In general, research on the relation between perceived risk of detection and punishment and self-reported drug use tends to show that perceived legal risk explains very little of the variance in drug use (MacCoun, 1993). Similarly, studies of the relation between prevalence of drug use and variations in legal penalties for drug use tend to find no relationship. For example, Chaloupka et al. (1998) found, using the Monitoring the Future survey data from 1982 and 1989, that variations in length of prison terms prescribed by state law were unrelated to prevalence or frequency of cocaine or marijuana use by high school seniors. They also found that substantial increases in prescribed fines would have little or no effect. These findings are unsurprising because, under present enforcement conditions, the deterrent effect of criminal sanctions against drug use is attenuated significantly by the low probability of detection for any given violation and even for repeated violations. Other factors, including the perceived benefits of drug use, fear of health-related risks, and informal social controls, may have a more significant influence on decisions about using drugs than legal deterrence. As in the case of underage alcohol and tobacco use, current enforcement may have a stronger effect on where people carry or use drugs, rather than on whether they do so.
Informing America's Policy on Illegal Drugs: What We Don't Know Keeps Hurting Us
Social norms that discourage drug abuse don't have to disappear with the laws.