Marijuana Legalization: Study Says War on Drugs Backfired Big Time

A policeman strolls passed an anti-drug use sign

A policeman strolls passed an anti-drug use sign – Ahmad Zamroni/AFP/Getty Images

The recent rash of marijuana legalization efforts seen nationwide has been a long time coming, and for many Americans, are measures that they never thought they’d see come to pass. We currently have established and successful marijuana and cannabis industries operating in a few states, with tax revenues, job growth, and entrepreneurs all providing local economies with a stimulant that was, and still is in other states, off-limits. In many ways, the recent push for marijuana legalization is a blowback to the decades-long War on Drugs — which is seen as a colossal failure in the eyes of many.

That assessment of the War on Drugs is one that has been shared by politicians, business leaders, and cannabis advocates for some time now. With the release of a recent study, doctors and medical professionals are also throwing their weight behind the notion that the War on Drugs, and prohibition of cannabis specifically, were huge missteps by policymakers.

A new study, put together by Johns Hopkins University and the medical journal The Lancet, dug into how the War on Drugs has ultimately impacted public health with its strong anti-drug policies. As you might suspect, the study’s findings weren’t exactly flattering to the War on Drug’s architects.

“The idea that all drug use is dangerous and evil has led to enforcement-heavy policies and has made it difficult to see potentially dangerous drugs in the same light as potentially dangerous foods, tobacco, and alcohol, for which the goal of social policy is to reduce potential harms,” the study says. “The pursuit of drug prohibition has generated a parallel economy run by criminal networks. Both these networks, which resort to violence to protect their markets, and the police and sometimes military or paramilitary forces that pursue them contribute to violence and insecurity in communities affected by drug transit and sales.”

That mindset, and the resulting violent criminal economies, haven’t led to positive public health outcomes.

“Research about drugs and drug policy has suffered from a lack of a diversified funding base and assumptions about drug use and drug pathologies on the part of the dominant funder, the US Government.”


The 54-page report not only singles out the U.S. government for being the lead crusader in the War on Drugs, but also points to some countries who have been able to reshape their policies to the benefit of public health. Among them are the Czech Republic and Portugal, both of which have implemented decriminalization measures to treat drugs as a public health problem — and one that needs to be rehabilitated — rather than a criminal issue with punitive treatments.

“Countries such as Portugal and the Czech Republic decriminalised minor drug offences years ago, with significant financial savings, less incarceration, significant public health benefits, and no significant increase in drug use,” the study says. In conclusion, the authors write that the entire War on Drugs has resulted in outcomes that were, in fact, the opposite of what was hoped to be achieved.

“Policies meant to prohibit or greatly suppress drugs present a paradox. They are portrayed and defended vigorously by many policy makers as necessary to preserve public health and safety, and yet the evidence suggests that they have contributed directly and indirectly to lethal violence, communicable-disease transmission, discrimination, forced displacement, unnecessary physical pain, and the undermining of people’s right to health.”

To circle back to marijuana legalization as it’s occurring here in the States, we do have some promising signs that this study is on to something. For example, in states where legalization measures have passed and cannabis industries have been given the green light — as of right now, those are Oregon, Washington, and Colorado, with Alaska still working out its framework — there have been little, if any, negative outcomes.

We’ve seen local governments bring in additional revenues for schools and other things through taxation, and simultaneously cut down on law enforcement expenses related to marijuana. That also means less potential for violent interactions between the police and the public. But there have also been other promising signs — including preliminary signs that the streets are safer, possibly due to less people drinking and driving.

These are preliminary, mind you, but still positive signs. And perhaps most surprisingly, increased access to marijuana among teens has actually led to lower use rates.

The War on Drugs looks to be winding down, and with more experts piling on in favor of decriminalization for illegal substances — and marijuana in particular, it seems we’re inching ever closer to an entirely new mindset about drug policy.

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