10 Things That Would Happen if All Drugs Were Legalized

Suppose that the U.S. federal government decided to declassify all recreational drugs: marijuana, cocaine, heroin, LSD, magic mushrooms–all those classics and more. What might happen next?

Fortunately, between Prohibition (of alcohol), America’s long history with tobacco, and the recent progress of marijuana from hard drug, to medical substance, to recreational product in a growing number of states, we have a fairly good idea of what would likely happen if every other drug were to follow suit.

10. Differing State Laws

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Prohibition may be over nationally, but that hasn’t stopped hundreds of counties and municipalities from carrying on partying like it’s 1929. As of June 2016, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Florida, Mississippi, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, and even Bourbon Capital of the World Kentucky, each have at least one dry county, while an additional 15 states have smaller dry communities (usually municipalities) within otherwise “wet” counties.

Taken together, that’s nearly half of all states with some prohibitionist holdouts stopping alcohol sales and production.

And in those trend-setting legal marijuana states like Oregon and Colorado, a similar checkerboard of weed-free cities and counties exist, sending locals across the street or even across the state to make their purchases, and complicating the ambitions of weed tourists from out of state.

The point is, federal legalization of controlled substances has never been universally embraced, and plenty of cities, counties, and possibly even whole states will probably opt to write their own laws criminalizing or otherwise restricting drug sales, use, and/or production. It won’t be a straight-forward process, either, since the Federal Drug Schedule has been used so long to lump in various drugs together–like marijuana and heroin, both Schedule I narcotics.

States will have to come up with their own system for associating drugs with legal penalties, try to duplicate the old federal schedules and associated laws, or else treat each substance as a unique case, legalizing or prohibiting according to anything from popular vote to lobbying by local interest groups to the anti-drug crusading of the resident governor, mayor, or any other public servant.

Federal legalization will ultimately not so much create a new legal standard as it will defer to the states and localities on matters of regulation.

9. Cultural Stigmas

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Historically, law follows public opinion much more often than public opinion shifting to accommodate new laws. This is why it can be so powerful to change public opinion without trying to impact laws. Anti-smoking campaigns are perfect evidence of this: despite tobacco being broadly legal and highly regulated, anti-smoking campaigns have proven effective at both preventing youth smoking, and encouraging cessation among smokers. Use of tobacco products has been on the decline for the last 60 years, thanks to a combination of emerging evidence about negative health effects, and a variety of anti-tobacco awareness and imaging campaigns. Today, smokers are legally and socially ostracized, banned from both public and private spaces as a matter of routine.

The fight doesn’t stop once the legalization bill is signed; hearts and minds are the more lucrative target of lobbying anyway.

Cultural norms will not all default to tolerance in the wake of legalization, and there will be no shortage of organized parties who want to tilt the scales toward intolerance for one reason or another. You can bet that similar movements will emerge to counter any and every drug perceived as a public menace (or with proven medical dangers, a la second-hand smoke). It isn’t necessary to pick sides or predict which drugs will get this treatment to recognize that the playbook for such messaging initiatives already exists, and has proven relatively effective.

The post-prohibition culture war won’t just be a matter of social activism, either.

The combined forces of the alcohol, pharmaceutical, and tobacco industries have already poured money into anti-marijuana campaigns to prevent legalization from advancing all over the country. When that money fails to control official policy, it can be diverted into changing opinions, behaviors, and social norms.

Some existing stigmas are bound to be codified into law, according to the sub-federal preferences of each state, county, and community. But inconsistency in public opinion will almost certainly designate drug-free communities right up alongside those with no prohibition. Just like having a single dry floor in a larger campus dorm, that will mean those who abstain are nonetheless interacting with those who indulge, and the cultural conversation around drugs, drug-users, retailers, tax policies, and public health will all get a lot more dynamic.

Cultural, social, financial, and legal interests will all do battle over every inch of real estate to try to tilt the scales of tolerance and indulgence long after the federal ban is lifted.

8. Religious Movements

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Where stigmas retreat, recreation will not be the only form of drug use that gains ground.

There is already extensive precedent for the use of controlled substances for everything from spiritual exploration to the pursuit of some enlightened consciousness.

Legalization won’t necessarily lead to a surge in such use and experimentation, but it will facilitate interested individuals connecting and organizing around their shared interest in such activity.

Literature promoting responsible pursuit of chemical enlightenment will have new audiences, as the introspective and spiritual-but-unaffiliated (a growing majority of Americans, according to recent surveys) look for their own truth. This individually-centered pursuit of higher truth or spiritual understanding would likely intersect with the promotion of psychedelics as a platform for the same will lend credulity and more widespread acceptance of the association.

More importantly, though, are the legal rights and privileges afforded to organized religious groups, which already many argue should extend to the right to access and use psychedelic drugs. The potential spiritual and cognitive expansion these drugs can facilitate, some argue, ought to inform certain exceptions to prohibition laws, as well as regulations on their retail and production. In a post-legalization environment, groups of people who share these viewpoints on the uses of psychedelics would have even more opportunity to unite, organize, and gain legal recognition as religious organizations.

With religious or quasi-religious groups forming in the wake of legalization, the selective sub-federal prohibition and social arguments surrounding drugs will face the added wrinkle of spiritual users, and the legal protections they can claim.

7. Challenges in Drug-Free Workplaces

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The fact that a drug or substance is legal doesn’t mean it can be used at work or on the clock with abandon. That much is already well established. Smokers are obliged to find designated smoking areas, and drinking during lunch breaks is generally grounds for immediate dismissal.

The shadier area comes when screening for historical patterns of drug use, or trying to identify applicants whose substance abuse makes them a poor candidate for a position.

For one thing, it is already commonplace for individuals to abuse legal prescription drugs, as well as manufactured substances that are not normally included in urinalysis tests. Adopting a zero-tolerance policy, as is typical in many high-risk or high-responsibility occupations (most civil service positions, the military, healthcare, etc.), provides clarity governing drug use upon hiring, but may need some amendments regarding historical drug use.

Basically, if you want to work for the FBI, or any other of the popular three-letter bureaus, or even as an emergency dispatcher, you cannot have any history of drug use. This is established through vigorous testing, as well as polygraph examination to determine an individual’s history of drug use in graphic detail. Or at least, that used to be the case. Even before legalization, organizations like the FBI have had to soften their zero-tolerance approach to recruitment, forgiving “experimentation” in order to avoid shrinking the candidate pool too much. Full-scale legalization complicates that policy even further, because it would create pathways for experimentation without breaking any laws. Taking a “Not Even Once” approach to any instance of drug use may prove too restrictive to be sustainable.

Occupational safety is one thing, but penalizing legal behavior across an individual’s entire life is quite another issue. Depending on the evolution of popular attitudes on drug use following legalization, the routine pre-employment drug screening may have to make more allowances, especially where off-hours recreational use is concerned.

6. Drug Tourism

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Just as certain spiritually-inclined groups will organize to share and develop their experiences, so will recreational drug use get the Disneyland treatment. Many drugs already have certain associations with their use: getting the munchies, going to the club, burning effigies, etc. In states where marijuana has been legalized, culinary ventures have emerged to cater to the appetite-stimulating effect of the substance. When drugs are all legal, the need for discretion and pretense will dissolve, and drugs will be, to a limited extent, embraced as just another part of the experience.

Just as has occurred with the modern craft beer movement, local availability of different drugs will hardly diminish the demand for variety, novelty, and a certain creative touch to the use of the full spectrum of drugs. When the retail of controlled substances intersects with experiential add-ons like restaurants, theme parks, and other character-rich venues, drug tourism will become much more diversified than simply going to Amsterdam.

Of course, with inconsistent state/local laws, some amount of drug tourism will still amount to the pursuit of access, not unlike the beer-run culture that comes from adjacent areas with different legal drinking ages.

5. Surge of Medical Research

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We already know there are medical applications for banned substances. There is a complicated relationship between heroin and opioid medication, as well as extremely promising evidence that certain hallucinogens may be helpful in treating psychological disorders, most notably PTSD.

When drugs are legalized, it won’t immediately change the relationship between the medical community and certain drugs. There is a process in place to regulate what gets used as medicine, and it takes a lot more than showing that something “works.”

Consider, for example, a patient who needs surgery. The best surgeon in the world, performing the best technique ever, is still going to kill the patient if it never comes out that the patient has a latex allergy, and the surgeon uses latex gloves during the operation.


Likewise, it doesn’t matter that marijuana seems to have any number of potential medical applications, if researchers can’t pin down how to manage dosage, what contraindications exist, what factors can complicate or even counteract the benefits of medical marijuana, and a mountain of other considerations, risk factors, and correlates.

Contemporary medicine is guided by what are known as best practices, and they don’t mean what you might think. Many drugs, procedures, and treatments don’t even work for a majority of people, and the average physician doesn’t always have a realistic or even scientifically-based understanding of that efficacy. Being a best practice just means there isn’t anything known to work better, on balance. A drug that helps three out of ten patients may well be the best option available, but it is far from ideal. That is partly why it is so important to know not just whether something works, but for whom, under what circumstances, and of course, all the other neutral-to-unhelpful side-effects it may have.

So turning newly legalized drugs into the next medical miracle takes more than some promising initial trials.

Fortunately, legalization would eliminate a major barrier to doing the sort of research that is needed to parse out all the variables and questions surrounding any potential medication or treatment. Research into those “promising” things you might have heard rumors about would lose a significant barrier to the further research needed to find out what good, and what harm, all these drugs (and their derivatives) can actually do.

4. New Perspectives on Addiction

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Unlike other medical conditions–or even mental illnesses–addiction has always been framed as a personal failure. Treatment essentially amounted to a series of carrots and sticks: stop being an addict, and you are still branded for ever having succumbed to addiction; fail to recover, and the law enforcement system takes over. You aren’t a patient, but a criminal.

It turns out, penalizing addiction hasn’t been all that effective compared to systems that take a humanistic, compassionate approach to the problem.

The evidence from places like Portugal suggest that much of the conventional wisdom on drug addiction is misleading or simply wrong. Based on that nation’s success in lowering drug addiction rates following sweeping decriminalization laws, narratives about the inherently addictive chemical properties of hard drugs are under assault. It is a combination of mental illness, and being socially marginalized that most frequently fosters addiction.

Not only did decriminalization not lead to huge swells in the population of addicts and drug users, it actually helped reduce overall rates of drug addiction, and allowed the country to approach those who do suffer with a whole new, and more constructive, mentality.

Give addicts social networks and responsibilities, and their dependency on hard drugs tends to deteriorate in favor of the basic human fulfillment that comes from being a part of a community.

In a system that no longer criminalizes addiction, interventions would put social factors and medical treatment first, making it easier for more addicts to get the support they actually need.

What forms of social rehabilitation and community-building are most effective, replicable, and deployable in order to better serve those suffering from addiction is still an evolving area of study. It can be difficult to get addicts to volunteer themselves for treatment research, when their addiction entails federal crimes.

Lifting that burden will be the first step in getting more research subjects and ending more of the stigma surrounding addiction–not just drug addiction, but all its many forms. Just as legalization would remove barriers to increased research into medical applications for certain drugs, so would addiction research benefit from releasing participants from the threat of incarceration or other punishment resulting from transparency regarding their drug habits.

3. Economics

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The financial impact of legalization is one of the most far-reaching, profound, and difficult to parse.

Legalizing and regulating the drug trade would create new sources of tax revenue at every level, from the local to the federal. Of course, right out of the gate the states and the feds would have to find a happy medium tax rate that made legal drugs cost-competitive with the flourishing black market. The experiences of states that have legalized marijuana have already been examined for precisely this lesson, paving the way for legalization to very quickly be accompanied by new tax laws and immediately begin generating public revenues.

At the state level, most taxes have focused on retail, but having a full federal legalization might open up more areas along the supply chain for additional taxation, including growers and other first-stage producers, importers, suppliers, as well as retailers, and, very likely, sin taxes on top of regular sales taxes.

Estimates on the full impact even of sales taxes alone have fallen remarkably short of reality, as state revenues have jumped much more than anyone predicted. Expanding this nationwide, even at conservative rates, would raise tens of billions of dollars in new revenue at the state and federal levels.

Just as various jurisdictions will take differing approaches to legalization and regulation, so will different uses be found for this new revenue. A popular approach, in theory, would entail earmarking some or all of the revenue generated by taxes on recreational drugs for education programs (again, like the successful anti-smoking campaigns), as well as new investment in addiction treatment and recovery. Given the existing stigma toward many drugs, as well as the legacy of America’s War on Drugs, political leaders will need a way to offset the negative perception with socially constructive uses of drug money to sustain support for legalization. Then again, this is not common practice with revenues from tobacco and alcohol taxes, which are seldom spent offsetting the negative impact of smoking or drinking.

In any case, new tax revenues are only part of the equation. Most analysts predict that legalization would free up significant spending on the criminal justice system, from incarceration to law enforcement, domestically and internationally. The flipside of this, of course, is that reduced spending on the War on Drugs would come with a diminished demand for personnel–jobs would be lost, and livelihoods threatened. Fully accounting for both the savings, and the economic losses that would come from this massive shift in public spending and priorities is almost impossible.

Likewise, the lobbying spending from current interests in the alcohol, tobacco, and pharmaceutical industries suggest a major rebalancing may occur, with consumer spending shifting away from these items to integrate the new suite of options available. Again, this is a difficult shift to put hard numbers to, much less predict economic winners and losers.

2. Terrorism

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One of the most significant legacies of Prohibition is its contribution to organized crime and the international black market. By pushing the lucrative demand for alcohol into the extralegal sector, the repeal of Prohibition left a large, well-organized and well-funded system looking for new sources of revenue. Many turned to the drug trade.

The association of the illegal drug trade with international organized crime made it a natural platform for other extralegal commerce, including arms, human trafficking, and moving money to support international terrorism.

According to analysts, America’s War on Drugs and the resulting black market trade is one of the leading impediments to the global spread of democracy and capitalism. Legalization would disrupt this system, incentivize legal trade, and help stem the flow of arms, violence, and crime around the world.

Just looking at Afghanistan–the world’s leading producers of poppies, and thus heroin–more than $61 billion goes to finance terrorism every year. Disrupting this supply chain by diverting it into a legal system would have two major outcomes. First, terrorist organizations would be cut off from a major source of financing. Second, by giving a nation like Afghanistan access to a legal market, it would be easier for the country to enter other global markets, bolster its diplomatic standing, and generally get on a development track conducive to peace and prosperity–further undermining the ability of terrorists to recruit new members or offer a compelling alternative to international cooperation.

Just as with the 21st Amendment, legalizing all drugs would not cause organized crime and the black market to dissolve overnight, but it would put a significant hiccup in the flow of all smuggling and illicit trade. The War on Terror and the War on Drugs are joined at the hips, and cutting of the extralegal demand and supply chain that moves drugs into and across America would cripple the flow of money to terrorists and rogue states around the world.

1. Law Enforcement

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Legalization doesn’t mean a free-for-all where drugs are concerned. Alcohol is a prime example of how federal incentives normalized (mostly) state laws, so that 21 is the standard drinking age, and driving under the influence is a universal criminal offense–though penalties vary. But alcohol is a relatively simple chemical, and detecting it in the field is similarly straight-forward.

Where things get more complicated is in the different ways various drugs and chemicals are metabolized, the duration of their effects, and their detectability. Marijuana, for example, is detectable in the user’s blood for anywhere from 12 hours to two weeks after ingestion by smoking or eating, meaning that a day after smoking a joint, you could be pulled over, subjected to a urinalysis, and show THC in your system, even though the high has long since faded.

There is also no scientifically-supported standard for what concentration indicates impairment in terms of marijuana, so enforcement of DUI laws amounts to a combination of discretion and circumstantial evidence. On the one hand, a zero-tolerance policy keeps things simple as far as associating drug use with punishment; on the other, it means unimpaired users may still be flagged for arrest even when complying with the law.

Some drugs are easier to detect and set concentration limits for than others. As far as traffic safety goes, field sobriety tests will need a significant upgrade to keep up with the spectrum of impairment that is possible, legal, and considered safe when all drugs are legal.

Outside of these considerations, law enforcement’s relationship with drugs would be severely diminished. Incarceration rates would drop upwards of 14 percent, and there would likely be a surge of pardons and early releases to retroactively exculpate nonviolent drug criminals. Doing this effectively would necessitate the devotion of more resources to rehabilitation and reentry programs, to ensure that all the ex-cons don’t immediately gravitate toward the margins and get into other sorts of trouble.

Where such efforts are successful, they will become the new template for all (or most) criminal rehabilitation programs, and America’s prison system will undergo substantial reform to become more humane, efficient, and integrated. This would extend even to non-drug-related offenses and inmates.

The harm done to the black market would, in turn, remove the cause for much of the violent crime in the country, as well as the social marginalization that impacts communities and families. As a result, crime rates in general would decline, further reducing incarceration.

Drug legalization, in effect, would come to constitute the single-largest criminal justice reform initiative in American history.