Legalization Is The Answer

The Article: How to stop the drug wars, leading editorial for this weeks Economist.

The Text: A hundred years ago a group of foreign diplomats gathered in Shanghai for the first-ever international effort to ban trade in a narcotic drug. On February 26th 1909 they agreed to set up the International Opium Commission—just a few decades after Britain had fought a war with China to assert its right to peddle the stuff. Many other bans of mood-altering drugs have followed. In 1998 the UN General Assembly committed member countries to achieving a “drug-free world” and to “eliminating or significantly reducing” the production of opium, cocaine and cannabis by 2008.

That is the kind of promise politicians love to make. It assuages the sense of moral panic that has been the handmaiden of prohibition for a century. It is intended to reassure the parents of teenagers across the world. Yet it is a hugely irresponsible promise, because it cannot be fulfilled.

Next week ministers from around the world gather in Vienna to set international drug policy for the next decade. Like first-world-war generals, many will claim that all that is needed is more of the same. In fact the war on drugs has been a disaster, creating failed states in the developing world even as addiction has flourished in the rich world. By any sensible measure, this 100-year struggle has been illiberal, murderous and pointless. That is why The Economist continues to believe that the least bad policy is to legalise drugs.

“Least bad” does not mean good. Legalisation, though clearly better for producer countries, would bring (different) risks to consumer countries. As we outline below, many vulnerable drug-takers would suffer. But in our view, more would gain.

The evidence of failure

Nowadays the UN Office on Drugs and Crime no longer talks about a drug-free world. Its boast is that the drug market has “stabilised”, meaning that more than 200m people, or almost 5% of the world’s adult population, still take illegal drugs—roughly the same proportion as a decade ago. (Like most purported drug facts, this one is just an educated guess: evidential rigour is another casualty of illegality.) The production of cocaine and opium is probably about the same as it was a decade ago; that of cannabis is higher. Consumption of cocaine has declined gradually in the United States from its peak in the early 1980s, but the path is uneven (it remains higher than in the mid-1990s), and it is rising in many places, including Europe.

This is not for want of effort. The United States alone spends some $40 billion each year on trying to eliminate the supply of drugs. It arrests 1.5m of its citizens each year for drug offences, locking up half a million of them; tougher drug laws are the main reason why one in five black American men spend some time behind bars. In the developing world blood is being shed at an astonishing rate. In Mexico more than 800 policemen and soldiers have been killed since December 2006 (and the annual overall death toll is running at over 6,000). This week yet another leader of a troubled drug-ridden country—Guinea Bissau—was assassinated.

Yet prohibition itself vitiates the efforts of the drug warriors. The price of an illegal substance is determined more by the cost of distribution than of production. Take cocaine: the mark-up between coca field and consumer is more than a hundredfold. Even if dumping weedkiller on the crops of peasant farmers quadruples the local price of coca leaves, this tends to have little impact on the street price, which is set mainly by the risk of getting cocaine into Europe or the United States.

Nowadays the drug warriors claim to seize close to half of all the cocaine that is produced. The street price in the United States does seem to have risen, and the purity seems to have fallen, over the past year. But it is not clear that drug demand drops when prices rise. On the other hand, there is plenty of evidence that the drug business quickly adapts to market disruption. At best, effective repression merely forces it to shift production sites. Thus opium has moved from Turkey and Thailand to Myanmar and southern Afghanistan, where it undermines the West’s efforts to defeat the Taliban.

Al Capone, but on a global scale

Indeed, far from reducing crime, prohibition has fostered gangsterism on a scale that the world has never seen before. According to the UN’s perhaps inflated estimate, the illegal drug industry is worth some $320 billion a year. In the West it makes criminals of otherwise law-abiding citizens (the current American president could easily have ended up in prison for his youthful experiments with “blow”). It also makes drugs more dangerous: addicts buy heavily adulterated cocaine and heroin; many use dirty needles to inject themselves, spreading HIV; the wretches who succumb to “crack” or “meth” are outside the law, with only their pushers to “treat” them. But it is countries in the emerging world that pay most of the price. Even a relatively developed democracy such as Mexico now finds itself in a life-or-death struggle against gangsters. American officials, including a former drug tsar, have publicly worried about having a “narco state” as their neighbour.

The failure of the drug war has led a few of its braver generals, especially from Europe and Latin America, to suggest shifting the focus from locking up people to public health and “harm reduction” (such as encouraging addicts to use clean needles). This approach would put more emphasis on public education and the treatment of addicts, and less on the harassment of peasants who grow coca and the punishment of consumers of “soft” drugs for personal use. That would be a step in the right direction. But it is unlikely to be adequately funded, and it does nothing to take organised crime out of the picture.

Legalisation would not only drive away the gangsters; it would transform drugs from a law-and-order problem into a public-health problem, which is how they ought to be treated. Governments would tax and regulate the drug trade, and use the funds raised (and the billions saved on law-enforcement) to educate the public about the risks of drug-taking and to treat addiction. The sale of drugs to minors should remain banned. Different drugs would command different levels of taxation and regulation. This system would be fiddly and imperfect, requiring constant monitoring and hard-to-measure trade-offs. Post-tax prices should be set at a level that would strike a balance between damping down use on the one hand, and discouraging a black market and the desperate acts of theft and prostitution to which addicts now resort to feed their habits.

Selling even this flawed system to people in producer countries, where organised crime is the central political issue, is fairly easy. The tough part comes in the consumer countries, where addiction is the main political battle. Plenty of American parents might accept that legalisation would be the right answer for the people of Latin America, Asia and Africa; they might even see its usefulness in the fight against terrorism. But their immediate fear would be for their own children.

That fear is based in large part on the presumption that more people would take drugs under a legal regime. That presumption may be wrong. There is no correlation between the harshness of drug laws and the incidence of drug-taking: citizens living under tough regimes (notably America but also Britain) take more drugs, not fewer. Embarrassed drug warriors blame this on alleged cultural differences, but even in fairly similar countries tough rules make little difference to the number of addicts: harsh Sweden and more liberal Norway have precisely the same addiction rates. Legalisation might reduce both supply (pushers by definition push) and demand (part of that dangerous thrill would go). Nobody knows for certain. But it is hard to argue that sales of any product that is made cheaper, safer and more widely available would fall. Any honest proponent of legalisation would be wise to assume that drug-taking as a whole would rise.

There are two main reasons for arguing that prohibition should be scrapped all the same. The first is one of liberal principle. Although some illegal drugs are extremely dangerous to some people, most are not especially harmful. (Tobacco is more addictive than virtually all of them.) Most consumers of illegal drugs, including cocaine and even heroin, take them only occasionally. They do so because they derive enjoyment from them (as they do from whisky or a Marlboro Light). It is not the state’s job to stop them from doing so.

What about addiction? That is partly covered by this first argument, as the harm involved is primarily visited upon the user. But addiction can also inflict misery on the families and especially the children of any addict, and involves wider social costs. That is why discouraging and treating addiction should be the priority for drug policy. Hence the second argument: legalisation offers the opportunity to deal with addiction properly.

By providing honest information about the health risks of different drugs, and pricing them accordingly, governments could steer consumers towards the least harmful ones. Prohibition has failed to prevent the proliferation of designer drugs, dreamed up in laboratories. Legalisation might encourage legitimate drug companies to try to improve the stuff that people take. The resources gained from tax and saved on repression would allow governments to guarantee treatment to addicts—a way of making legalisation more politically palatable. The success of developed countries in stopping people smoking tobacco, which is similarly subject to tax and regulation, provides grounds for hope.

A calculated gamble, or another century of failure?

This newspaper first argued for legalisation 20 years ago. Reviewing the evidence again, prohibition seems even more harmful, especially for the poor and weak of the world. Legalisation would not drive gangsters completely out of drugs; as with alcohol and cigarettes, there would be taxes to avoid and rules to subvert. Nor would it automatically cure failed states like Afghanistan. Our solution is a messy one; but a century of manifest failure argues for trying it.

See Also: Pomegranates for poppies, Want to save Mexico? Rethink drug policy, Cartels’ Overwhelming Force, Intimidating Implications, If The War on Drugs Is a Success, What Does Failure Look Like?, Pot Bust Flip-Flop in LA; Obama & Holder Must Clarify RxPot Policy Now, The Economist: legalization “least bad” way to deal with failed drug prohibition, Pat Buchanan on the Drug War, and As Drug War Rages, AZ AG Talks Gun Control and the Benefits of Legalization.

[tags]drug wars, economist, legalization, legalisation, cocaine, marijuana, opium, production, developing nations, drug battles, legalize drugs, america, united states, DEA, drug enforcement, drug policy, decriminalize[/tags]

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  1. Bill Harris says:

    Debaters debate the two wars as if Nixon’s civil war on Woodstock Nation did not yet run amok. The witch-hunt against the half-a-million strong witches assembled in August 1969 cannot be good for America, the world-leader in percentile behind bars. If we are all about spreading liberty abroad, then why mix the message at home? Peace on the home front would enhance credibility.

    The negative numbers that will bottom-line our legacy to the next generation can be less ginormous. The witch-hunt doctor’s Rx is for every bust to numerate a bigger tax-load over a smaller denominator of payers. Spend more on prisons than on schools. My second witch’s frugal opinion is to grow your own. More consumer discretionary dollars will stimulate the rest of the economy when they are not depleted by the black market.

    A clause about interstate commerce provides only bogus constitutionality. The policy on the number-one cash crop in the land is; no taxation; yes eradication; but money to frustrate enforcement grows on trees. The authors of the Constitution never intended to divert tax revenue to outlaws. America rejected prohibition, but its back. Swat teams aren’t slowed down by lack of a stinking amendment.

    The demonized substances never had their day in court. Nixon promised to supply supporting evidence later. Later, the Commission evidence didn’t support, but no matter. The witch-hunt had funding in perpetuity. No amendments can assure due-process under an anti-science law that never had any due-process itself. Science hailed LSD as a drug with breakthrough potential, until the CSA (Controlled Substances Act of 1970) halted all research. Marijuana has no medical use, period. Lives are flushed down expensive tubes.

    The RFRA (Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993) makes an exception to the CSA allowing the Native American Church to eat peyote. A specific church membership should not be prerequisite for Americans to obtain their birthright freedom of religion. Denial of entheogen sacrament to any American, for mediation of communion twixt the soul and the source of souls, violates the First Amendment.

    Freedom of speech presupposes liberty of mental state. The Constitution doesn’t enumerate a governmental power to embargo diverse states of mind. How and when did government usurp this power to coerce mental conformity? Politicians who would limit cognitive liberty lack jurisdiction.

    Common Law must hold that the people are the legal owners of their own bodies. Socrates advocates knowing your self. Mortal law should not presume to thwart the intelligent design that molecular keys unlock spiritual doors. Those who appreciate their own free choice of personal path in life should not deny self-exploration to seekers. Should schools stop teaching that the right to the pursuit of happiness is inalienable by government?

    Simple majorities in each house could put repeal of the CSA on the president’s desk. The books have ample law on them without the CSA. Americans are already liable for damages when they screw-up. The usual caveats remain in effect. Strong medicine requires prescription. Employees can be fired for poor job performance. No harm, no foul; and no excuse, either. Replace the war on drugs with a frugal, constitutional, science-based, drugs policy.

  2. Tim says:

    Legalization is the answer. Sucks. Yes it does. Billions upon billions we spend each year to stop the flow and hold our jails full to bursting with class D felonies.

    Prohibition must stop. If I want to clean my clock with pure heroin then count me out for the department softball picnic I’m riding the H train. My hospital bills will be insignificant next to the trillions of dollars and millions of lives we have already screwed over in the name of “The War on Drugs.”

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    This post was mentioned on Reddit by mark2100: If we weren’t so fucking stoned all the time, we’d be out there marching on this shit. Legalize it! Woohooo! 420! 420! Hellz yeaahhhs!…

  5. Dave says:

    A very well written and thought provoking article, however it falls at the first hurdle as there are many American decision makers with interests in various industries.

    Cannabis was originally turned on because the guy put in charge of “the war on drugs” had interests in timer and logging, if cannabis was legalised it would have ment cheaper produced hemp ruining his tidy profit.
    I’m afraid that until the people are allowed to vote on this the suits in power will keep it locked down and keep the decision out of the public domain

  6. Mark says:

    This is complete and utter stupidity. Calls for blanket-wide legalization lump all narcotics into one category, and fail to understand the unique circumstances behind each one.

    If we look at historical experience, we can see why opiates were criminalized in the first place. China provides the perfect example of what happens when businesses dealing in highly addictive products are able to prey on an unprotected population. The pandemic of addiction became so severe, that it sparked the Opium Wars.

    We often draw faulty analogies between prohibition of alcohol during the 1920s, and prohibition of illegal narcotics, without analyzing the differences. Alcohol was, and continues to be, ingrained within our cultural tradition. Heroin, is not. Removing the prohibition on its use would, however, decrease any disincentives to use it. It is just bad public policy.

    While legalization of marijuana might be considered, because the market can said to have spoken, and the majority of users know that its supposed harmful effects have been greatly exaggerated, and it poses very little substantial threat, aside from use while driving, other narcotics have been evaluated as harmful by society at large, otherwise their use might be more prevalent.

    We are a self-governing society, and therefore, it is up to us to decide as a society which narcotics we wish to make available, and which narcotics we wish to spend our resources on prohibiting. I believe that society at large would agree that opiates such as heroin are worth investing our resources into. Prohibition failed because it was a top-down policy imposed on society by activists using guilt as a means to push through their agenda. Prohibition against marijuana might be considered similar. If we want to consider repealing a prohibition on other drugs though, why don’t we let the people who will be affected, and whose tax dollars fund the drug war, decide whether they would like to make opiates and other harder drugs freely available in society. After all, isn’t that who the laws are designed for?

    • Rafael says:

      Mark, whoever seeks for drugs, finds them. The war against drugs is INNEFECTIVE. It’s the same as nothing. There is no trouble in finding them on the streets. Prohibition means billions spent on something useless . If who looks for them gets them anyway, then there is no reason to think that the legalization would increase the number of addicts and become a public health issue. The drug traffic must end.

  7. alec says:

    Mark, I think you are missing the Economists rationalization: it costs far too much with far too little pay off to regulate drugs, let alone declare a global ‘war’ on them. This is less about thinking less about the consequences of addiction or usage of drugs and more about a simple cost/benefit analysis for maintaining current legal conditions.

  8. Bob says:

    Mark, are you saying you are so weak you would run right out and try heroin if it were legal?????

  9. Anonymous says:

    Hey, no mention of Colombia!

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