Monday, March 09, 2009

The "Least Bad" Solution to Illegal Drugs

According to the Economist, it's legalization.
“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.
There's nothing close to a perfect solution, or even a good solution, to the scourge of drugs. But I suspect that if we made the principal illegal drugs (marijuana, cocaine, opiates, amphetamines) available through a variety of regulated mechanisms, we would see an improvement over the status quo.

A similar perspective from The Independent:
So, why did we lose the drugs war? The answer is simple economics. Demand will find a supply. That the political parties on both sides of the Atlantic who preached prohibition were the same ones that advocated market liberalism is no small irony. While Nixon, Thatcher and Reagan pointed to the Reds in the East and said you can never be free without free-markets, the freest market of all was the one they created with the war on drugs. There is no regulation of actual consumption, no regulation of production, no enforced quality standards, no labour rights and no money-back guarantee.

Instead we have an international drug mafia more powerful and wealthy than any organised criminals in the history of human society. They are the beneficiaries of the alchemy of prohibition which turns virtually worthless crops into a commodity worth its weight in gold. And, unsurprisingly when the product is so valuable, they will stop at nothing, literally nothing, to get it to market and realise the profit. If you were not stung by the banking crisis and are still looking for a justification for market regulation, this is it. The results are all around us.

We lose around 2,600 people to drug poisoning every year. More than half of all property crime is drug-related. And while one in eight members of the prison population arrives there on drug-related charges, tens of thousands more are users – able to service their habits in our prisons. A sick joke and a criminal waste of life this may be, but – relatively speaking – we are the lucky ones.

To see the real horror show, look at the drug gangs who closed Sao Paolo, in Brazil in 2006, the Taliban's resurgence in Afghanistan after the poppy crop was threatened by coalition troops; or even the West African narco-state of Guinea Bissau which lost both a President and the head of the army to assassins last week.

This is a devastating toll, given that drugs policy is, basically, a matter of public health not national defence. Our politicians do not see it that way.


  1. 1. Would you limit it to the "principal illegal drugs" and leave other (designer?) drugs illegal?

    2. Would you use the profits of regulation to pay for rehab. programs?

    3. Would you have an arbitrary "minimum age" of 21 for drug use? What would the penalty be for violating the ban and would it work any better than the current ban on underage drinking?

    4. Would you try to set a cigarette level tax on the drugs? Would you allow different states to regulate "formerly illegal" drugs or would you set a "Federal" policy for all?

    5. Would dealing drugs be a Government monopoly? If not, would you provide limitations on drug manufacturers' liability in the event that their customers OD?

    6. Would you limit the areas where drugs could be used? Sort of a "Redlight" district meets an opium den? "No Shooting Heroin - School Zone"


  2. I am very wary of designer drugs for two reasons: First, who knows what they do or how addictive they actually are? Wasn't Xanax additionally pitched as a non-habit forming alternative to Valium? Second, there would be a huge cash incentive to design drugs that are highly and instantly addictive. Also, the goal here is to reduce drug trafficking and illegal drug sales, not to create a smorgasbord.

    The "profits" would be used by government to pay for whatever. As we know from the lottery, what the government says it's going to do with the money likely has nothing to do with how it will actually use the money. A bit of creative accounting and, voila, it's in the general fund.

    I don't know what age I would pick for illegal drug use, 18 or 21. Would prohibition work better with drugs than with alcohol? Unlikely. But go to a high school and you'll generally find it's already easier to buy some weed or a handful of pills than it is to get a bottle of vodka.

    If states want to set their own policies, that would be fine with me. Just as we still have some counties that ban alcohol.

    I doubt that many drug users would OD in a regulated context. In our unregulated market millions of people ingest illegal drugs - loaded with toxins and poisons - every day; few die. Further, if you require heroin users to "shoot up" (or otherwise ingest) in a supervised setting, you could be on the standby with Narcan. I'm not aware that any special immunity has been granted to methadone clinics. What would be the theory under which the manufacturer is liable?

    I'm sure there would be drug-free zones, such as areas around schools. No big deal.

  3. There's definitely some theoretical merit to your plan. My concerns would be that:

    1) The more regulations you place on the market, the more incentive people will have to use "illegal-illegal drugs". (If you legalize heroin but require people to go to the "heroin clinic" you will see an "awful lot" of medical grade heroin leaving the clinic and being sold for "home use".)

    2) You'll increase the number of users. You can talk (and I couldn't much argue) about how easy it is to get drugs now, but there is at least some percentage of people who don't do drugs because they are illegal/they do not want to go to jail.

    All in all, I prefer the "Chinese Solution" but I know that my solution is even less likely (and that is saying something) to become reality than your is . . .


  4. If you suck the profits out of the illegal drug trade, the "illegal illegal" market will be subset of the legal market - diverted "legal" drugs, which at least are pharmaceutically pure. If you destroy the economies of scale that support the import of tons of heroin into the U.S. every year, the availability of drugs from illicit sources will significantly diminish and costs will go way up. Beyond that, I'm not sure why you think that a "heroin clinic" that required people to ingest the heroin under medical observation would lead to a great deal of diversion. And if that's not what a clinic would do, there's no point in having the clinic.

    You assume that usage would increase, but where's the evidence to support that assumption? When have increases or decreases in the enforcement of drug laws or the penalties for drug law violations ever appreciably affected addiction rates? Addiction rates are similar in nations that have near-legalization as compared to countries that impose the death penalty for certain drug offenses - about 5%. I just can't imagine many people deciding, "Heroin's legal now, so I'll wait in line with the junkies at the clinic and give it a try."

  5. It's unfortunate that they lump all 'drugs' together. Marijuana and meth are both drugs; they're not even close in terms of addictiveness or social costs. Restricting genuinely harmful drugs like PCP or meth is on a different plane than legalizing largely harmless ones, like marijuana or Ecstasy.

    Keeping dangerous drug use in small quantities mildly illegal is a good way of pushing addicts into rehabilitation. I don't think allowing methampetamine production to be perfectly legal is a wise alternative to the current situation, though.

  6. Pharmaceutically pure amphetamines are cheap. Meth is highly toxic, and its production is highly polluting. Meth labs started to spring up after the government cracked down on illicit trafficking of amphetamines and overprescription by doctors.

    We have something similar going on, right now, with prescription opiates - except we won't be all-but taking them off the market in response to overprescription and diversion.

    On a recent international flight we had two young adults sitting in the row in front of us. Little suzy drug cocktail, mixing up her pain pills and benzodiazepines, and her boyfriend, the recipient of some of her ad hoc prescriptions. They didn't even seem to be aware that their cocktails were (a) illegal, (b) dangerous, or (c) addictive. Welcome to the world of diverted medicine.

    I should have commented on "the Chinese Solution" - I thought I was proposing something similar to the early Chinese solution - the outcome of the opium wars. ;-) But seriously, I previously addressed "the Chinese Solution" - despite extraordinary punishment, the Chinese have a serious problem with drug use and addiction and their addiction levels are as high as those in any other country. So, other than increasing the human cost, how's that a solution at all?

    As the linked articles indicate, the drug war has been increasingly expensive, but wholly ineffective. When you create a dip in supply for one drug, you tend to get an increase in demand for another. But what the drug world does do, extremely well, is create and finance international criminal cartels and cause nation states to fail. As is presently happening in Mexico.

  7. I think Mythago has a point in terms of addicts needing consequences in order to get better. I think we can all agree that only a very small percentage of addicts actually recover. Some professionals say the law of thirds is always in play (1/3 get better, 1/3 try to get better, 1/3 aren't interested).
    Alcoholics ("the legal addicts") have some of the worst recovery rates. One of the main reasons they cite is that even when they decide to get better, their drug of choice is always in front of them. The same can be said of prescription addicts, for whom it is only slighly more complicated than going to the store down the street.

    When we talk about legalization, I think we are not talking about removing the consequences for the addicts. They need the consequences. We should be talking about removing the consequences for society as a result of addiction, in the form of theft and loss of life. That is what legalization can do. Addicts steal so they can get their drugs. Period. If they don't have to steal to get their drugs, they won't steal. They don't steal because they like to steal, except in rare cases and that has nothing to do with addiction. If you make it so they can get their drugs without having to hurt anyone, that is what is best for everyone.

  8. Meth labs are not going to go away if you legalize meth; think of the EPA requirements...

    If legalizing marijuana pushes demand away from other drugs, that's fine with me, particularly as marijuana - unlike, say, cocaine or heroin - can be grown domestically.

  9. 1. In Defense of the Chinese Solution: it is a lot cheaper than our "warehouse" model and there are very few repeat offenders. You could modify it to only impact dealers . . .

    2. I wasn't talking about reducing the number of addicts; I was talking about reducing the use of illegal drugs (unless you are arguing that all drug users are addicts.)

    3. I don't have any empirical studies indicating that making something illegal will decrease the likelihood of people doing it, but it is sort of the model upon which the whole idea of law is based . . . and I believe, but have not researched, that the rampant abuse of amphetamines went down post when enforcement levels went up (with the meth. epidemic coming enough later that I don't believe that the one drove the other, ditto outlawing opiates at the turn of the century . . . )

    4. Mythago makes a good point re: the lumping together of drugs. It's interesting to speculate on how drug use and societal costs would be impacted by legalizing some, but not all drugs.

    5. Can you imagine what the warning label would look like on your legal cocaine or LSD? Would your heroin clinic be Government run or “for profit”? Can you imagine the poor fashion models waiting in line for their heroin?


  10. Whether we're talking about reducing the number of addicts (and it's fair to ask, what's the point of a drug policy that doesn't affect demand) or reducing supply, the question remains: Where's the evidence that the "Chinese solution" works?

    If it works so well, and is so cost-effective, why aren't the Chinese themselves presently using the "Chinese solution"?

    We've previously discussed how making one drug harder to obtain can shift demand to a different drug. It doesn't have to be amphetamines -> meth. It can be amphetamines -> cocaine -> meth. The point is, addicts continue to be addicted and continue to abuse drugs even if they cannot obtain their "drug of choice." You make cocaine harder to get? You should anticipate having more heroin addicts.

    I don't need to imagine "warning labels". Cocaine, opiats and opioids are already available for prescription use, so if you want you can hop over to or a similar site and read the actual warning labels for yourself. Also, if you stop by a methadone clinic, you will find that the bottles used to dispense "take home" doses don't have warning labels. Go figure. This is no different.

  11. Basically, what you are saying is that instead of allowing the “drug mafia” to control and regulate the drug flow, we should have to government in control of the drugs. This would legalize drugs and then allow the government to tax the buyers. Although that might be good for the economy, it is not good for people who do not have a drug addiction or for the people with the drug addiction.
    Like you said in your argument, the “drug mafia” will stop at nothing to get their products out to the consumers. That is true also in reverse, the consumers, aka drug addict, will not stop until they receive their drug and get their cravings under control. So even if the government were to legalize drugs, people would still get hurt in the process of retrieving enough money to supply their addiction. Most of the violence is caused from the drug dealers not getting their money on time, or one drug addict thinking another person stole their stash.
    Although violence is a problem, health concerns for the addicts and, if they did drugs while pregnant, their children are another reason to not legalize drugs. Many addicts love the high feeling their drug of choice gives them. So to keep the high feeling longer they take more than their body can handle and overdose. Overdosing can cause you major arteries, such as your liver and heart, to fail; ultimately causing death. For a child who’s mother did drugs while she was pregnant can cause the child’s brain to not function correctly. This can also cause your internal organs and major arteries to fail.
    Although I do agree that there needs to be an end to the “drug mafias” and the drug lords, the solution is to not legalize drugs. Not only will this make it easier for the addicts to find the drug, but is will encourage people to not seek help for their addictions. For example, think about how many alcoholics got to rehab and once out relapse because everywhere they go there is alcohol. The same things will be true for a drug addict because it is more likely people will be more openly to do the drugs out in public. Also, it will cause more health problems, just because people will be able to overdose easier because the drugs would be available at a drug store.

    This webpage is a quick ling to look over to show more side effects and health problems that addicts may encounter.

  12. The issue is not, and was not put forth as, harm elimination.

    The goal here is harm reduction - implementing the "least worst" solution.

    You offer no solution, nor any improvement - just more of the same. The problem is, your (lack of) solution is more harmful than the alternative I'm describing.


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