Confessions of a former drugs prohibitionist


drugsThe drug legalization debate plays on my heartstrings. I’ve witnessed family and friends ruin their lives through drugs. Some have died from overdoses, while ‘luckier’ friends have been imprisoned. I’ve watched perfectly intelligent friends lose their character. Believe me when I say that I know what drugs do – especially to family life and cherished friendships.

Accordingly, my position on drugs was familiar: the Peter Hitchens position. I shall not try to paraphrase him – you can read his arguments here. But to summarize, my previous views were that drugs are bad so they should be illegal. The drug industry should have harsh-sentences imposed on them when caught.

A conversation with a Dutch friend reinforced this. He said that “the reason that drug legalization worked in Holland was because if you take drugs, you’re still seen as an idiot” (or worse). The United Kingdom’s culture just isn’t accustomed to stigma or peer-pressure (as a means of enforcing a common law morality) any more.

Yet this flawed thinking pervades our tax system. The reason for punitive tax rates is not ‘revenue maximization’. Evidence shows that punitive tax-rates are counter-productive (creating tax avoidance, emigration and the like). The motivation for measures such as the 50p tax rate is not economic, but moralistic. And yet this fallacy still informs people who are committed capitalists and free-marketeers. Not even Milton Friedman could entirely convince me. What are the logical effects of criminalization?

The legalization of cannabis in particular has proven controversial. Opponents see a thin-end of the wedge. More people trying drugs going on to harder drugs; legalizing one substance making the criminalization of other substances less tenable. Cannabis is the easiest drug to intercept. But what does stopping cannabis do? It compels people to supply and demand harder drugs.

Cannabis suppliers are incentivized to grow more potent marijuana. Cheaper, harder drugs will experience demand booms. The first time I was offered drugs was outside of my school's gates by a drug-dealer offering me cheap cocaine. And there are incentives for even more dangerous innovations. As Friedman says: “Crack cocaine would never have been invented… if cocaine had not been so expensive”. I would echo this argument for crystal meth. With harder drugs and the information failure involved in an illegal market, what guarantees of quality are there?

The foremost effect of criminalizing drugs is to protect the criminal gangs that traffic them. The barriers to entry in the drugs market are high and infinitely risky, whilst policing protects the price of their produce. Gang culture would not be financially viable if artificially inflated prices didn’t protect their profits. Prohibition Era USA banned alcohol, yet easy access remained. When alcohol is consumed in large quantities, people do stupid, unattractive things that we may disapprove of. But is that better or worse than keeping Al Capone in business?

Gang culture disproportionately affects and criminalizes the inhabitants of high-density populations in inner cities. By keeping prices artificially high combined with finite incomes funding an infinite desire to acquire drugs, governments are indirectly causing more crimes to be committed. Again, Friedman calculates that 10,000 additional people were killed in the USA through drug-related homicides and gang-warfare. Is it not a moral problem that government intervention over personal-choices is essentially killing thousands of innocent people?

A reasonable concern remaining is the potential increase in people either trying or becoming addicted to drugs. Rachel has already pointed out that addicts are dealt with by police officers and judges rather than health and rehabilitation services. But I think there’s a wider philosophical point: Addicts make their own individual choices. It is their choice to seek help or reap the consequences of drug-addiction. Why, at everyone else’s expense, should addicts be protected from their own selfishness?

If, as prevailing opinion dictates, over one’s own body the individual is sovereign, then criminalizing a drug addict over a personal choice that doesn’t affect anyone else is immoral and paternalistic. Moreover, why should taxpayers guarantee the costs of intervening in something that they’re not responsible for? Encouraging drug-addicted parasitism, leeching off of the taxpayer is at least as immoral as when the welfare state actively encourages long-term unemployment. Prohibition is at the root of many social evils: we should start looking at the trees to see the forest for what it is.