Vice Squad
Monday, February 06, 2006
Why are Drugs Still Illegal?

A couple weeks ago I was in cold Russia for the Global Development Network conference. Martin Wolf of the Financial Times provided the kick-off address, and in it, he surprised me by twice referring to the crazy narcotics control policies of the US (and other developed nations) and their deleterious consequences upon developing countries. (Maybe the tide is turning?) His timing was fortuitous for me, as just prior to his remarks I was struggling through a drug policy debate with others at my table who were not particularly receptive to legalization. The juxtaposition of the discussion at our table and the Wolf remarks got me to thinking that I had never fully articulated (at least in a single post) why I thought drugs were still illegal, given that the prohibition is extremely costly, largely ineffective, and (most importantly) unjust. (Pete at Drug WarRant has provided a definitive discussion of why marijuana is illegal.) So, how is it that this "insane" (or "crazy" – Wolf used one or both of these terms but I do not trust my notes) policy remains in place?

Let me suggest four reasons. The first is simply the tyranny of the status quo. In the case of drug prohibition, the usual status quo bias is bolstered by the fact that the currently illegal drugs are not all that popular (relative, for instance, to alcohol during national Prohibition in the US), and there is essentially no memory (in the case of opiates and cocaine) of a regulatory regime that does not involve prohibition. This lack of pertinent experience is itself partly a cause and now also an effect of the UN conventions that render drugs illegal on a global basis.

Second, there is a dose of logic which is persuasive (on the surface, at least) and irrefutable, but not dispositive – though the fact that it is not dispositive apparently is subtle. That logic goes along the lines of “if there were no drugs, there would be no drug problems.” Because this logic is absolutely correct, any tragedy that occurs under the current prohibitory regime – instead of discrediting prohibition, which would seem to be the obvious response – can be met, without conspicuous senselessness, by a call for a more committed prohibition. The notion that the drug-free world that the logic calls for is itself either a chimera or not worth the cost seems to be less than immediately accessible. So prohibition becomes a self-justifying policy.

Third, parents in the middle and upper classes in developed nations might believe – and they might be right to believe – that prohibition (relative to some undelineated alternative) makes it a bit less likely that their kids will become enmeshed in drugs. (This might be true even of parents who are former or current illegal drug users themselves.) Certainly the bulk of the observable costs of drug prohibition tend to be foisted upon lower class neighborhoods, because these are the neighborhoods in which open markets for drugs are likely to arise. The less obvious costs of prohibition – for instance, that there are black market sellers who have a significant financial interest in selling to the underaged, that the purity of the product is compromised (leading to unintentional overdoses), that stronger forms of the drug (heroin instead of opium) become relatively more available, and that ridiculously severe jail sentences are imposed – are, well, less obvious, though they are brought home quickly when it is your kid who pays one of these prices.

Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, people don’t have a good idea about what a legal alternative entails. (This point obviously parallels point one.) Legal channels for the distribution of opiates to adults for recreational purposes do not imply that every convenience store sells heroin to all comers. Kids will remain prohibited, licenses can be required for both buyers and sellers, advance purchase agreements can be mandated, significant taxes can be imposed, and so on. Perhaps the time has come for the legalization advocates to coalesce around some very specific policies that spell out, on a drug-by-drug basis, the precise regulatory regime that we have in mind.

And the day we prevail, we can celebrate the end of a supreme injustice. The next day, we have to redouble our efforts to help those whose drug consumption is problematic, and to penalize those who are unwilling to play by the liberalized rules.

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