“Ban Mephedrone!” urge cocaine and ecstasy dealers

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Realising the danger that ‘legal highs’ pose to their core market of young night-clubbers, cocaine and ecstasy dealers mobilised every lawyer and lobbyist at their disposal to ensure that their rivals’ products are outlawed as quickly as possible.

Although this is clearly far-fetched, the principles are very sound. If these people actually had lawyers and lobbyists, they certainly would have done this. As Levitt and Dubner controversially wrote in ‘Superfreakonomics’, if prostitutes had had access to an organised lobbying apparatus, they certainly would have pushed for those who have sex for free to be outlawed, or at least regulated out of the market, in order to ensure that more people keep paying for it. Why would it be any different for drug dealers?

As Milton Friedman noted, the chief economic effect of American and British drug prohibition is ‘to protect the drug cartel’. Prohibition works wonders for those with the most resources to evade the law. Those who can grow coca leaves on vast swathes of Columbian jungle before processing it in underground factories and shipping the finished product to our shores by airplane or submarine. These are the same people who can afford to buy-off the police, or bomb those who can’t be bought. By criminalising drugs, smaller domestic producers are driven out of the marketplace, and only the big players can afford to survive – in economics speak, the barriers to entry are prohibitive, and new competitors can’t emerge. As Friedman said, “What more could a monopolist want?”

Banning legal highs will likely have the desired effect – people will stop using them, or at least use them less frequently. But does anyone really believe that people will not find other ways to get high, or use more dangerous drugs instead? Banning these legal highs is playing straight into the hands of those the law is aimed to attack.