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Assessing Drug Prohibition and its Alternatives: A Guide for Agnostics

Posted: 10 Jan 2012  

Robert MacCoun

Stanford Law School

Peter H. Reuter

University of Maryland

Date Written: December 2011


For decades, the debate over the merits of ending drug prohibition has carried on with little consequence. The recent near success of a cannabis legalization initiative in California suggests that citizens and politicians alike are more receptive to calls for change. We review basic research on deterrence and prices as well as emerging evidence on the potential empirical consequences of various alternatives to full prohibition, including depenalization, tolerated home cultivation, prescription regimes for cannabis and heroin, and retail sales of cannabis in Dutch coffee shops. The results are encouraging for advocates of these specific reforms, but the cases are inadequate for addressing the potentially more dramatic effects of full-scale commercial markets. The fundamental dilemma is that full legalization will probably reduce average harm per use but increase total consumption; the net effect of these two changes is difficult to project.

Suggested Citation

MacCoun, Robert and Reuter, Peter H., Assessing Drug Prohibition and its Alternatives: A Guide for Agnostics (December 2011). Annual Review of Law and Social Science, Vol. 7, pp. 61-78, 2011. Available at SSRN: or

Robert MacCoun (Contact Author)

Stanford Law School ( email )

559 Nathan Abbott Way
Stanford, CA 94305-8610
United States
650-721-7031 (Phone)

Peter H. Reuter

University of Maryland ( email )

College Park
College Park, MD 20742
United States

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