Drugs: has prohibition had its day?

31 Mar

Most drugs harm their users and some harm the wider community through antisocial behaviour. These reasons are commonly given for outlawing recreational use of many substances. Oddly enough, the two leisure drugs most countries do permit are alcohol, a frequent driver of violent or criminally negligent acts, and tobacco, a proven killer. Their use was so widespread when controls began that prohibiting them would have been dangerous – as America discovered in the twenties – but that hardly lessens the irony.

But does prohibition reduce use, hence adverse consequences, of the drugs it proscribes? And if it does, is the price too high?

Drugs are an emotive issue. On the first question –  regardless of social cost, does prohibition work? – feelings run high and the facts are inconclusive. Neither side has been able to settle the matter one way or the other, or even show a clear balance of probability. It is simplistic to cite a year on year rise in use of cannabis, heroin and amphetamines as proof that prohibition raises (forbidden fruit?) rather than lowers consumption – correlation and causation aren’t the same – but those rises do entitle us to declare the results of a century of prohibition unimpressive.

Even in this milder form, the statement should give democratic societies, one of their hallowed axioms being that adults are free to do as they please so long as they do not harm others, food for thought. With so basic a tenet violated by prohibition, shouldn’t it fall on its advocates to at least show proof of efficacy?

But while the benefits of prohibition remain obscure, its costs are not. They include:

  • failure to distinguish moderate from heavy use
  • confusion of effects intrinsic to a drug with those arising from its prohibition
  • fuelling of drug motivated crime
  • fuelling of organised crime and terrorism

Failure to distinguish moderate from heavy use

Strictly speaking this is not an effect of prohibition but of its attendant messages. Sixties and seventies media depictions of cannabis and LSD use, lurid to the point of self caricature, were met with equally extravagant counter claims: “if everyone turned on, wars would cease and a more caring world arise”.

In the ensuing polarisation, with drugs but one aspect of the gulf between old and young – to be precise, between those who had seen the Depression and WW2, and those who had not – distinctions between moderate and heavy use were lost. Users turned on as frequently as supply permitted; non users feared and despised all and any illegal drug use.

That was the west. Asia was different. In India, priest and policeman alike would unwind over a pipe of  charas. Equally though – and the  hippies trekking east were embarrassingly blind to this social nicety – heavy use was viewed with the same disdain the west reserves for heavy use of alcohol. The “war on drugs” erodes, as wars will, the middle ground.

Confusing effects of drug use with those of prohibition

Tobacco use has vile consequences that have nothing to do with it being legal. Amphetamine use has vile consequences that have nothing to do with it being illegal. With each, those effects include health risks to users and, through passive smoking and speed fuelled paranoias, non users. All flow from intrinsic properties of the drugs as normally consumed. So far so simple.

But prohibition raises the street price of heroin from the few pence per grain we might expect, given the prolific and easy refinable nature of the opium poppy, to levels that ensure users will have costly habits to satisfy. How then should we attribute the social consequences? (Soaring prices have long been seen by drug enforcement agencies as a key success indicator.) Though heroin, like alcohol, can create dependent cells in the body to leave the user needing as much as wanting the drug, that only becomes an intractable social problem when (artificially) high street prices ensure equally high levels of crime.

Prohibition fuels drug motivated crime

There are drug induced crimes, committed under the influence. Usually the culprit is alcohol, from which we might conclude that: (a) alcohol is the most antisocial of drugs; (b) prohibition works;  (c) most people prefer alcohol to other drugs with antisocial potential. We can rule out (a) since amphetamines and barbiturates have even greater nuisance value, while (b) and (c) only take us in a circle. We just don’t know whether prohibition works.

Then there are drug motivated crimes to finance use of a drug, or to sustain a lifestyle in which drug use is pivotal. I attribute drug motivated crime in part to addiction but in greater part, via high prices, to prohibition. Drugs as cheap to produce as heroin but not addictive also fetch high prices. That suggests the equation, need + high price = crime, still holds with ‘need’ replaced  by ‘desire’ . Adjusted further to take account of abnormal market forces, it becomes:  desire + artificially high price = avoidable crime.

Prohibition fuels organised crime and terrorism

One of the less sensational British newspapers, The Independent, in 1999 valued the drugs trade at $3.25 trillion, exceeed by the GDP of only two nations, USA and Japan. For its part a documentary on British television in January 2005 said the trade of only two commodities, oil and arms, has a higher value.

Margins of error in quantifying illegal activities are necessarily wide, but no one doubts this is a multi billion dollar industry. One where:

  • no taxes are paid;
  • other than competition, in a market distorted by illegality, no mechanisms exist for ensuring product quality or safety;
  • ditto for regulating labour conditions.

An industry, moreover, which:

  • Drives internecine violence, money laundering and corruption. On that last, we needn’t be dyed-in-the-wool conspiracy theorists to see it makes sense for the big players to pay handsomely to keep prohibition in place. We cannot even be sure, therefore, that when politicians defend it they do so in good faith.
  • Draws in organised crime. The profits are so huge as to force, rather than merely attract, the entry of mafia entities. Those eschewing so lucrative a trade must lose ground to less fastidious rivals (an important plot driver in The Godfather).
  • Provides terrorism with levels of funding not easily secured any other way.

Principled  Conclusions

There are no easy answers on drugs and it would be great if we stopped pretending otherwise. The good news is that debate is happening, and not just in liberal circles. Some high ranking police officers, citing the drain on resources of a ‘war’ that can’t be won, have joined the critics of prohibition.

The bad news is reluctance on each side to concede an inch. A further product of that erosion of middle ground is the illusion of easy options. Will continuing with prohibition have negative outcomes? Yes. And ending it? Same answer. It takes greater courage, perhaps, than our leaders possess to admit the inevitability of casualties. Defenders of prohibition play to the gallery of a press whose influence outstrips its accountability, while opponents feel obliged to imply that its ending will bring nothing but good.

Should we end prohibition? Partially or all the way? With neither side able to prove whether it raises or lowers the negative consequences of drug taking I see two arguments, already stated, for ending it. The first is the principled one that since prohibition violates individual freedoms the onus is on its defenders to show that it works: something they have not been able to do. But the second, pragmatic argument is the more compelling. The trail from prohibition to organised crime and terror now outweighs every other factor and would do so even if prohibition could be shown to work. No stronger case can be made for ending it than that to do so would remove a central prop of mafia and terrorism.

And the counter arguments? The best are not negligible. Some would read the ending of prohibition as a signal that drugs are safe. All that can be done should be done to counter that perception but it will be difficult to eliminate. Will those seeing a green light outnumber those who lose interest in fruits no longer forbidden? The question is just one more way of asking if prohibition works.

A more specious version of the “wrong message” argument invokes our litigious culture. Jack Straw, while Home Secretary, used it against decriminalising cannabis. What if, he asked, we subsequently found new links with nasty ailments? Wouldn’t government be open to actions from sufferers who’d taken legalisation as a guarantee the drug was safe?

As example of practical challenges posed by ending prohibition, this has to be taken seriously. As principled argument against legalisation it is lightweight and risible.

An even flimsier argument, advanced in the documentary cited earlier, is that costs of quality control, post legalisation, might permit a thriving market for unregulated alternatives. Lets assume (generously) that such controls would double production costs. These would be passed on at the drug store as tax duties. Might that create a black market in unregulated versions? Only if the differentials, less costs of evading the law, were sufficient to attract organised crime. That seems unlikely, given the absence of any serious black markets in alcohol and tobacco.

Perhaps the most compelling argument for prohibition concerns drugs like amphetamines that drive anti social behaviour. This is not to say one way or the other whether illegality reduces the threat. Just that, like it or not, tacking to the winds of opposition and uncertainty is unavoidable. Lifting bans on antisocial drugs just might be a net benefit but it will be hard enough legalising those whose bad effects are confined to users. So on practical rather than principled grounds, benefit of doubt might be given to prohibition on antisocial drugs but this need not be forever. Even part ending of prohibition, not excluding heroin, would yield new data on whether or not it ever worked. Meanwhile, lucrative income streams for terrorism and organised crime would dry up.

Practical Conclusions

Ending prohibition would pose practical challenges beyond the scope of this piece. The first and most formidable is ensuring responsible use. In the UK it took thirty years for people to get the message that drink driving is not only a crime but a serious one. With prohibition gone, a range of activities where inattentiveness, over-excitement or exotic perceptions of reality endanger others would have to be regulated. Unlike drink drivers of the sixties, users of currently banned drugs are accustomed to breaking the law. We should expect acceptance of responsibility to be even slower than with drink drivers. And as with drink drivers, there be those who never will care that their drug use puts others at risk.

Second, governments will impose high levels of taxation because they’ll be easy to justify on grounds of deterrence, as is routinely done with alcohol and tobacco, without the downsides of prohibition. This is fine to a point but over-taxing a product when close neighbours are not doing the same guarantees a black market. That leads to the more pressing concern that effective national responses to the drugs trade are impossible given its global scale. Ending prohibition would have to be an international undertaking. The likelihood of that is remote, a state of affairs highly satisfactory to those who benefit, through personal enrichment or armed fanaticism, from the status quo.

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