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February 27, 2006

Why I oppose complete legalization

Last week I briefly declared that I part company with Libertarians on the War on Drugs.

I've heard from some folks. Most were civil. But a few impugned my knowledge, a few my intelligence, and one my ancestry. So I now offer an explanation.

Note that I don't necessarily defend every aspect of our current policy. The current degree of federal involvement in regulating drugs should perhaps be changed at the margin; I don't have strong feelings about that dispute.

What I disagree with is what I take to be the Libertarian position: for adults, everything should be legal. (Or as comedian Drew Carey has cracked, "I can't believe the government has the nerve to limit the ways I can hurt myself.") Here's David Boaz and Timothy Lynch of Cato in a recent publication:

Congress should repeal the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, shut down the Drug Enforcement Administration, and let the states set their own policies with regard to currently illegal drugs. They would do well to treat marijuana, cocaine, and heroin the way most states now treat alcohol: It should be legal for stores to sell such drugs to adults.

I assume that if they want heroin to be legal, they would want all drugs to be legal.

I oppose that, at least for now, because I'm a conservative. I take three of the central premises of conservatism to be 1) respect for history's lessons, 2) respect for institutions, and 3) respect for the power of markets. And at present, all three lead me to doubt that full legalization would be smart.

1. History. In the 1800s morphine, opium, and cocaine were all legal in the U.S. But in the early 1900s state governments and the federal government regulated these drugs. Now I well understand that not all laws are good laws. One reason is that special interests can work against the general interest. For all I know, the federal law may have been strongly backed by the liquor industry. Another reason is that some laws are passed in response to majorities who have temporarily lost their minds. Wikipedia claims that the state laws were the result of raw racism.

Nevertheless, the laws were passed, consumption of those drugs declined--did the laws cause the decline? I don't know--and as far as I can tell, the laws remained in force, and were not seriously opposed for at least half a century. That fact merits a lot of study.

And there are at least two more recent incidents to study. In 1975 the Alaska Supreme Court effectively decriminalized marijuana usage for individuals age 19 or older. But in 1990 Alaskans voted to recriminalize marijuana. Switzerland experimented with "Needle Park," an area in which people could use heroin without interference. But Swiss authorities closed Needle Park in 1992.

2. Institutions. If we consider the most industrialized countries in the world, the 30 OECD countries, say, we find a wide array of social arrangements. Whether we look at welfare, child-rearing, prostitution, education, marriage, or abortion, practices and institutions vary quite a lot. Some of those countries have more liberal drug policies than ours. But none, so far as I can tell, have a policy that even approaches full legalization. Why? If it's such a good idea, why hasn't even one of our peer countries adopted it? Note that even if several did, I wouldn't necessarily consider that a good reason for us to do it. But I think the utter absence of the policy elsewhere should be carefully considered.

3. The market. Two of the big purported advantages of legalization derive from the market. With the market providing fully legal drugs, drug prices will fall significantly but their safety will increase. So junkies would supposedly commit far fewer crimes to support their habits and fewer users would get sick or die from tainted drugs. Fine.

But I'm puzzled why legalization supporters don't follow the implications of market competition to their logical conclusion. Competing firms would have a huge incentive to make now-legal opiates and hallucinogens better. (Even a government-regulated monopoly would have this incentive, albeit probably less strongly.) So I wonder what happens when Pfizer introduces Phocaine, a form of cocaine that is five times more physically addictive than current cocaine and gets the user five times higher. And what happens when Bristol Myers Squibb retaliates by marketing Squibborin, a form of heroin that is ten times as physically addicting as current heroin and prolongs the high ten times as long?

I can envision at least two consequences. First, all the carefully constructed estimates of drug demand--estimates that legalization advocates use to argue that we could put all the new addicts in rehab with the savings from ending the War on Drugs--become suspect. Given a little time, we could well have far more addicts than currently projected. Second, an important part of civil society--solving the big Prisoner's Dilemma of living in groups--will be threatened. If everybody else in the group works and is productive, I probably can get away with not working: the group may grumble a little, but in the end, it may well view supporting me as less costly than shunning or punishing me. (I am quite charming, after all.) But if everybody thought this way, nobody would work, and the group would be in big trouble. Human societies have constructed powerful social norms and apply significant pressure to induce individuals to work and contribute to the social good.

But utterly addicted and totally blissed-out individuals don't respond to such pressures. And if there are enough of them, the group is in big trouble. Steven Levitt quotes James Q. Wilson (p. 543): "tobacco shortens one’s life, cocaine debases it. Nicotine alters one’s habits, cocaine alters one’s soul. The heavy use of crack, unlike the heavy use of tobacco, corrodes those natural sentiments of sympathy and duty that constitute our human nature and make possible our social life”.

I wasn't able to locate a copy on the Web of Wilson's famous 1990 Commentary piece from which that quote was taken, but here is Wilson's more recent argument against full legalization.

There are perhaps other things to consider. What about the Becker/Murphy idea of legalizing but taxing the hell out of drugs? I don't think that would work as intended, either, but even if it did, I can't see how that would appeal at all to Libertarians, the focus of this little essay. What about decrminalizing just pot? What about throttling back all the martial language and imagery? Et cetera.

But I have a day job and this is enough for now.


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Dave S

Taking your logic in a different direction, what if Pfizer introduces a version of cocaine that is 10 times as awesome, 0 times as addictive and has a minty-fresh aftertaste? A little competition might make these things safer.


I would imagine restrictions on certain items in part on the expected damage to third parties. For instance, with guns - one might support the right of the public to be armed but draw the line at people having the right to own a tactical nuke or a stockpile of surface to air missiles. Drugs may be a similar case - if a person is using valium or marijuana, the probability of them causing damage to their neighbors as a result, and the degree of such damage, is probably rather small and could be rectified after the fact. However, if a person is using PCP, they may be more likely to attack the niehgbors' kids with a machete, which isn't easily rectified after the fact.


I have more information on "Needle Park" in Zurich.

In the early nineties, Zurich set aside a city park for drug users where they would not enforce the drug laws. Drug dealers set up booths in the park. And the city provided free food and needles to anyone in the park.

The drug prices fell to 50% of their past levels just as many people thought they would. Drug addicts from all over the world poured into Zurich.

But then came the surprises:
1. Crime around the park was very high as the addicts still had to steal to support their habit even though the price of drugs had fallen.
2. Drug dosage increased as the price of drugs was a limiting factor in dosage before.

Then addicts started dying of overdose or starvation. Health workers would sweep through the park every morning and find one or two bodies. This went on for some months.

The Zurich officials decided a civilized society cannot assist these young people in killing themselves with drugs. They abandoned the whole experiment and started enforcing drug laws again.


Alcohol kills its thousands every year, as well as those killed by drinking drivers. We have learned to adjust. Some drugs might have effects that would make them worth banning. PCP springs to mind. However, all too frequently, the 'new' drugs are almost always a response to the increasing price of the previously perferred drug. When morphine was outlawed for non-medical use, heroin was devised to help 'wean' people from their morphine addiction. Look where that led. Crack was a response to elevating prices for powder cocaine.

People are going to seek to alter their mind state by ingestion of drugs. It's been going on forever. (My current drug of choice is caffeine, provided by waaaaay too much coffee every day.) It is not going to stop, absent a change in humans in that which drives it, and it is almost certainly both a biological and a psychological drive.

What can change is how *we* (society) react to the drive. Just about every culture outside of the really, really crazy Marxists allows or overlooks the use of some low-level mind-altering addictive substance. It would behoove us to consider this a bit more rationally.

I appreciate Craig's little c conservative approach (very Burkean -- a good approach quite often), but I feel that the Unintended Consequences of the Drug Laws outweigh the possible benefits of a much-changed approach to ordering the usage of drugs.

Of course, one problem with heroin addicts, especially, is that they are wildly unable to hold anything like what most of us would think of as a regular job. They are unlikely to worry about their health, either. Pushed to the limit, I suppose I would say that addicts who manage to kill themselves should be let to do so in peace. It's not like they usually expire at the wheel of a car doing 70MPH.

Kyle N

Actually Jorg, if Heroin addicts can get a steady supply at a known dosage they can get along rather well. My view is that we should definitly change our drug laws. I know decriminalization of "hard" drugs is not politicaly viable, I also think the "needlepark" thing was a stupid way to try to do it. However, I can find nothing at all defensible in criminalization of Marijuana to adults. And if someone is already an addict to other drugs, they should be able to get a dosage without any fear of jail if they seek help.
One thing overlooked is the factor of substitution. As any good economist can tell you most goods have substitutes. How many people who get in a fight, or drive a car or commit other mayhem under the influence of alcohol. might just chill out and get the munchies if they were high on pot?

Trent McBride

Well, this falls far short of a persuasive argument:

1. History - again I'll persuade you to sheck out Jeff Miron's work on the subject. History has shown us that both alcohol and drug prohibition directly caused violence. This is the number one argument against drug prohibition - and you totaly ignored it.

2. Institutions - this is the best leg of your argument. However, like you say, may mean little. All industrialized countries provide government funded health care, but you don't think it's a good idea. Everyone else has a minimum wage, too (so what?). Anyway, like you respect institutions, I respect individuals, and there is something unsettling about prohiiting something a decent number people don't have a moral problem with - and you can't expect success when you tried to legislate people's behavior . I'll hit you where it hurts: drug prohibition is policy bsaed on the unconstrained vision that government can coerciely change people's behavior without greater costs.

3. The market - your scenarios involve some pharmacologic fallacies I won't much get into here (along the lines of: cocaine and heroin are more or less pure chemicals; the only way to make them more addictive is to take more of them). I suppose you could argue this with alcohol, but A) you can't get more than 100% alcohol, and B) few people like pure grain alcohol.

There are more problems with your argument, and some good ones for my side that you fail to address at all.

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