Federal laws/regulations; Other States laws/regulations;

OLR Research Report

The Connecticut General Assembly


December 22, 1994 94-R-1089


FROM: Sandra Norman-Eady, Senior Attorney

RE: Legalization of Illicit Drugs

You wanted a list of arguments for and against legalizing all illicit drugs, and legalizing marijuana only. You also asked if the drugs are currently legal in any state.


Since the passage of the Harrison Narcotic Act in 1914, there have been arguments regarding the best way to handle drugs and drug addicts. The Harrison Act was the first significant piece of federal anti-drug legislation to regulate, under the taxing power of Congress, the manufacture, importation, sale, and possession of opium, coca products, and their derivatives.

Proponents of drug legalization argue that prohibition in general and the "War on Drugs" that began in the 1980's in particular have created a black market for drugs, overloaded the criminal justice system, failed to reduce the supply of drugs, and victimized children. Opponents argue that legalization would result in an increase in the number of drug users, destroy families, increase crime, and adverse physical effects among drug users.

According to drug experts, marijuana is the most popular illegal drug. Most of the arguments for and against legalizing marijuana are the same as those for and against legalizing other illicit drugs, except for legalization proponent's contention that studies show that marijuana, used in moderation, has no serious adverse physical effects.

Neither narcotic substances nor marijuana are legal in any of the 50 states. Alaska legalized marijuana for personal use in 1975 but a 1990 referendum once again made marijuana possession illegal. Although no state has legalized these drugs, nine states have decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana: California, Colorado, Maine, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nebraska, New York, North Carolina, and Ohio. In addition, since 1989, Senator Joseph Galiber of New York has been trying, since 1989, to get a bill through the New York legislature that would legalize the use of all drugs currently considered controlled substances in that state.


While advocates of drug legalization agree that the so-called war on drugs is doomed to failure, they do not agree on how drugs should be legalized. There are basically three different approaches to drug legalization. The most liberal approach would establish a free market for all drugs similar to the market that currently exists for alcohol and cigarettes. The more restrictive approaches call for (1) a government-run or heavily regulated system of drug distribution or (2) a system where health care professionals distribute the drugs.

There are arguments for and against each of these approaches. Establishing a free drug market by removing the criminal prohibitions on manufacture, distribution, sale, possession, and use of all mood- and mind-altering drugs appears to be the simplest way to legalize drugs. But it is also the way with the most potentially negative implications such as making drugs more accessible to children; increasing the likelihood of negative physical effects associated with drug usage; and enticing the farming industry to abandon their current crops in favor of marijuana, opium, and other psychoactive substances.

On the other hand, a government-run drug distribution system raises questions about whether, in this era of privatization, government can do an effective job of distributing drugs. Another question is whether government should only concern itself with distribution and leave manufacturing to private industry.

The public health system approach would allow physicians to prescribe or dispense drugs during the course of medical treatment. This approach was tried in Britain up until the 1960s. According to opponents of the public health system eventually approach, the British system broke down when it tried to cope with pleasure-seeking addicts. Opponents also argue that the "treatment" approach works for some drugs but not for others. They argue, for example, that crack, LSD, and PCP should not be distributed under this approach because the users of these drugs tend to go on binges and cannot be stabilized as heroin users can.


Proponents argue that legalization is necessary in order to right the wrong caused by prohibition. The "War On Drugs" that started in the 1980's and continues today is supposed to curtail the supply of drugs, flowing into this country, deter illegal drug usage, and stamp out drug-related crime. But according to proponents, prohibition fails because (1) it increases the price of drugs in the black market thereby attracting major criminal enterprises willing to take any risk to keep their product coming to the American market, (2) drug addiction is a disease that requires medical attention, and (3) addicts are impervious to the criminal justice system's threat of punishment.

Proponents argue that the legalization of drugs would:

1. eliminate the profits of the illegal drug trade;

2. save money spent on costly and ineffective law enforcement efforts;

3. take the criminal justice system out of the business of trying to control drug abuse health problems and put that responsibility in the hands of the public health system;

4. stop the spread of AIDS caused by the use of dirty syringes;

5. reduce the number of children victimized by the lure of quick riches from selling drugs, drug-related gun battles, or illegal drug usage;

6. reduce the number of crimes committed by addicts attempting to gain money to buy expensive drugs;

7. reduce the number of drug cases on court dockets and the number of prison beds needed for drug offenders;

8. restore to each individual the right of self determination, the right to engage in any peaceful action that does not deprive others of their right to free action; and

9. treat all harmful substances such as narcotics, cocaine, marijuana, alcohol, and tobacco the same.


Opponents of legalization argue that the major flaw in the drug legalization theory is its assumption that drug laws, not drugs, cause the most damage to society. Opponents often cite the increase in alcohol-related mental and physical illness after the prohibition against alcohol was repealed in 1933 as an example of what would occur if drugs were legal. In addition, opponents are quick to argue that legalization advocates are unable to describe an effective a way to legalize drugs.

Specific arguments against legalization include:

1. legalization would increase the number of drug users,

2. the adverse physical effects of drugs destroy families and cause drug abusers to engage in criminal activity,

3. legalization sends the wrong message to children,

4. drug abuse causes increased costs to business, and

5. drug legalization jeopardizes the safety of society because drug use diminishes the ability to think and react quickly and thereby causes job- and travel-related accidents.


Neither narcotic substances nor marijuana is legal in any of the 50 states. In 1975, Alaska legalized marijuana for adult personal use in the home after the state Supreme Court held that the Alaska constitution's privacy clause protected marijuana possession (Ravin v. State, 537 P. 2d 494 (1975)). In 1990, Alaska voted favorably on a referendum that once again made possession of the drug illegal. Although no other state has legalized drugs, nine have decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana: California, Colorado, Maine, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nebraska, New York, North Carolina, and Ohio. Additionally, Senator Joseph Galiber of New York has been trying since 1989 to get a bill through the New York legislature that would:

1. repeal all laws that currently denominate specified substances as illegal, including heroin, cocaine, and marijuana;

2. allow the sale of formerly illegal substances without a prescription by specially licensed pharmacists and physicians; and

3. establish a Controlled Substance Authority that would function like the State Liquor Authority to control the manufacture, distribution, and sale of drugs.

During the 1994 legislative session, Senator Galiber's bill (SB 411) was referred to the Senate Codes Committee where it died through lack of action.