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Drugs and Prohibition

July 10th, 2003

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.

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  1. s robertson
    July 11th, 2003 at 00:24 | #1

    Scanned the Drum site. Consensus there seems to be legalisation. A missed component that would have to be included in any cost/benefit analysis would have to be the cost of maintaining large prison populations – those doing time for doing drugs. Personally, the advantage of legalisation over simple decriminalisation is that it gives gov’t an ‘audit’ line plus tax component could fund reabilitation. As to increase in numbers of addicted individuals – those who ‘have a life’ not likely to be tempted to abuse. The marginal survivors and the young most likely to evidence increased use. The young – well, partly exploration (and how many other avenues of exploration are there? in real time, as distinct from imaginary time.) As for the marginal – so many other factors are involved. prohibition wouldn’t make it – if only on the basis of the costs involved in enforcement. As for the “message” – S***! it’s not just the poor and marginal going to E-fueled Dance Parties! Certainly the parents of the middle class youth don’t endorse drug use – quite the opposite. The Gov’ts PR exercise seems designed more to give parents the illusion that the gov’t ‘is doing something’ – registering the community unease. For the kids – nothing more than absolutely predictable propaganda. A lot of money spent on illusory New Clothes (ie ‘policy’). I am addicted to tobacco, and to coffee. Oh yes. But I’m a very naughty girl and grow my own T, and would grow my own coffee if the climate supported it. Purchased seeds some years ago, legally, from an advertiser in Gardening Australia. Then, gov’t policy changed. Now, I’m a criminal. A legal fiction. I agree about the hypocrisy- one of the greatest poisons to social cohesion there can be.

  2. Geoff Honnor
    July 11th, 2003 at 11:37 | #2

    I think the reason that cocaine has never happened here in a big way is largely distance from primary South American source – together with the associated product quality variability and supply uncertainty issues. There’s a widespread perception that if one does access cocaine in Australia it will generally be over-priced and low-grade compared to North America and Europe.

    Competitor drugs – crystal methamphetamine (much more cost-effective in terms of bang for buck), ecstasy, etc have largely filled the cocaine gap – it doesn’t really ‘rate’ here at all.

    Australians also tend to be polydrug users to a much greater extent than Americans, related once again to much greater variability in supply and the consequent need to ‘get it while you can.’

  3. Observa
    July 11th, 2003 at 19:58 | #3

    Holding liberal views, I have for some considerable time believed our drug laws are archaic and hypocritic. The hypocrisy was very evident, when I attended my daughters Year 8 induction for parents at the local high school some 3 years ago. They were basically introducing new chum parents to the idea that all high school students would face the open availability of illicit drugs as well as alchohol and tobacco. We had a bit of a presentation on how to approach the subject in an open and approachable manner with adolescents and how to discourage use. All in all the lecture was a bit wishy washy and smacked of ‘motherhood’ statements. I came away thinking the educators had given up on the topic and thrown it in the too hard basket.

    Basically how does a smoking, boozing(and doping) adult population tell teenagers ‘not to do drugs’. You’ll appear like a hypocrite or a monk.

    As far as adult use of drugs goes, I would advocate a “Proscribed Substance” licence for all adults who wish to use drugs from alchohol to heroin. As an adult you would apply for such a licence for your specific poison, attend lectures on the use, administration, pharmacological effects,legal requirements, etc of your particular choice and gain a licence to obtain and use the drug. All this would be at your own expense and you would only be permitted to share this drug of choice with adults holding a like licence. Extremely stiff penalties would be meted out to those who supplied such drugs to the unlicenced(which obviously precludes minors).

    Clearly conditions of the licence would preclude driving under the influence, operating machinery and the like. The penalty for doing so would be loss of drug licence (notice- not necessarily your drivers licence unless you were straight and breaking the road laws) Similarly with breaking the law generally while under the influence of drugs. Immediate loss of drug licence as it would be assumed that your drug taking was a problem for society.(Remember your lectures when you were told your drug-taking was your own business, as long as it did not impact on others?)

    Now what about the kids and their desire to experiment with adult drugs? Well my class-room drug lesson would go like this. The teacher starts off the discussion with the Q. ‘What are the benefits/attractions of drugs!’ Sit back teach you won’t be required for the next 20 mins or so, except to break up the party to suggest we all move on to the oval for a little experiment. Armed with 2 small seedlings in pots, a pair of No.11 steel toe-cap boots and a small spray bottle of Glyphosate weed-killer, the group pauses by the biggest tree in the yard. Can I have a really strong volunteer to assist? Ah, I see the scool football captain is volunteering to put on the boots. Done that. Now kick the tree as hard as you can. Now can we have a more dainty volunteer please? (Selects the shrinking violet lass hiding up the back) to slip off her shoes and step on the one of the seedlings with her bare foot. Then the teacher sprays the foliage of the tree as well as the seedling with a couple of squirts from the bottle.

    Back to the class-room where the teacher pops the seedlings on the window sill for observation. Drug lesson is over students, but I want you to observe the objects of our experiment, over the next week or so. Perhaps then you wil understand why our society wants you to wait until you are fully mature, before you make the personal value judgement, as to how often and how hard you want to kick yourself pharmacologically.

  4. derrida derider
    July 14th, 2003 at 18:37 | #4

    In politics, the maxim is “the only good tax is an old tax”. We should alter it to “the only good drug is an old drug”. People are incredibly afraid of novelty.

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