Home / Robert Farley / Legalization and the Opioid Epidemic

Legalization and the Opioid Epidemic

By Fvasconcellos (talk · contribs) – Own work, Public Domain.

Curious what folks think of this:

By the time I began as a drug policy reporter in 2010, I was all in on legalizing every drug, from marijuana to heroin and cocaine.

It all seemed so obvious to me. Prohibition had failed. Over the past decade, millions of Americans had been arrested and, in many of these cases, locked up for drugs. The government spent tens of billions of dollars a year on anti-drug policies — not just on policing and arresting people and potentially ruining their lives, but also on foreign operations in which armed forces raided and destroyed people’s farms, ruining their livings. Over four decades, the price tag for waging the drug war added up to more than $1 trillion

…Then I began reporting on the opioid epidemic. I saw friends of family members die to drug overdoses. I spoke to drug users who couldn’t shake off years of addiction, which often began with legal prescription medications. I talked to doctors, prosecutors, and experts about how the crisis really began when big pharmaceutical companies pushed for doctors and the government to embrace their drugs.

If I could sum up, the case would be something like this: The idea of drug legalization runs aground on the shoals of American capitalism.  While marijuana has proven too harmless for the pharmaceutical industry to weaponize, the combination of corporate marketing and the political influence of large companies has helped create and extend the extremely destructive “opioid epidemic” that we now find ourselves in. Done carefully (as has generally been the case in Europe) legalization can yield better social outcomes than prohibition, but given extant US political economy it’s as likely as not to yield tremendous human misery.

I can think of two caveats off the top; first, any public policy done badly is likely to have bad effects, and so of course drug legalization needs to be approached with care and caution.  Second, however awful the opioid epidemic has become, it’s not obviously worse than the prison industrial complex that prohibition has created (although it distributes costs differently).  That said, there may be a middle ground between legalization and prohibition that minimizes human misery.


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