Cutting away the failure of drugs policy


For markets to work efficiently, product information needs to be transmitted between the producer and consumer: competition and regulations mean few businesses could survive while keeping consumers ignorant of their product.. However, prohibition creates black markets, where reliable information is hard to come by. In the market for illicit drugs this is a highly dangerous problem: lack of information about the quality and composition of substances is potentially lethal.

It was therefore interesting to read CUT, a publication by Liverpool John Moores University that looks at the adulterants and bulking agents found within street drugs. Contrary to public perception, dealers don’t cut their wares with copious amounts of rat poison and brick dust, as they have little incentive to bump off their clients. A large number of adulterants are in fact relatively harmless substances such as sugar, caffeine and paracetamol. Nevertheless, the report also found examples of some rather more dangerous contaminants, such as lead within heroin samples and cannabis laced with glass. It also found chemicals such as pesticide and vetinary medicine added to certain drugs to intensify or prolong their effect. However, the report is far from conclusive as it is unable to suggest the percentage of drugs that are adulterated, or even the concentration of contaminants found in existing samples.

The main problem is that street drugs are rarely analyzed for anything other than to assure criminal convictions. Supplied underground, illegal drugs are free from all quality assurances and proper scrutiny, so users are kept in the dark on the risks they are facing. This is just one of the many reasons why policymakers should recognize that the war on drugs has been an utter failure. The market for recreational drugs should be legalized and regulated, bringing £6 billion of activity into a system of proper control. With detailed information easily at hand and stringent quality controls, people would be able to take educated decisions with full responsibility for the consequences.