Saturday, February 18, 2006

Towards a Rational Drugs Policy   posted by DavidB @ 2/18/2006 08:07:00 PM

This post is intended to provoke discussion on the aims of (recreational) drugs policy and law.

As this is largely a political issue, I will put it below the fold for those who are interested.

I will start by proposing a few general principles.

1. First, I take the general pro-liberty position that sane adults should be free to do what they like, provided it does not harm others. We rightly allow people to climb mountains, to play rugby, or to have unprotected sex with strangers, even though these activities can prove fatal. Any exception to this general presumption needs to be justified.

2. In deciding whether to prohibit any activity, its benefits as well as its detriments need to be considered. In the case of drugs, the benefits are mainly in the form of personal pleasure to the users. These benefits tend to be ignored or undervalued in public debate, because most religions, philosophies, and political ideologies have a strong bias against personal pleasure.

3. In considering the merits of legislation, all of its effects need to be taken into account. One effect of prohibiting popular activities (drugs, alcohol, gambling, prostitution, etc.) is that organised crime will arise to meet the demand, with consequential effects on police corruption and so on.

4. Restrictions of liberty should not be greater than is strictly necessary to prevent harm.

From these principles I draw the conclusion that the use of drugs by sane adults should in general be permitted. It does not follow, at least not directly, that the supply of drugs should be permitted. It would be logically consistent to argue that individuals should be permitted to harm themselves by taking drugs, but that those who supply drugs are harming others and should be prevented from doing so. However, if individuals have the right to use drugs, then they must have the right to grow or manufacture drugs for their own use. We could imagine people buying part-shares in Columbian coca plantations or Afghan poppy fields. Cocaine can also be synthesised from inorganic chemicals, though at present it is cheaper to use coca. Amphetamines and various other synthetic drugs can be manufactured with a modest amount of equipment. And if personal manufacture is allowed, there can hardly be any objection of principle to the commercial supply of drugs as a safer and more efficient alternative. However, it would still be consistent with the general principle of liberty that the drugs trade should be tightly regulated.

There could of course be exceptions to the general presumption of liberty. First, there could be some drugs that are so dangerous that no sane adult, if fully informed of the dangers, would risk taking them. It is a matter for debate whether any drugs in fact come into this category. Unfortunately discussion of drugs tends to be inaccurate in one direction or the other: anti-drug campaigners exaggerate the dangers (e.g. the myth that a single rock of crack is infallibly addictive), while pro-druggies play down the dangers. It is also important to distinguish between the intrinsic effects of drugs and the by-products of their present illegal status. Much of the harm caused by heroin, for example, is due to the unpredictable strength and purity of drugs on the street, and to the use of unhygienic needles.

The second possible exception is where a drug causes its users, with high probability, to do harm to others. It is notorious, for example, that crack addicts often steal to pay for their habit. However, it follows from Principle 4 that a prohibition of drugs is unlikely to be justified solely on this ground. If people commit theft or other crimes as a result of drug use, it is fairer to punish them for these crimes rather than for using drugs, which would involve punishing people who may never commit such crimes at all.

If it is accepted that in principle the use and sale of drugs should be permitted, subject to regulation, it remains to consider the form of regulation. Practical issues as well as principles need to be addressed. Control of drugs is notoriously difficult, for two main reasons. First, the supply and use of drugs is a 'victimless crime', so there are no 'victims' to make complaints or voluntarily give evidence. In order to obtain evidence, police and other authorities commonly use questionable methods such as entrapment, covert surveillance, arbitrary searches, and oppressive interrogation (e.g. threatening users with prison if they do not give evidence against dealers). Second, the market value of drugs is very high in relation to their bulk and the cost of production. It is therefore easy to conceal and smuggle drugs, and the profit margins are very high. In an attempt to offset these advantages, legislators have enacted draconian penalties for drug smuggling and dealing, but there is an unlimited supply of low-level 'mules' and dealers who can be tempted or coerced into risking the penalties. In consequence, drugs are still easily available despite repressive anti-drug policies, but at a great cost to civil liberties. Almost everyone who has seriously studied drugs policies agrees that the punitive approach is a failure, yet there is a strange lack of wider public debate on the subject. Presumably politicians are afraid of the reactions of the 'respectable' majority, i.e. those who use only alcohol, tobacco, and prescription drugs.

My own suggestions for a more rational policy would be as follows:

1. Sale of drugs to minors should be prohibited and subject to deterrent penalties. Some of the resources presently devoted to ineffective attempts to control the drugs trade in general could be use for a more focused attack on sale to minors.

2. The manufacture and sale of drugs should require a licence and appropriate supervision.

3. Drugs should be sold with health warnings and accurate health information. For example, in the case of Ecstasy, there should be warnings against both dehydration and over-hydration. Deaths can be caused by drinking too much water to offset the risk of dehydration. The most notorious of all Ecstasy-related deaths in Britain, that of the schoolgirl Leah Betts, was due to this.

4. The manufacture and sale of drugs should be taxed at an appropriate rate. (If the tax is too heavy, a black market will emerge.) The tax should be graduated in relation to the danger and addictiveness of the drugs. The profit margin should be higher on safer and less addictive varieties, while the post-tax price to the consumer should be disproportionately high on the more harmful drugs. In this way there would be a financial incentive for both suppliers and users to choose less harmful options.

5. The tax revenue should be used in part for research and treatment of drug-related problems.

6. Drug manufacturers should be required to fund research into producing safer and less addictive drugs. This could be an important outcome of a rational drugs policy. At present there is no mechanism for making drugs safer. The aim of drugs policy should be to help relatively 'good' drugs drive out 'bad' drugs.

7. Drug users should be subject to registration and monitoring of usage.

8. Special provisions should be made for users identified as addicts. The best approach would be to provide them with a controlled amount of drugs at a relatively cheap rate (to discourage them from committing crimes to pay for their habit). This was essentially the approach taken to heroin addiction in Britain before the 1970s. Addicts were provided with heroin on prescription in amounts sufficient to keep their habit under control. This approach was more humane and effective than the more punitive measures subsequently adopted. Addicts who wish to break their habit can also be given rehabilitation options, paid for out of the tax on drugs.

These are just a few suggestions, intended to stimulate debate. The knee-jerk response of many people towards any proposal to liberalise drug laws is a mantra of 'drugs are evil, they must be stopped.' It would be easier to sympathise with the anti-drugs lobby if punitive policies had been effective in reducing drug use. This is manifestly not the case. The Western world is awash with drugs. Anyone who wants drugs can get them easily and cheaply. The only response of orthodox anti-drug policy is to impose ever more savage sentences on drug smugglers and dealers. (In Britain, they commonly get longer sentences than rapists or people who commit brutal assaults.) This is not only ineffective but unjust. It is also a source of social disaffection, as drug use and dealing tends to be disproportionately concentrated in some social groups (ethnic minorities and lower-class whites).

The effects of liberalising drugs laws would need to be monitored and reviewed. My guess is that measures of the kind I have proposed would in the short term produce a modest increase in drug use (assuming that prices were set at around the current market levels). Some people who currently do not take drugs would be encouraged to try them, and some would become addicted. But in the longer term there should be beneficial effects as the tax system would encourage the substitution of safer and less addictive varieties. And of course if the measures work as planned there should be a great reduction in drug-related crime.

It is worth noting that in the 19th century, and up to the 1920s in some places, opiates and cocaine were legally available. Cocaine was widely used not only in powder form but as an ingredient in drinks, including the original Coca-Cola (this is not an urban myth). Prominent coke-heads included Queen Victoria, who was very partial to cocaine-based tonic wine. The easy availability of drugs did produce some addiction, but it was far less widespread than it is now. Pressure for punitive measures arose as part of the Temperance movement which also led (in the US) to prohibition of alcohol. It was eventually recognised that Prohibition was a disaster, but recognition of the disaster of the drug laws has been slower and less widespread.

I should say, finally, that I have no personal stake in the matter. I do not take illegal drugs, and never have done. I was once offered a line of (alleged) cocaine, but politely declined, on the grounds that for all I knew it might be drain cleaner, and I certainly wouldn't want that up my nose.