Vice Squad
Monday, August 06, 2012
The Double Default Approach to Re-Legalizing Drugs

In my previous post I mentioned, somewhat enigmatically, my double default approach to re-legalizing drugs. I suspect that I will have more to say later, but a short, ungated description can be found here.

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Sunday, August 05, 2012
Low-Risk Legalization Experiments

One of the main anti-legalization arguments mustered by drug prohibitionists is that any legalization experiment is so fraught with the prospect of producing huge numbers of new addicts that legalization cannot safely be tried. Here is my response to one such claim, that appearing in Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know, by Mark A.R. Kleiman, Jonathan P. Caulkins, and Angela Hawken. This response does not spell out my full "double default" model of drug re-legalization, but is consistent with it.

Low-Coercion, Low-Risk Drug Policy Experiments

In their recent book, Drugs and Drug Policy, Mark A. R. Kleiman, Jonathan P. Caulkins, and Angela Hawken (Oxford University Press, 2011) examine what they call (pages 18-21) a “no coercion” drug policy. Their description of such a policy is that drug buying and selling would generally be left unencumbered, though there would be dissuasion from immoderate use of drugs and help for people seeking to limit consumption that had spiraled out of control. “No coercion,” then, is a fairly full-bore legalization policy: presumably drug sales to children would remain proscribed. Kleiman, Caulkins, and Hawken (henceforth KCH) note that a no coercion policy might – or might not – be preferable to the current prohibition. They warn against undertaking a no coercion experiment, however, because either the experiment would have to be so limited in scope that it would not provide good evidence of what would be wrought by a full-scale legalization, or because a broad experiment might lead to a substantial increase in the number of heavy users, such that the compelled cessation of the experiment would result not in the status quo ante, but in a prohibition with many times the addicted users, and many times the social costs, as we have now with our current drug ban.

There’s an air of futility about the KCH analysis, a feeling that we are more-or-less stuck with drug prohibition, even though it might be a lot worse than feasible alternatives. But all is not futile. There are experiments that can offer evidence on whether some forms of legalization might dominate prohibition, and that do not run serious risks of inciting huge increases in addiction. These might not be “no” coercion experiments, but they are nearly-no-coercion, at least for users.

Even if drug prohibition did not entail so many baleful consequences – half a million prisoners, more than a million and a half arrests annually (mostly for small-scale drug possession), violent black markets – a workable low-coercion drug policy would be desirable, for many reasons. First, you don’t have to be some evil, alien being to be interested in taking drugs. Many reasonable adults want to use the currently illegal drugs, and are willing to pay high prices and run not-insignificant risks to do so. Second, most use of drugs, even under the adverse conditions fostered by prohibition and even for harder drugs, is not particularly detrimental, either personally or socially. Third, people have a strong incentive to avoid or end addictions, which are terribly costly. These three observations suggest that appropriate policy regimes can harness self-interest to do most of the work in controlling drugs, while saving coercive measures for socially harmful elements of drug consumption, and focusing treatment resources on those with the greatest medical needs.

What might a low-risk, low-coercion experiment look like? Sellers would still be licensed and regulated, as they currently are for alcohol or for prescription drugs. The low risk comes from the fact that drugs would not be available for purchase by every adult (unlike alcohol or tobacco). Rather, adults would apply for a license that would allow them to acquire their drug of choice through legal, regulated channels.
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