Vice Squad
Thursday, October 02, 2003
It Is Too Risky to Prohibit Drugs!

Yesterday I quoted Mr. Antonio Maria Costa, the Executive Director of the United Nations Office on Drugs
and Crime (UNODC), speaking on ecstasy and amphetamine-type drugs. To wit: "Opting out, namely --
accepting any notion of the liberalisation of the market, is not an option, as the health of our society
is at risk. Better safe than sorry."

I noted yesterday that the argument "legalization is too risky" is a common one among prohibitionists,
having been invoked, for example, by James Q. Wilson and the late John Kaplan. I think that this
argument is flawed, and I perhaps will one day explain why, but for now, I will transpose the argument
to another time and place (though to do so might actually make the argument seem more plausible!)

Imagine the situation in the United States in 1913, say, when heroin and cocaine were available
without a prescription. A prohibition has been proposed. Consider this argument against adopting
the prohibition: Maybe after prohibition the use of these dangerous drugs will fall to negligible
levels. But can we count on that? What if, over time, use rises? Then we will be jailing thousands
of people, perhaps (it sounds crazy, but it is conceivable) hundreds of thousands, simply because
they want to consume one of these drugs. The judicial costs, the violence spawned by the huge
black markets, the accidental overdoses brought about by uncertain quality – all will be
enormous. Children might even be recruited to work in the black market, to avoid the criminal
penalties imposed upon adults. Perhaps you say, OK, if the outcome is as frightening as that, we
can simply get rid of the prohibition, we can return to a system of free availability or a
prescription regime. But will it really be so easy to rid ourselves of a failed prohibition? A huge
industry of prisons and treatment providers and lawyers and specialized police squads and
prosecutors all will be feeding at the narco/prison trough. Instead of acceding to the calls for
liberalization, these interested parties will constantly push for more -- longer sentences,
mandatory minimum jail terms, banning related activity like possessing paraphernalia. New
drugs that come along will become fodder for their interest, their fetish to punish. They won’t
even have to work all that hard to make their case. Every drug-related tragedy will reinforce the
perils of drugs in the public mind. How to avoid these tragedies? Reduced prevalence of use.
How to reduce prevalence of use? Prohibition, more committed prohibition! The problems that
will arise under prohibition will transmute into justifications for prohibition. So even if my
nightmare vision of greatly increased use and hundreds of thousands of Americans wasting in
prison is unlikely, even if there is only a ten percent chance of such an outcome, prohibition is
too great a risk. Once the prohibition genie is out of the bottle, it cannot easily be put back - "and
it is not a kindly genie."*

*Apologies to James Q. Wilson for purposely (mis-)appropriating his genie line, which at more length
reads: "But that social experiment is so risky as to be no experiment at all, for if cocaine is
legalized and if the rate of its abusive use increases dramatically, there is no way to put the genie
back in the bottle, and it is not a kindly genie." This is from "Against the Legalization of Drugs."
Commentary 89: 21-8, February 1990.

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