The effort to control illicit drugs seems to have become a permanent element of American social policy in the last third of the twentieth century. A large fraction of adolescents experiment with illicit drugs, primarily marijuana. Most do no more than experiment, but enough go on to consume them frequently that drug use and selling, as well as drug control itself, have become a major source of harm to the nation. These harms, particularly the ones related to crime, are heavily concentrated in urban minority communities. Cross-national comparisons of social policy are fraught with problems. Nonetheless, we draw four lessons: depenalization, prevalence of use, goals of drug policy, and the role of government. As currently implemented, U.S. drug policies are unconvincing. They are intrusive, divisive, expensive, and yet they leave the nation with a massive drug problem.

Originally published in: The Handbook of Crime and Punishment, Michael Tonry, ed., 1998, pp. 207-238.

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