Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law

First Page



In the postwar era, the United States typically has taken an approach to dealing with illegal drugs different from Europe. Americans have favored prohibitionist measures to combat drug use, while Europeans have gradually relaxed many of their illicit substance laws. Recently, however, there has been a growing movement within the United States to decriminalize and legalize marijuana. Numerous states have already reformed their laws to allow doctors to prescribe marijuana to patients. Moreover, many states are dramatically decriminalizing personal use of cannabis.

A review of postwar Europe's experience with drugs provides a useful paradigm to explain the U.S.'s shifting attitude. It also suggests that free trade may play a role in drug legalization. Following World War II, European nations began removing barriers to trade and ultimately joined to form a supranational organization, the European Union, largely erasing national borders. As free trade spread across Europe, so too did drug legalization, beginning in the Netherlands and eventually following on most of the continent. More recently, the United States formed a free trade zone with Canada, which has recently decriminalized marijuana, and with Mexico, which has been the main conduit for illegal drugs. As the model presented in this Note predicts, the United States has gradually loosened its drug laws as illicit substances stream across its open borders. Free trade makes it easier to move goods of any kind, legal or illegal, across borders, which increases the prevalence of drugs while reducing their cost. Once one member of a free trade association legalizes drugs, it may only be a matter of time before all others adopt similar policies as cheap drugs flow across borders. As drugs become more prevalent in society, a nation's ability to incarcerate users is strained, and drugs become quasi-normalized--leading to decriminalization and legalization. Thus, the European experience with drugs suggests free trade may be one of the causes of recent drug legalization and decriminalization movements in the United States.