A case for drug law reform

Prompted by the recent discussion of blogging on Australia Talks Back (audio here), new reader Ted Kroiter has sent an email asking me to point to his views on drug law reform. . You can also read my thoughts on the same topic. Discussion welcome.

UpdateA striking feature of our drug laws is that there’s a fundamental distinction drawn between those drugs that have been widely used since, say, 1600 (alcohol, tobacco, caffeine) and those that have only been used for 50-100 years (cocaine, heroin, marijuana, amphetamines and so on). Is anyone willing to defend this distinction? As a matter of personal disclosure, I should say that the current rules suit me very well. I am a regular consumer of two of the three main legal drugs, and have no interest in any of the illegal options, (though there are times when a double espresso with added benzedrine might be just the ticket).

18 thoughts on “A case for drug law reform

  1. I’m attempting to listen to it now but the audio stream is so jumpy and stuttery it’s barely listenable. I’m making out about every second syllable at the moment.

  2. I listened to it earlier and it was clear as a bell. What program are you using, James? I used Media Player Classic. If you are using Real that might be the problem. That program is a blight upon humanity…

  3. I’m using Real, which I know is arse but the site only gives you the option of RealAudio to listen back afterwards. How do you make Media Player do it?

  4. I think there are two difficult issues in relation to dope. Should you regulate its use? If you do wish to restrict use how should you do so? Most of my own work (on heroin) has been concerned with the latter question. I think it is a difficult policy design problem and the following thoughts are tentative.

    The objective of restricting use is to reduce certain costs but the restrictions themselves impose costs. Hence economists typically see a tradeoff between pursuit of heroin use ‘abstinence’ costs and ‘harm minimisation’ costs that arise largely from the attempts to restrict use.

    This is a tough problem as the underlying total costs here are non-convex in key decision variables. Is there a simple solution? My thoughts are that there is a simple solution but this involves yet another cost — the cost of sacrificing social justice. It is also based on a strong detectability assumption.

    Essentially providing heroin to addicts free of cost eliminates many of the harms (crime, health) associated with drug use. Of course it has awful effects on the incentives for new users to use since it reduces the costs they will face if they use and become addicted. Again the tradeoff between pursuing abstinence and reducing social harm.

    Hence a tentative proposal: have stringent penalties on all illegal heroin use but provide it freely to addicts. This provides strong incentives for all addicted users (with tests applied to determine degree of addiction) to utilise the free public supplies. In addition the incentives for new users to initiate usage are reduced because penalties are severe.

    The catch is that heavy penalties fall on users who impose low social costs both currently and in the longer-term (‘chipping’ or long-term low level use is a fact in heroin use scene). Many users never impose the high costs that stringent penalties are trying to thwart. In addition there is an detectability assumption that casual users are easily detectable — detection of use may be harder for new users.

    If you place enough weight on the welfare of casual users who do not become addicted then the socially efficient policy is legalisation with treatment for drug abusers. This is more or less how we deal with alcohol use. Of course it does lead to the likelihood of more addicted users and hence greater treatment costs.

    It is a tough problem — pushing one type of approach always seems to generate significant costs elsewhere.

  5. “By the way, excellent article by Ted. That man needs a blog.
    Posted by yobbo at July 15, 2004 09:54 AM”

    Why, thank you yobbo! What I really want is to hear from anyone who opposes my view. I never see any clear and proper arguments for prohibition besides those I have taken some trouble to organise in my article. I never hear from anyone who has taken on board what I have said against them and come back with sensible and detailed rejoinders.

    alll the best

    Ted Kroiter

  6. Ted, I don’t know of any academic commentators that support outright prohibition. It is just too socially costly. Most will agree with your arguments. The issue is to try to limit drug use while minimising the harm associated with such measures. This is difficult.

    You will be looking hard to find academic defenders of prohibition and the standard response of pollies is uninformative at best.

    Some go the whole hog and suggest legalisation or legalisation to addicts alone — policies that have strong harm minimisation effects but adverse incentives in encouraging new users. Others suggest safe injecting rooms or methadone substitutes that go less of the way to harm minimise but have lower adverse incentive effects.

    Hence my earlier posting which seeks to minimise harm by providing free to addicts but to strongly discourage new use by retaining stringent penalties on illegal use. I don’t put full faith in this either — it doesn’t work that well since it penalises many people who don’t impose high social costs and relies on assumption that you can easily pick out the new users.

  7. A very big aspect of the issue which needs to be looked at is that perhaps a majority of alcohol consumption in Australia is illegal under current legislation (i.e. it is sold to underage purchasers or to drinkers who are already intoxicated).

    According to one recent estimate, 50% of alcohol sales in the US fall into either or both of these categories. As Australian per capita alcohol consumption is higher than in the US, it is reasonable to assume that illegal sales in Australia constitute a higher percentage of overall sales.

    As we can also assume that most of the harm associated with alcohol use is the result of illegal sales and consumption, more effective enforcement of regulation of alcohol sales and consumption would be a far more cost-effective use of finite funds and state capacity than pouring them into heroic “zero tolerance” and “drug-free” campaigns against (currently) illicit drugs.

  8. Some misunderstanding here about the history of drug use.Drugs in use only for 50 to 100 years -wrong,wrong, wrong.
    Cannabis has been used for thousands of years for pleasure and medicinal purposes,and is still used for medicine and in cooking in many parts of asia.Tincture of cannabis was certainly available from the chemist in the UK up to the late fifties.Obviously souhth american cultures have used cocaine for thousands of years,asians opiates and cannabis.
    Cowboys in the west more than 150 years ago were chronic abusers of cocaine,cannibis and opium.
    They didn’t just have a soda fountain at the drug store
    It must be remembered that most of these drugs were legal until the 1930s when that tranvestite hoover at the FBI and his sidekick anslinger decided that drug laws were the best way to control the negro problem.
    LSD was legal for years and ectasy was presribed for years to struggling couples in counselling-the love drug.
    So our drug laws are a stupid response to years of lies and hypocrisy.
    Here in western australia we feed alleged adhd kids the highest rates of amphetamine medication in the world,a few dozen a year are hospitalised for detox!
    It is time to say fuck the americans and do what the portuguese did a couple of years ago-make all drugs legal.
    And then face the problems honestly,without any US baggage.

  9. Thanks for the Media Player Classic link, Robert. I’ve downloaded it and am listening to the thing now… God, it doesn’t even sound like RealAudio 🙂 Can’t believe I’ve never come across this player before…

  10. “Ted, I don’t know of any academic commentators that support outright prohibition. It is just too socially costly. Most will agree with your arguments. The issue is to try to limit drug use while minimising the harm associated with such measures. This is difficult.”

    Thank you Harry. I get the feeling that hardly anyone takes seriously the idea that prohibition is wrong in principle. But it is what I argue, successfully or not. My intention was not to do basically short term cost/benefit analysis on various drug prohibitions. Prohibition is prohibition and totally different in concept to regulation. Yes, a govt can regulate to virtually prohibit but I am able to say this because there is a fairly fundamental distinction and it will not be seen if one’s head is buried in how to turn lower range knobs.

    “lower range knobs”? Think of a set of linked knobs that go from high to low range. If the top range is badly set, you will go badly wrong no matter how you twiddle the lower ranges, no matter how practical you are, no matter how you model and fiddle and use economic analysis and statistics.

    Societies grow and become sophisticated. Prohibition holds a very important development back. A state that does not trust its adult citizens in respect to what they do with their own bodies is going to put off the day when it can to the very great cost of generations of people.

    I suppose I better stop.

    Best wishes

    Ted kroiter

  11. “It is time to say fuck the americans and do what the portuguese did a couple of years ago-make all drugs legal. And then face the problems honestly,without any US baggage”.

    Well, marklatham, I would certainly like it if all the countries of the world said this to the Americans in respect to their leading role and incredible pressure on this issue. Certainly, Australia could start to go in a different direction. Start, mind you. For reasons alluded to in my article, it would not be wise to suddenly completely about face in practice. (I know mark, from reading about your fiery youth that you are a bit impulsive, so steady there … but I am in some sympathy. I might vote for you but maybe it is not wise to insult the Americans so close to the election). A long term program that said: “OK, we have gone down the wrong road for a very long time, it is not obvious how exactly to get back onto a rational track but we know the direction of this track and we must take some steps towards it.” In my article, I expand on this theme.

    Basically, I would like people to entertain some long term goals, an overview, a principled look at the role of the state, the importance of individual liberty, the very long term effects of using dogs, door busters, handcuffs, guns and prisons on sane adults who have chosen to do what they will to their own bodies, the effects this has on a society, the kind of society that arises from this route. Look at how different people bring up their kids, look at the effects of dumb repression and look at how some (so naturally? so intelligently? so wisely?) gradually loosen the grip, allow their little ones to grow up, slowly learning to be trusted. Ask what sort of society is being aimed at?

    One gentleman, a Mr. Kleiman (sorry, I have lost the link), I read was quite happy that he had thought of a way to “elide” as he put it, the distinction between harm to oneself and harm to others. He was proud of throwing in his lot with means-end reasoning, good old solid empirical stuff. I would not dare to voice any opposition beforehand to any particular study for a worthwhile well defined aim. Churchill and his commanders asked the weatherman to do a bit of work on one aspect of D-Day. He did not ask him to organise the whole show to Berlin. Good old empirical weatherman (he gave good honest advice).

    Don’t want to be too strident here, but I get the feeling that even many thinking people who concern themselves with some of the problems associated with drugs in our societies are against prohibition because it is so hard to enforce. As if it would be fine if there were some magic forms or yet to be discovered methods of repression that are more effective in the light of the demands.

    It is not the business of a group of people to give another group who want to do what they will with their own bodies only one option: handcuffs, guns, prison. They can say they will not help them if they get into trouble. That is one thing. It is an altogether different thing to be doing the repressive bit with so much real hardware at their command (again, yes, guns, handcuffs, prisons). Success in repression does not make it right and you need to be more than an economist, or a policeman, or a statistician or whatever to see this. What do you need to be then? You need to be a human being who thinks broadly. It is not a specialist field. Repression might be! Crowd control is! But what sort of societies are worth having in the long run is not.

    So, Harry, about this business of academics not disagreeing with my arguments (which are not really mine in the end except for – possibly – a certain emphasis), I don’t see too many people agreeing. I see a lot of how do you balance this with that and that with this.

    By the way, have I landed in a den of economists here? It has been worrying me a bit 🙂

    All the best

    Ted Kroiter

  12. You can find Mark Kleiman on the blogroll, under “Other sites of interest”

  13. Mr Kleiman responded (see under “Other sites of interest” on this site) to
    some points of John Quiggin to do with consistency of drug policy (points I
    found largely sound). I posted something on Mr. Kleiman’s site but unsure
    if it got there? Anyway, since we are having a discussion here, it might
    interest people to have it repeated here. I start with a quote from Mr.
    Kleiman. What follows are some remarks of mine, another quote from him and
    then further remarks from me.

    “The question, drug-by-drug and comprehensively, is what mix of policies
    would minimize aggregate damage, net of benefit. (This elides the
    distinction between harm to self and harm to others, which strikes me as a
    reasonable thing to do in the face of an activity where individuals can’t be
    assumed to be good stewards of their own well-being.) In some cases that
    least-cost solution will look like prohibition; in others it will look like
    regulation and taxation. It’s a practical problem, to be handled by
    practical means-ends reasoning, not by the enunciation of profound truths
    about human nature or the role of the state.”

    The need not to be too lofty, general and empty in the advocacy of anything
    sounds worthy. Maybe too worthy? What is meant by practical means-ends
    reasoning? The link from these words went to fourteen “principles for
    practical policies”, many of which were in themselves complex and shrouded
    in further assumptions (I do not say unreasonably).

    I am suspicious of the foundation for this thinking (not its undoubtedly
    worthy intention). To be frank, I don’t like it! What exactly are the
    questions that we must tackle so “practically”? The vaguer we are about
    this, the more issues we lump together as needing analysis and action, the
    less practical is the call for practical reasoning. Even being practical
    about one little not much used drug that is a bit of a problem will be
    unable (for lots of reasons) to be tackled without reference to other
    overall policies pertaining to drugs and many other issues not to do with

    To be practical about huge complex things will get absolutely nowhere, we
    will be swamped by incalculable sums. Hugely bad accomplishments in the
    drugs area have been possible because of a few crazy ideas. The antidote is
    not practical ideas at all, there are too many of them to too many
    questions. The antidote is good principles, trustworthy principles that have
    stood a few tests, been argued for by people who have devoted themselves to
    think through them, and generally look and feel right to intelligent people
    who don’t get their advice from voices from deities or simply accept things
    told to them uncritically. Underneath good principles is their
    organisational power, their truth will ultimately be based on the results
    that their proper use brings about. Means-ends thinking needs some ends.
    Thinking about ends is not some practical thing empirically charged people
    will be good at naturally. The time to call in practical methods is after
    some hard strategic thinking of a less than practical nature.

    What I find rather alarming about this call for practical reasoning “drug by
    drug” is the sheer vagueness and enormity of the task. I think it is an
    illusion that it can be done this way, how is even the list to be picked? A
    whole batch of scientists of every description will not equal one John
    Stuart Mill in setting the scene to understand things in an overall way. The
    scientists and practical thinkers will be producing as many new problems as
    they solve if only because they will keep finding new dangerous temptations
    for humans and, at every turn, alarming mad ideologues.

    Good political and social ideology is the antidote to bad. This is what
    needs setting first. Think of a set of linked knobs that go from high to low
    range. If the top range is badly set, you will go badly wrong no matter how
    you twiddle the lower ranges, no matter how practical you are.

    Perhaps I am being unfair to your motivations and views. Apologies in
    advance. It is just that some of the most important issues have to do with
    the higher ends, things probably contained in your phrases “aggregate
    damage” and “net of benefit”. These are not terms that are so clear. I do
    believe that many if not all the people who shackled the world with the
    policy of general drugs prohibition have got their higher aims badly wrong,
    indeed some of them would rather the world went up in flames than that
    adults should be allowed to do whatever they liked to their own bodies. The
    bad high range policy of prohibition has set the progress of the world in
    these matters back a century at least.

    “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 don’t know how you worked out that “alcohol, on balance, creates a net
    social deficit”? Taking what as background assumptions, never mind the
    direct criteria for the judgment? Whether your proposed ban creates a huge
    illicit market depends on the number of alcohol convicts, the penalties etc.
    If you set the penalties high enough we will reap the whirlwind; what next,
    do we get violent convicted alcoholics burgling houses to pay for their next
    drink. Better to let them choose, if they cause trouble then detain them for
    long enough periods so they cannot harm others. There are principles for
    this and good ones. Violent alcohol affected people cause the trouble, they
    should be the ones to cope with the consequences. If they are not free to
    choose, due to their condition, then they need to be helped, if necessary,
    kept safe in a place that is just (and I mean fair) for such people. If we
    can rehab them, then so we should. If these people are caused to do what
    they do by other circumstances, then these need attention. Banning people
    from doing things that are not in themselves harmful to others is a
    dangerous course that so many people leap to defend. You now make it so much
    harder to defend the peaceful drinker, if all drink was banned…

    Honestly, it is quite interesting how differently I feel to you! You seem to
    think that the only thing wrong with alcohol prohibition is some practical
    thing, the “operational” difficulty, the “political” difficulty. I think it
    is wrong in principle. Good principle is not some airy fairy thing best
    avoided, it comes from the distilled experience of mankind about mankind
    over many centuries. The USSR did not implode because it made a few
    impractical decisions, it made millions of practical ones, some quite
    effective, others disastrous. It imploded because it was not built on good
    principles, and I mean founded, powered by, not just mouthed.

    all the best

    Ted Kroiter (if emailing me via Hotmail, please use “tk” preferably without quotes in subject line somewhere, otherwise I won’t see)

  14. Blog radio
    John Quiggin was on Australia Talks Back talking about blogging the other day, and provides a link here to the discussion for anyone who wants to listen to it. Hope you have more luck than I’m doing, though; the RealAudio…

  15. Addictive Drugs: Prohibition will always fail.
    I’d started writing this when my favourite journalist (not), Miranda Divine, had an article in the The Sydney Morning Herald on 20 July relating to this subject. Worth a read if you want a different view. With the news about…

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