment opportunities if you had a boat.

    • Windy says:

      Now that is how the 10th Amendment functions, and I sure as hell wish my legislature would use a similar route to stop State and local LEOs from investigating and arresting drug growers/manufacturers, traffickers, possessors, and users on behalf of the fed gov. But, just so everyone knows, this is something your county Sheriff may do without the legislature authorizing it. S/he can refuse to cooperate with fed officials and even jail fed officials if they persist against the Sheriff’s orders.

      • Duncan20903 says:


        I thought the parallels intriguing. The people voted, the Legislature ignored them, the people overturned them in a subsequent vote with the only significant opposition coming from people who enjoyed black market profits. Privately the lawmakers supported repeal but couldn’t bring themselves to support it publicly because it would “send the wrong message.”

        Oh, and the 1930 Massachusetts vote destroys the idiotic argument that States can’t re-legalize because of Federal law. The 1932 votes support that assertion but the prohibitionists can and will argue that by November of ’32 repeal was a foregone conclusion.

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