Saturday, September 23, 2006

Legalization of Drugs as a Boon to Developing Nations

John Tierney proposes that we legalize heroin and cocaine:
Drug prohibition in Bolivia and Afghanistan has done exactly what alcohol prohibition did in America: it has financed organized crime.

The only workable solution is to repeal prohibition. Give Afghan poppy growers a chance to sell opium for legal painkilling medicines; give Andean peasants a legal international market for their crops in products like gum, lozenges, tea and other drinks. As Ethan Nadelmann of the Drug Policy Alliance proposes, “Put the coca back in Coca-Cola.”
While there is no real question but that prohibition has led to the development of organized crime networks and crime syndicates, both domestically and abroad, there are a few problems with the second quoted paragraph.

First, is he truly speaking only of repealing prohibition of heroin and cocaine as derived from plants? Because if we're speaking of a broader legalization, synthetic drugs enter the picture - drugs which can be significantly more potent (and significantly more pharmaceutically pure) than those derived from plants. If we include synthetics there will probably be no significant boost to the developing world, as synthetics will generally be cheaper and safer. For manufactured products like gum, it would likely be much easier to use a controlled amount of a synthetic drug than to import, process, and control the concentration of a "natural" drug.

Second, the coca is in Coca-Cola. Coca-Cola continues to use a "de-cocainized" extract of the coca leaf as a flavoring ingredient. It is a given that Coca-Cola, despite its massive scale, is not using much of the world's coca crops. With all due respect to the fact that a tea containing cocaine, even in small amounts, would have quite the kick as compared to a modern Coca-Cola, how much of a market does Tierney anticipate for coca tea and other drinks?

Third, is he proposing a free-for-all, with a return to patent medications containing perhaps inconsistent amounts of cocaine or an opiate extract? Absent significant regulation and control, you might end up with the same type of toxicity that is frequently found in street drugs, cut with whatever is cheap and available before being sold to addicts. (Besides - there's too much money involved. I'm quite confident that the major manufacturers of "adult beverages", pharmaceuticals, and tobacco would successfully lobby for enough regulation to create a significant barrier to entry for any smaller players.)

Synthetic drugs, particularly the class formerly referenced as "designer drugs", present a significant conundrum for legalization. It is conceivable that a company could design a drug that is technically not physically addictive, and arguably has minimum effect on performance, and is many senses much safer than "street drugs", but which turns out to be highly psychologically addictive. For that matter, if all bets are off and everything is made legal, why not design a drug that is highly physically addictive?

I agree with Tierney's sentiment, consistent through his articles on the war on drugs, that the war has proved to be a costly mistake. I agree with his suggestion that it's time to try something different. But I suspect that a true legalization would create at least as many problems, perhaps more, than the current drug war - at least domestically. This is an issue where you can think yourself in circles, and never come up with a good answer. Although I would feel more comfortable with Mr. Tierney's proposal if he would at least provide a 100% effective addiction treatment, and describe how it would be made universally available as part of his initiative.

(Do you have a solution? Please share....)


  1. I suspect that the international drug trade is too complex of a problem for the kinds of solutions that can be expressed easily in the comments of a blog. However, one change that might help would be for the United States to stop putting pressure on foreign governments to crack down on things like poppy and coca farmers.

    I have no idea what effect that might have on the illegal drug market in the United States since it seems unlikely that it is a truely competative market. The real point is that nothing quite as drastic as actually legalizing drugs needs to be done if one's goal is to provide a boon to developing nations.

    There are all kinds of other reasons why ending drug prohibition for most drugs makes sense but I dont think Americans are quite ready for that.

  2. No, no - I insist: All of the world's problems, most particularly the ones which seem intractable, can be solved in the comments section of a weblog. Really. ;-)

    Americans are fine with banning drugs... at least, the ones they don't use.