The statistics of drug legalization


  • Author: Carlos Alberto Gómez Grajales
  • Date: 04 Mar 2014
  • Copyright: Image appears courtesy of iStock Photo

A young man stops his car just in front of the new store in the block, that new cool shop everyone's talking about. “It must be great”, he thinks. “Otherwise it wouldn't be on the news”. So he decides to hop in. Once he gets inside, he notices a board full of Push pins to mark his hometown on a map of the United States, as most of the people who stop by the shop do. Many pins mark places from all over the country, with states like Mississippi, Ohio and Kentucky already covered with these tiny marks. The visitor then orders something to go, which is then packed in a small transparent plastic bag. After paying and receiving his valuable merchandise, the happy customer leaves 'Northern Lights Cannabis', a small shop located in Edgewater, Colorado (1). This place is one among the select group of licensed dispensaries allowed to sell marijuana and drug related edibles in Colorado, one of the two states within the United States that recently legalized the use of recreational Marijuana. Within these heavily regulated shops, customers can buy up to an ounce (28.35 grams) of marijuana, as long as they have an official Colorado ID. People from outside the state can only get up to a quarter ounce (about 7 grams). The product cannot be consumed in public, nor within the establishments: the new legislation only permits consumption within private properties, with the owner's approval. The law also regulates the taxing of the product, how distribution shops may (and may not) advertise themselves, the fines for driving under the effect of the drug and it even controls how citizens may grow plants inside the comfort of their homes (2). The law was, as expected, welcomed by many investors. Even though the process of approval is lengthy and complicated, more than 15 shops are now open and more than 150 have started the process of approval in the state.

thumbnail image: The statistics of drug legalization

Colorado is not the only place in America that has looked upon cannabis with a different eye. The state of Washington has also approved a similar legislation to that of Colorado, with dozens of shops programmed to open later in 2014. Besides, 13 states may follow Colorado and Washington State’s lead and legalize recreational use of Cannabis. Alaska, California, Maryland and New Jersey are just some of the territories that will debate the issue within the next months (3). They will not be alone, as many different countries in the world have also decriminalized the recreational use of the drug. Netherlands is a well-known example and, more recently, Uruguay became the first country in the world to legalize the sale, cultivation, and distribution of cannabis. In many other countries the drug is illegal, but the commandments are all but strict, forbidding consumption but not criminalizing the possession of small amounts aimed for personal use, nor pursuing users with more than minor administrative penalties. Places like Argentina, Brazil, Costa Rica, Italy, Mexico, Peru, Estonia and some parts of Australia all have such loose legislation (4).

In briefing, the world has a lot of disparities relating the recreational use of marijuana. The reason lies beyond cultural differences and it is a complex matters that involves the internal situation, financial necessities and the costs of enforcing a prohibition within each place. This particular topic is of great importance, considering that many small developing countries don't have the amount of cash required to enforce a prohibition on drugs. Apparently, the cost of prohibiting drugs is quite greater than you may have thought.

Let's discuss for a moment the case of the United States, not only for the recent attitudinal changes that are impacting the country but also because we have many reliable sources of data to study there. According to a 2008 study published by Harvard economist Jeffrey A. Miron, legalizing drugs within the U.S. would annually save roughly $41.3 billion dollars, with $25.7 billion being saved among the states and over $15.6 billion accrued for the federal government. This estimation includes the annual savings on enforcement and incarceration costs from the legalization of all currently illegal drugs, but, for the sake of the new developments regarding the must used drug in the country, marijuana, let's focus a bit on what are the consequences, economic and related of prohibiting this particular drug.

According to a report by the American Civil Liberties Union, the sole enforcement of marijuana prohibition in the U.S. is incredibly expensive (5). With data drawn from the Census Bureau’s Annual Government Finance Survey and Annual Survey of Public Employment and based on a methodology similar to that from Professor Miron's estimations, the authors were able to produce a conservative estimation of the fiscal cost of enforcing a prohibition. The data shows that in 2010 American states spent a combined sum of about $3.614 billion dollars enforcing marijuana possession laws, with an estimated $1,747,157,206 dollars spent on policing marijuana possession arrests; $1,371,200,815 on adjudicating marijuana possession cases; and $495,611,826 incarcerating individuals for marijuana possession.

Just consider that, in 2005, the estimated average daily cost per state prison inmate in the US was of $67.55 per day. Nowadays, there are over 500,000 inmates in prison due to drug related crimes, so the costs of state prisons are exploding in the country with the highest inmate population in the planet.

Yet statistics show that enforcing marijuana and drug prohibition has other equally astounding social consequences within American society. To understand that, let's take a look at the statistics published in the 6th Edition of the Drug War Facts, a compendium of facts and figures from government sources, government-sponsored sources, peer reviewed journals and newspapers. This document, published since 1998 and sponsored by Common Sense for Drug Policy, a nonprofit organization dedicated to reforming drug policy, is an interesting briefing of drug and crime related numbers and statistics (6). From its pages we can learn of other suggested consequences and costs of the prohibitionist policies:

• An increase in the number of users of psychotherapeutic drugs taken non-medically, with significant increases in the lifetime prevalence of use in several categories of pain relievers.
• An exponential increase in the cost of prisons. Just consider that, in 2005, the estimated average daily cost per state prison inmate in the US was of $67.55 per day. Nowadays, there are over 500,000 inmates in prison due to drug related crimes, so the costs of state prisons are exploding in the country with the highest inmate population in the planet.
• The social damage that incarcerated citizens and their families suffer.
• A reported racial bias in incarcerations and drug-related charges.
• Reports of corruption within Police and justice authorities.

Another commonly reported consequence of prohibition, one that is not exclusive to consuming countries, is the marked increase in criminal activity. "Prohibition has not only failed in its promises but actually created additional serious and disturbing social problems throughout society. There is not less drunkenness in the Republic but more. There is not less crime, but more... The cost of government is not smaller, but vastly greater. Respect for law has not increased, but diminished." These words are not new; they were first used by H. L. Mencken in 1925 (7). This American journalist clearly and emphatically expressed the situation that plagued his country during the 1920s, referring to the times of alcohol prohibition in the United States. For those unaware of American History (like myself before writing this) the most violent episodes in the century coincide with the prohibition on alcohol and the escalation of the modern-day war on drugs. In 1933, the homicide rate peaked at 9.7 per 100,000 people, which was the year that alcohol prohibition was finally repealed. In 1980, the homicide rate peaked again at 10 per 100,000. During the 1990s, crime statistics suffered a dramatic reduction in the US, but in other parts of the world, prohibition was still passing its toll. George P. Shultz, who served as Secretary of State under Reagan's administration clearly described it: “We haven’t felt the full effects of it ourselves, it took us twelve years to learn that [alcohol] Prohibition wasn’t working. There was Al Capone, there was the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. The violence was here. Now we have outsourced the violence, in effect, to Mexico and Guatemala and Honduras” (8).

And it has indeed been outsourced. In Mexico, trafficking organizations have been struggling to take control of the main routes of access to North American soil for decades. Lately, this generated a series of deadly confrontations and encounters that resulted in an official response from the government in 2006. Mexico's own war on drugs, that included a national operative that relied on both the army and additional Special Forces, trained and partially financed by the US, has resulted in one of the most dramatic portraits of the war on drugs. Since that year, more than 70,000 people have been killed in Mexico due to drug related crimes, though unconfirmed accounts set the homicide number above 100,000 victims, given the large number of people who have been reported as disappeared (9). Deaths among military and police personnel are an estimated 7% of the total. In Brazil, cities like Rio do Janeiro have been hit by the wave of trafficking. Most of Rio's favelas or slums are controlled by vicious drug cartels. This has demanded a radical and direct response from the government, particularly considering that important international events, such as the Soccer World Cup and the Olympic Game are scheduled in Rio. Brazilian ‘Pacifying Police Units' or UPPs, where sent into the slums to stamp out gangsters and consolidate state control, in a series of operatives that started way back to 2009. These takeouts by the police aren't often pacific, starting shootouts and violent resistance. It is not a very successful way to eradicate drugs either. Usually the gangs just retreat to the next slum (10). And similar episodes of drug related violence also take place in Guatemala, Honduras and other Latin American countries (8).

Since that year (2006), more than 70,000 people have been killed in Mexico due to drug related crimes, though unconfirmed accounts set the homicide number above 100,000 victims, given the large number of people who have been reported as disappeared.

Let's take a flight back to the US case and its interesting statistics. You may be wondering, have all these costs related with prohibition had any effect in effectively reducing drug consumption? Actually, in 2008, the World Health Organization's survey of legal and illegal drug use in 17 countries, including the Netherlands and other territories with less stringent drug laws, that we are going to discuss briefly, shows U.S. citizens report the highest level of cocaine and marijuana the world. In the study, researchers surveyed more than 54,000 adults in the Americas (Colombia, Mexico, and the United States), Europe (Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Spain, Ukraine), Middle East and Africa (Israel, Lebanon, Nigeria, South Africa), Asia, (Japan, China) and Oceania (New Zealand). Citizens from the United States were the greatest users of cocaine in their lifetime, with a 16% of interviewees consuming it. Marijuana use was more widely reported worldwide, and the U.S. also had the highest rate of use at 42.4%. After these results, researcher Louisa Degenhardt of the University of New South Wales, Australia, and colleagues wrote in PLoS Medicine about this remarkable statistics: "Globally, drug use is not distributed evenly and is not simply related to drug policy, since countries with stringent user-level illegal drug policies did not have lower levels of use than countries with liberal ones" (11). Oh! The liberal ones. Those drug paradises where consumption, albeit limited, is freely allowed. Those places are sure full of consumption, right? Certainly the US is the number 1 but The Netherlands, one of the few countries in the world where marijuana can be openly distributed must be near the top, right? The Netherlands, which has the most liberal drug policies of the surveyed countries has only 1.9% of people reporting cocaine use and 19.8% reporting marijuana use. So, with all its prohibiting and enforcing laws, the US has 8 times more cocaine consumption than the Netherlands and twice its marijuana consumption.

I guess it is now a good time to check on those few countries that have chosen the opposite route on the war on drugs. Who are they? What are they doing? Is it working? Only statistics can answer that, so let's take a look at the numbers.

First, the worldwide famous nation of relaxed drug policies: The Netherlands. The Opium Act – also referred to as the Narcotics Act – is the country’s main drug legislation. Actually, all drugs are forbidden in the Netherlands. It is illegal to produce, possess, sell, import and export drugs. What sets Holland apart is its classification of illegal substances: Schedule I drugs (“Hard Drugs”) are deemed to present an unacceptable risk to Dutch society and include heroin, cocaine, amphetamines and LSD; Schedule II drugs (“Soft Drugs”) include “traditional hemp products” such as marijuana and hashish. Coffee shops are only allowed to sell soft drugs and not more than five grams of cannabis per person per day. Theoretically, this means that authorities can actually focus on the big criminals who profit from drugs and who supply hard drugs (12).

Critics stated that allowing, even in such limited supply, the distribution of soft drugs would be dangerous and a stimulant for further use. Surprisingly, cannabis consumption in the Netherlands hasn't exploded and it is estimated to be somewhere in the same levels of other European Nations, as evidenced by The World Health Organization's survey:

Consumption for “Hard Drugs” hasn't increased either. As an example, cocaine use inside the Netherlands is also on the same levels as that of other European Countries and, in fact, a bit lower than in other nations.

Sadly, there's a lack of reliable research comparing the country before and after the legislation, yet there's also a lack of evidence signaling any dramatic increase in recent years in the number of consumers. What we can indeed find is a number of positive statistics associated with a cultural shift in drug usage within the country. For instance, drug injecting is declining in the Netherlands. In the last decade, the proportion of recent injectors has halved to a little over 7% of all opiate users, compared to a proportion of 25% in France, to mention some other lovely, bohemian nation. This reduction has proven to be a remarkable way to fight HIV infections in the country, since, in recent years, only 4-5% of infections in the Netherlands are associated with injecting drug use. The Amsterdam cohort study among hard drug users showed that HIV annual incidence dropped from 8.6% in the 1980s to 0 in 2006 and 2007. As a consequence, the Netherlands, along with Belgium, has the lowest HIV incidence in Europe (13). A decrease in Hepatitis C Virus, a commonly disease with a transmission mechanism that emulates HIV, has also been reported in the country.

Another problematic of drug enforcement policies, the stigmatization and marginalization of drug users, for whom a criminal record becomes a future barrier for employment and personal development, has also been avoided in the Netherlands. In comparison to other nations, arrests and convictions for possession of illegal substances is very low in the Netherlands. In 2005, the arrest rates for cannabis possession per 100,000 populations in the US was about ten times higher than that of Holland.

In terms of money, the Netherlands still spends a good amount in drug enforcing policies, but this money is spent differently, compared with other nations. In 2003, the Netherlands spent an estimated €2,185 million Euros on drug policy in total, representing 0.5% of the country’s GDP. About €540 million went to drug prevention, treatment and care services. The rest, about €1,646 million went to law enforcement and incarceration for drug-related offenses. But it is important to note that Coffee Shops generate about €400 million in taxes, which is specifically invested in addiction prevention and treatment. Some estimations agree that further money can be saved with updated regulations, an additional €160 million, regulations that at the same time could increase tax generation for up to €260 million. This means that Netherlands' drug policies have not increased consumption, reduced HIV infections, reduced social stigmas, and saved lots of money, all at the same time (13). And the fact that there are a lot of Happy Coffee Shops is just a plus.

In terms of money, the Netherlands still spends a good amount in drug enforcing policies, but this money is spent differently, compared with other nations...But it is important to note that Coffee Shops generate about €400 million in taxes, which is specifically invested in addiction prevention and treatment. Some estimations agree that further money can be saved with updated regulations, an additional €160 million, regulations that at the same time could increase tax generation for up to €260 million. This means that Netherlands' drug policies have not increased consumption, reduced HIV infections, reduced social stigmas, and saved lots of money...

Another popular destination for smoke lovers is Portugal. Unlike the Netherlands, Portugal's drug laws are fairly recent and were introduced in 2001. Portugal is an example of drug decriminalization that does not involve any form of legalization: in this country using or possessing any unauthorized drug is illegal, yet the offense was changed from a criminal one, with prison as possible punishment, to an administrative one, which usually results in medical treatment. This is assuming the amount possessed was within an established threshold, because someone with half a ton of weed seems to have a bigger problem, one that doctors cannot treat. These novel regulations have been showing some promising results, promising enough to be considered as a proposed model for other nations. So, apparently, they are doing something right.

The European Drug Report 2013 (14) agrees. The report signals no evidence of any increase in the lifetime of an adult's prevalence of use on any of the major drugs, such as cocaine, cannabis or amphetamines. Portugal's prevalence is usually lower than the European average and it is lower than that of other European countries.

So we know that one effect of drug decriminalization was HIV reduction. That effect is also present in Portugal. HIV infections among injecting drug have been declining in the country since 2004, as reported by the European Drug Report 2013 (14). A decline in Hepatitis C Virus rates is also present in Portugal, replicating the Netherlands' numbers.

With numbers like these is not a surprise that the approach taken in Portugal has received considerable international attention. You know places that are still looking for ways to handle the drug problem, like the U.K., where a decriminalization model, similar to that of Portugal has been proposed (15). As written by The Home Affairs Committee in a report elaborated in 2012 about the state of U.K.'s drug legislation: “We were impressed by what we saw of the Portuguese depenalized system. It had clearly reduced public concern about drug use in that country, and was supported by all political parties and the police. The current political debate in Portugal is about how treatment is funded and its governance structures, not about depenalisation itself. Although it is not certain that the Portuguese experience could be replicated in the UK, given societal differences, we believe this is a model that merits significantly closer consideration” (16).

The astonishing results of Portugal and the Netherlands have produced an assortment of new legislation among the world, looking to replicate the results that the statistics have backed. Slovenia, Bulgaria and, most recently, Croatia have changed their legislation to remove prison penalties for drug possession. United States' new licensed dispensaries are another example. But perhaps the most interesting and progressive attempts to decriminalize these substances are not taking place in the richest parts of the world. For that, we have to look in Latin America.

Right in the middle of one of the most beautiful regions of the planet, the violence generated by groups of drug traffickers, who fight over territories, has become a substantial problem for the citizens. As the problem grows, as has been the case for the last couple of years, authorities begin to look for more unorthodox solutions: just like any democracy, people demand results with their votes. For this reason, Latin American politics has been plagued with ideas, discussions and proposals about new ways to eradicate drugs and the problems that come with them. In 2006, Brazil passed a bill that decriminalizes drug consumption, effectively eliminating any imprisonment charges against users. As was briefly discussed about 1,727 words ago (yes, I counted them!) the episodes of violence that occurred in Rio became the catalyst for a deeper reform that took place in 2012. This reform increased the penalties against drug traffickers but more importantly, introduced a compulsory rehab treatment for crack addicts (only when families or doctors approve it, of course) and funded therapeutic centers for treating addictions. Unfortunately, the subject became too politicized, up to the point where some reports emerged about authorities who blocked the publication of statistics on crack consumption. Apparently, the Brazilian crack epidemic wasn't that bad after all, something that certain politicians found unappealing for their audience (17).

In recent years, many Latin American countries have started serious debates about new ways to face the issue. Argentina has seen a dramatic increase in the rates of drug use among their people, along with an increase in the number of pharmaceutical products used for non-medical purposes (18). As a result, high profile politicians have suggested new reforms that include decriminalization. In Mexico, the idea of legalization was first proposed in 2009, yet it only became a serious topic of debate a few years back. Several forums and discussions involving authorities, organizations and medical professionals have taken place, but a solid reform is yet to be proposed. Right now, after the current changes in the U.S. laws, those proponents have again emerged, looking for a more open drug reform in the country. Even Colombia, a country that has historically fought a public war on drugs, had a bill proposed in September 2012 that modified the current drug legislation, yet the debate died in congress.

But undoubtedly, the most interesting legislation is happening in South America. Bolivia is an extremely unusual case in the world, since this country has a historical, legal business of coca plantation. But, as you may have guessed, the coca leaf happens to be an integral part of cocaine, a well-known drug. So Bolivia is the only place on earth where you can legally plant, cultivate and trade coca, yet every single drug in the country is illegal. Since Inca times, the coca leaf has been used in the country for open consumption and it is usually included in some daily products, like shampoos. It is a multi-million dollar industry that generates thousands of employs. Bolivia's constitution hails the coca leaf as "cultural patrimony”. The current president is a former coca farmer (19). This contradiction has generated many frictions in the region, since many neighbouring countries argue that Bolivia's law facilitates the work of traffickers in the region.

And finally, the case you were all expecting. The only country in the world where cannabis is legal. It happens to be in South America as well. Uruguay went two steps further than any other country and passed a law authorizing a highly controlled industry on cannabis sale and distribution, therefore legalizing in its entirety the use of marijuana. Companies can get a license to cultivate it if they meet all the criteria. The government will control the entire production and determine the price, quality, and maximum production volume. But wait! That's the same thing that happened in Colorado, isn't it? So, what's with all the fuss? First of all, Uruguay passed a federal law, meaning that the legality of marijuana was established in the whole country, unlike US local regulations. Besides, the state controlled prices will be way lower than the American ones and the allocation, in theory, should be bigger, since any drugstore in the country will be allowed to sell the drug and you will be allowed to smoke it anywhere. But don't bother buying airplane tickets yet, since shops will only be permitted to sell the stuff to legal citizens. This incredibly new government experiment is looking to copy the current laws regarding tobacco in Uruguay, laws that, according to official numbers, have reduced tobacco consumption amongst young people from 32 to 12% in recent years. That and estimated tax revenue of anything from 8 to 12 million dollars has been enough incentive to promote legalization in this country (20).

Statistics have shown that decriminalization and legalization of drugs is a viable alternative, at least when compared with prohibition. This is why, in this data-driven era, more and more governments are looking upon this option with better eyes. Although several cultural and political issues are usually involved with a drug agenda, the societies of the 21st century are looking for new and innovative ways to solve this ancient problem. And more experiments worldwide will create more data, so we can optimize policies to generate even better and more efficient ways to face one of the world's oldest issues.



1) A tour of Colorado's blossoming pot industry - The Washington Post 

2) 10 things to know about nation's first recreational marijuana shops in Colorado. - CNN.

3) Legal Pot Coming Soon? 50-State Marijuana Law Rounded – Reason 

5) The War on Marijuana: In Black and White – The American Civil Liberties Union.

6) Drug War Facts 6th Edition – Common Sense for Drug Policy.

7) War on Drugs a trillion-dollar failure. – CNN

8) A Mission Gone Wrong – The New Yorker. 

9) Mexico’s crime wave has left about 25,000 missing, government documents show. – The Washington Post.

10) Cleaning Up Brazil Most Dangerous Favelas. - Daily Mail.

11) U.S. Leads the World in Illegal Drug Use – CBS News. 

12) National Drug Policy: the Netherlands. - Parliament of Canada.

13) Coffee Shops and Compromise – Open Society Foundations.

14) European Drug Report 2013: Trends and developments. - European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drugs Addiction.

15) Consider drugs decriminalisation system, MPs say - BBC News.

16) Home Affairs Committee - Ninth Report Drugs: Breaking the Cycle.

17) Usuarios de Crack: Nuevos Datos desde Brasil – REDUC.

18) El consumo de drogas en la Argentina, en niveles preocupantes. - Diario Popular.

19) Bolivia Plants Coca, and Cocaine Follows. 

20) The Architect of Uruguay's Marijuana Legalization Speaks Out – Reason.


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Published features on are checked for statistical accuracy by a panel from the European Network for Business and Industrial Statistics (ENBIS)   to whom Wiley and express their gratitude. This panel are: Ron Kenett, David Steinberg, Shirley Coleman, Irena Ograjenšek, Fabrizio Ruggeri, Rainer Göb, Philippe Castagliola, Xavier Tort-Martorell, Bart De Ketelaere, Antonio Pievatolo, Martina Vandebroek, Lance Mitchell, Gilbert Saporta, Helmut Waldl and Stelios Psarakis.