A Wiser Course: Ending Drug Prohibition

Part I


In 1986, the Association of the Bar of the City of New York, responding to a general perception that criminal and civil sanctions against the manufacture, distribution, or possession of drugs were not "solving," or even ameliorating, the problems associated with drug use in our society, formed a Special Committee on Drugs and the Law (the "Committee") to study our current drug laws and to report its recommendations on the wisdom of such laws.

The Committee has considered the complex legal, social, medical, economic, and political issues raised by our nation's current drug control policies. Despite billions of dollars spent on law enforcement, criminal prosecution, and incarceration during the past 80 years, the United States has made little or no progress toward reducing drug use or solving its "drug problem." On the contrary, illegal drug use remains a pervasive and powerful influence in our cities and in the nation at large.

Beyond the continuing availability and consumption of drugs, the unintended consequences of our current prohibition policy are ubiquitous: our courts, both state and federal, are jammed; our prison populations are burgeoning; urban and ghetto children, as well as adults, are frequent victims of violent "turf wars"; our civil liberties are being eroded, along with our society's respect for the rule of law generally; our public health is threatened; the enjoyment of urban life has declined; and our nation's institutions, as well as those of our South and Central American neighbors, are undermined by the immense wealth accumulated illegally under the current prohibition policies. The Committee has concluded, in some cases reluctantly, that the costs of drug prohibition are simply too high and its benefits too dubious.

The Committee recognizes that calling for an end to drug prohibition cannot be either the end of our inquiry or the sum of our recommendations. There are several difficult questions that remain to be answered: What forms of governmental regulation, if any, are appropriate instead of prohibition? To what degree, if any, should private distribution of drugs be permitted? Is a regulatory regime similar to one now used to control alcoholic beverages appropriate for some, if not all, drugs? How should a new regulatory regime treat children, adolescents, or pregnant women? What kinds of prevention and treatment programs should there be and how should they be funded? These and other issues demand both the urgent attention and honest judgment of our Committee and, more broadly, our society.

The Committee believes the necessary inquiry cannot begin in earnest so long as our nation remains committed to the illusion that drug use can be prohibited at an acceptable cost. Only by recognizing that this is no longer true can we fashion a method of controlling drugs other than the current coercive drug laws, which have been largely ineffective and which are sapping the vitality of our cities, our legal system, and our society as a whole. It is the Committee's hope that this report will advance the discussion of this important issue.


A Wiser Course: Ending Drug Prohibition
A Report of The Special Committee on Drugs and the Law
of the Association of the Bar of the City of New York
June 14, 1994

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