Illicit drug trade – which side are you on?

Legalizing drugs will bring money in the tax system. Photo by Caleb Peek.

Modern TV shows like Breaking Bad and Narcos exemplify the dangers that are associated with the illicit drug trade. Although these shows romanticize the business, they still provide rich insight into the happenings of underground drug trade.

Today, a debate surrounds the legalization of drugs. Commonly known as the “war on drugs,” one argument states that drug legalization would improve treatments geared towards those impacted by drugs, while the counter argument contends that legalization would only increase drug consumption.

The Western Carolina University community got a bit of insight on this debate through Global Spotlight, a presentation that focused on the impact that the illegal drug trade makes on the economy, public health, and law enforcement.

While the presentation supported the legalization of drugs, WCU students were left to wonder why such a strong opposition towards the decriminalization of drugs persisted. Following the presentation, Dr. Al Kopak, WCU professor of criminology, provided answers.

First, a lot of people have a lot to lose with the legalization of drugs. For example, people would lose their jobs because there are currently a lot of jobs that enforce drug regulations. Secondly, it would perpetrate the mindset that since it’s legal, everyone is going to do drugs. In turn, this would result in a huge health crisis 20 to 30 years down the road.

Dr. Albert Kopak of the WCU Criminal Justice Department. Photo courtesy of Western Carolina University

With dismal connotations surrounding legalization, students began to ask if it would be possible to decriminalize drugs without making them legal. “Yes,” Kopak said. For example, by implementing programs like the LEAD program where people in possession of drugs are taken to treatment instead of prison is one way. Another method would be to change the perception of drug addiction to a chronic health condition rather than a choice.

Kopak also discussed the criminal side of the issue in his presentation, “The Limitations of Law Enforcement in the Global Illicit Drug Market.” He states that although a person will be arrested for dealing or manufacturing drugs, there are enough incentives for another person to replace them. Due to large profit margins, people will go to great lengths to smuggle drugs across borders. Internationally, dealing with drug trade can be difficult because it requires diplomacy, treaties, and the maintenance of each country’s sovereignty.

While the current trend is to incarcerate individuals in possession of drugs, new programs are being implemented that will change the way that drug addiction is treated. In Seattle, the LEAD program has its officers direct known citizens that are involved with drugs into treatment centers instead of prison. The LEAD program was enacted in Fayetteville, North Carolina in September 2016.

Dr. Angela Dills, professor of Regional Economic Development, talked about the economics of drug prohibition, saying that it doesn’t eliminate drug consumption, but does modestly reduce it. Taking this into consideration, prohibition has varying impacts on consumers, suppliers, and the medical field.

Dills explained that for the consumer, prohibition increases the cost of drugs, shifts consumption to easier to conceal drugs, increases sales of black market drugs, leads to mass incarceration and institutes a fear of law enforcement. As a result, it makes seeking treatment more difficult for drug addicts. Also, since consumers are buying drugs on black market, their knowledge about the drugs they are taking diminishes, increasing the danger of consumption.

Prohibition impacts suppliers by making work more difficult, such as avoiding detection, paying bribes, and seizures that lose their profits. As a result, the costs and risks to manufacture and distribute drugs increases. And while prohibition may reduce the amount of competition for suppliers, it increases the amount of violence inherent with illegal operations.

However, the legalization of drugs would take money away from suppliers. For instance, Colorado makes roughly $2 million per month in cannabis sales. As a result, the state has invested 10 percent of the additional revenue, $200,000 worth, into their schools.

But prohibition doesn’t stop there. As a result of drug prohibition, there are limits on the amount of medical research that can be done on illegal substances. Since less and less people are seeking treatment, it will become more difficult for medical researchers to uncover the full effects of drugs on a person’s body. Consequently, the opportunities to discover more treatment methods are curbed.

WCU assistant professor at the Environmental Health Program, Dr. Kimberlee K. Hall talked about drug abuse and the Public Health response.

Hall claimed that illicit drug trade and drug use has continually placed a heavy burden on public health services. While current trends in Europe and the Americas show that there has been a decrease in cocaine use, the use cannabis and pharmaceutical drugs has increased. As Hall explained, the main goal of public health services is to find new and innovative ways of preventing or delaying the initiation of drug use.

When it comes to an individual’s vulnerability to drug use, there are a couple of factors that influence it. First, biological factors come into play. This is where drug tolerance and a person’s liability to become an addict are important. Secondly, the environment surrounding a person can heavily influence their choice to use drugs. Things such as peer pressure, community services, and home environment are important factors.

Hall also discussed effective prevention approaches like early childhood education, support for parents who are dependent or socioeconomically disadvantaged, participation in community events, motivational interventions in healthcare settings, and media campaigns are all methods used to promote drug prevention. However, where these methods may work in one location or type of drug, can fail in or with another. For example, media campaigns have proven to be successful for anti-tobacco use, but it doesn’t have the same impact on other drugs.

Hall claimed the main problem with treatment is how drug abuse is perceived. Drug addiction is seen as an individual’s choice rather than a chronic health condition. As a result, it is harder for addicts to seek treatment. Despite treatments like counseling and social assistant services being the cheaper alternative to a jail sentence, the current trend of repeatedly incarcerating individuals still persists.

Taking all of this into consideration, North Carolina is currently in the process of legalizing medical marijuana. Rep. Kelly Alexander filed a bill that would legalize the use of medical marijuana on Feb. 22, and the bill already has the backing of 10 fellow Democrats. Although lacking support from Republicans, Rep. Alexander said he would continue pushing the bill.

The debate over the legalization of drugs isn’t an issue that can be solved overnight. Despite strong evidence supporting the decriminalization of drugs for the benefit of drugs addicts, it is still met by a strong opposition.

What side of the “war on drugs” are you on?

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