Drugs and Prohibition
Via some critical responses from Kevin Drum, I found this piece by Mark Kleiman opposing the legalization of cocaine. There are some good arguments, and evidence, for drug prohibition. However, it’s crucial to apply a consistency test here. Most of the arguments and evidence that support prohibition of cocaine can also be used to support prohibition of alcohol. (Mark’s “adjustment costs” argument about unemployed coke dealers is an exception, but not, as Kevin notes, a very convincing one).
I wrote a piece for the Fin a while back, looking at the experience of Prohibition in the US and concluding as follows:
In summary, Prohibition produced greater benefits than the War on Drugs, at a lower cost in terms of crime and social dislocation. The idea that it is impossible to change the status of currently legal drugs, does not stand up to an examination of the evidence.
The real reason we will not even attempt to make society drug-free is that we do not want to. I don’t want to give up my evening gin-and-tonic, even if it does me more harm than good. Similarly, despite the appeal of ‘Just Say No’ and the priority placed on abstinence rather than risk reduction in other contexts, no-one seems to be suggesting the promotion of even voluntary abstinence from alcohol.
We are then, left with a paradox. Through the governments we elect, we are willing to turn our homes into fortresses and our streets into battlefields in order to maintain the illegal status of drugs that have been widely used for decades. But the same governments are unwilling to take even modest steps against drugs whose only distinguishing characteristics are a longer history of use and abuse, and the existence of influential producer and consumer lobbies.
I do not know whether our social acceptance of established drugs is a good thing. But until we are prepared to take a consistent position one way or the other, we should stop talking about sending messages. The only message our current policies send is that we are a bunch of hypocrites.
You can read the whole thing here
Update Mark Kleiman responds, suggesting
Even believing that alcohol, on balance, creates a net social deficit, I don’t actually believe that alcohol should be prohibited. Given the enormous user base for alcohol, its prohibition would be operationally nightmarish as well as politically infeasible. Instead, why not ban its sale to those previously convicted of alcohol-induced violence or repeated drunken driving? That ban wouldn’t be perfectly obeyed, but it would have some good effect nonetheless, and wouldn’t create another huge illicit market.
I’m not sure this particular policy would work, but I’m with Kleiman on the point that a pragmatic drug-by-drug policy is needed. I’m reasonably satisfied that this would imply more restrictions on alcohol (e.g. on advertising), further tightening on tobacco, some form of legalisation for widely-used illegal drugs like marijuana and ecstasy and harm minimisation for heroin (needle exchanges, injecting rooms and some form of legal provision for registered addicts). I don’t know much about cocaine – for reasons I don’t understand, it never seems to have become a big deal here.