Why Drug Laws Are So Complicated

Can you be confident that a certain drug is legal or illegal? Do you know the penalties associated with various crimes related to a particular drug? How do the penalties change, depending on the context in which the drug was found? Most people don’t have this knowledge.

More broadly speaking, it’s hard to make sense of our drug laws. They’re complicated, difficult to understand, and difficult to apply in a practical context. Why are these laws, which are supposedly meant to protect us, so complex?

Making Sense of Drug Laws

First, you should understand that while drug laws are complicated, they’re not impossible to parse. If you spend a little bit of time researching on your own, you should be able to come to a better understanding of how drugs are scheduled and the legal frameworks in place to keep certain drugs illegal or restricted. And if you want to do a deeper dive on the subject, or if you’re currently being investigated for drug-related crimes, you can always talk to a criminal defense lawyer.

Why Drug Laws Are So Complicated

Why are our drug laws so complicated?

That’s a tough question to answer, because our current drug laws are numerous and they come from many sources. However, we can point to the following variables:

  • A long history. Drug laws haven’t changed much over the past 30 years or so. Most drug laws originated decades ago and haven’t undergone any changes. Occasionally, a new designer drug will make an introduction, and it will need to be scheduled, but most drug laws I’ve been in place indefinitely, and most politicians and lawmakers have an attitude along the lines of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
  • Incomplete science. Drug laws also are understandably complicated because the science that helps us understand drugs is also very complicated. Researchers in the 1960s weren’t able to definitively prove that psychedelic drugs were safe for human consumption, nor were they able to properly demonstrate the potential benefits of using them as a form of medication. In the face of ambiguity, lawmakers are practically forced to create legal frameworks that are wrought with complexity. If it’s not clear whether a drug is safe or effective, it occupies an uncertain middle ground.
  • Definitional woes. It is difficult to use language concisely in a way that accurately describes drugs and how people use drugs. For example, it is still federally illegal to consume marijuana – but what exactly is marijuana? Thanks to the 2018 Farm Bill, it’s now legal to grow hemp and use it to create consumable products, as long as the THC content remains below a certain threshold. Fine-tuning our specific definitions of plants, fungi, and other naturally occurring species becomes exceedingly difficult – and therefore, it’s hard to create concise laws that are both straightforward and comprehensible.
  • Moral panics and reactivity. Many of our drug laws were written as a response to a collective moral panic related to drug use. People didn’t truly understand how drugs were being used or what effects they had; they just introduced blanket bans to resolve what they thought was a problem.
  • Institutional variation. Drug laws are also complicated because they originate from a variety of different institutional sources. The DEA, the WHO, and countless other national and international sources all weigh in on these matters.

Why Can’t We Change?

If drug laws are so complicated and so destructive, why can’t we change them?

  • Apathy. Many lawmakers are apathetic when it comes to drug laws. They don’t see it as a high priority for their constituents or the future of the country. There are also still deep misconceptions about what drugs are and how they work, inspiring politicians to maintain the status quo rather than disrupting old documents with new information.
  • Bureaucracy. The complex and multifaceted bureaucracy inherent in our political system is also to blame. There isn’t a single person in our government who can make a decision to repeal a major drug law; instead, multiple independent organizations need to come to an agreement about how these laws are meant to change, which is close to impossible without mountains of clear evidence.
  • Traditionalism. Despite a multitude of arguments against the so-called “war on drugs,” many people still maintain their views on drugs because of a sense of traditionalism (and poor understanding of the subject). They don’t want drug laws to change because they fear it might result in an increase in public drug usage.

In some ways, drug laws are getting simpler and more straightforward. In other ways, they’re just getting more complicated. If you’re ever arrested or if you’re being investigated for a drug-related crime, don’t rely on your personal knowledge to get you through. Hire a criminal defense lawyer to help you understand the drug laws relevant to your case and mitigate your potential sentence.