Drug legalisation

On its website the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the U.S. federal drug police, encourages people to ask the following questions to anyone doubting the wisdom of current U.S. drug policies. I find it somewhat dubious when an organisation in charge of enforcing laws tries to dictate to the citizens of their countries what these laws should look like. Just like the drug dealers the DEA has a financial stake in maintaining drug prohibition and is therefore hardly the most unbiased source of advice.

We should remember that before 1914 all drugs were "legal" in the U.S. In fact, from 1920 to 1933 alcohol was prohibited under federal law but marijuana was not. What happened with all other now illegal drugs was that they were more or less lumped in with opium and its derivatives, which is why some people still talk of 'narcotics' when they mean any kind of illegal drug. Opium prohibition was no particular success. It's main effect was that smoked opium was soon replaced by more concentrated morphine and finally injected heroin. Despite the worsening problems, this approach was applied to every other drug later made illegal, including cannabis hemp. As they say: When all you've got is a hammer, every problem starts to look like a nail...

Drug prohibition has failed, just like alcohol prohibition before it. Just like with alcohol prohibition, it has enriched criminal gangs, indefinitely requires a huge army of law enforcement officers to sustain and civil rights to be suspended or abandoned and yet does little to reduce use or abuse.

In many ways it makes the consequences of drug use or abuse much more harmful than they would be without prohibition, such as when more easily smuggled more concentrated and harder drugs replace softer but more bulky drugs, or when needles are banned as "drug paraphernalia" and hence shared needles spread HIV amongst thousands of addicts and their sexual partners. It's time to try something better.

DEA question #1:
Should all drugs be legalized?

Not all drugs should be legalised at the same time or under the same regulatory regime. It makes sense to legalise soft drugs first, such as cannabis and maybe MDMA. Other drugs should be studied on a case by case basis. Maybe it makes sense to legalise cocaine but not crack. Maybe heroin should be available under medical supervision to confirmed long term addicts only. Maybe PCP should remain prohibited. There is no reason why the same rule should apply to all drugs but whatever method of control is chosen for a particular drug should be based on a rational foundation, not on hysteria and propaganda.

DEA question #2:
Who will determine which segments of the population will have access to legalized drugs?

First we have to consider that all those drugs are already available to anyone who has money, regardless of their health, social situation, mental condition or age. As long as there are black markets, Prohibition will be ineffective and there will be black markets as long as there is a demand for drugs. What we should therefore do is not to try to make these drugs completely unavailable (which is an unrealistic target in a free society) but to regulate their distribution in such a way that is appropriate to the particular risks associated with each drug. For some drugs it makes sense to make them available to all adults, just like the drugs alcohol and nicotine. For other drugs we should conduct trials to determine the most successful approach to replace outright (but unenforceable) prohibtion.

DEA question #3:
Will they be limited only to people over eighteen?

Yes. Young people are not in a position to make that choice for themselves. We should remember that under the current system of drug prohibition probably more young people know where to find illegal drugs than their parents. The current system not only does not protect minors, it even encourages sales from minors and to minors, who after all can not be undercover police officers.

DEA question #4:
Will cocaine, heroin, LSD and PCP be made available if people request them?

That is the same as the first question.

DEA question #5:
Who will sell drugs?
The government? Private companies?

Some drugs could be available under the same controls as alcohol, which could vary state by state or county by county. Others might be available in pharmacies or could be dispensed by doctors in clinics. For cannabis the Dutch coffee shop model has proven very successful at separating sales of soft drugs and hard drugs.

DEA question #6:
And who is liable for damages caused by drug use and the activities of those taking drugs?

The drug users, just like now. If somebody commits a crime while under the influence of alcohol or any other drug that should not be treated as an excuse for lenient sentencing. However, when addictive drugs such as heroin are only available at black market prices those addicted to them will often turn to crime or prostitution to pay those inflated prices. Crime was drastically reduced in the Swiss heroin trial.

DEA question #7:
Who will collect the revenues generated by the drug sales?

The same tax offices that collect liquour tax, sales tax or income tax. Dutch coffee shops raise millions of guilders in sales and income tax every year. During alcohol prohibition the US lost hundreds of millions of dollars in alcohol revenue that went uncollected because the alcohol was sold untaxed on the black market.

DEA question #8:
How will a black market for
cheaper drugs be controlled?

Under prohibition, manufacturing costs of street drugs are a fraction of their retail value. From coca paste in Colombia to crack in a U.S. city the markup could be 30,000%. This is a powerful incentive to break the law. If these drugs were legal the markup would be no different than for Colombian coffee or American tobacco and there would be no more financial incentive to break the law than there is with alcohol. After the end of alcohol prohibition moonshine liquor quickly disappeared from the market.

DEA question #9:
Who will bear the costs to society of increased drug use?

The U.S. currently spends about $20 billion per year in federal money alone on drugs policy, almost all of it on law enforcement. Including the state and local enforcement costs the bill comes to about $40 billion. In addition, a large part of the $60 billion a year that US consumers spend on illegal drugs could be taxes on legalised drugs. Now the country does not make a single cent on drugs taxes (other than for liquor and cigarette taxes). That leaves in the order of $50 billion per year that legalisation would have to increase costs before society would loose out. A study by RAND corporation found that $1 spent on treatment is as effective as $6 spent on interdiction.

There exists not a single scientific study by the U.S. government that predicts an increase in drug abuse from regulation instead of prohibition. Chances are, whith drugs being widely available and the health risks of abuse already well known that most potential users of currently illegal drugs are already using them. In cases where they are not, they are probably using legal drugs such as alcohol and nicotine instead. If an increase in use of marihuana is accompanied by a reduction in alcohol use, who is to say the bottom line is not going to be positive? The point is, no one knows because no one has ever studied the question scientifically. However, in the Netherlands where marijuana sales are tolerated only about 3% of the population smoke the drug. In the U.S., where in states such as Oklahoma a single joint can put you behind bars for life, the equivalent figure is 5%.

DEA question #10:
How will absenteeism and loss of productivity be addressed by business?

The same way as with alcohol. As long as people keep use of drugs (including alcohol) and their working lives separate there is no problem as far as employers are concerned. In the US the percentage of users of illegal drugs who hold a job is actually higher than the population average. Most drug users are not daily users and use drugs which are less intoxicating than alcohol.

It is also interesting that the Netherlands, where sales of marijuana to adults have been tolerated for the last 26 years, are rated as having the highest productivity in Europe. It's economy is considered on of the three most productive economies in the world!

DEA question #11:
Will the local drug situation in a community dictate which drugs are sold where?

Initially, federal laws could be ammended to allow states to set their own drugs policies. However, even current laws are unable to control "which drugs are sold where". Maybe the DEA can name one U.S. city that is free from crack or heroin, let alone marijuana.

DEA question #12:
How will society care for and pay for the attendant social costs of increased drug use, including family disintegration and child neglect?

This is largely the same as the question on the "costs of increased drug use". The salaries of numerous DEA special agents and the construction costs of hundreds of new prisons would go a long way towards helping educate people on the dangers of drug abuse, offering treatment to all who need it and amelioration some of the ill effects. Currently there are not even enough treatment facilities for existing drug abusers who want to kick the habit, because the money is spent on cops and jails instead. We can not arrest ourselves out of this problem. Current drug policies only ensure that drug problems are perpetuated, not addressed.

DEA question #13:
Will people still need prescriptions for currently controlled medications, such as antibiotics, if drugs are legalized?

Yes. No pharmacist will be allowed to sell them prescription medicine without a prescription. All we would be doing is instead of outright prohibition of certain substances we would treat them like the legal drug alcohol, or in other cases, like prescription medicines.

DEA question #14:
Will legal drugs require prescriptions?

The ones that will be prescription medicines, yes. The others, like alcoholic beverages or tobacco products, no.

DEA question #15:
Can anyone, regardless of physical or medical conditions purchase drugs?

In case the DEA hasn't noticed, anyone already can, provided they have the cash. Illegal drugs are so profitable that sales channels have spread everywhere. It makes more sense to replace this uncontrolled black market with a regulated legal market governed by licenses and supervised by the state.

Some drugs could be dispenses the the same way as for alcohol or tobacco products, except that we should ban or severly restrict drug advertising. For other drugs the conditions could be more restrictive.

DEA question #16:
How will we deal with the influx of people to the United States who will seek legal drugs?

There used to be a time when the US took pride in being a haven of freedom for the oppressed of the old world. No longer so. Now the US takes pride on "zero tolerance", which is just another word for intolerance.

U.S. drugs policies are amongst the most restrictive in the world. Without U.S. dominance over U.N. drugs far more countries would have chosen alternative policies already. The Netherlands, Australia, Switzerland, Spain, Italy and Germany have all liberalised drug policies to some extent and would have done so more had they not been coerced to follow the US example.

DEA question #17:
Can we begin a legalization pilot program in your neighborhood for one year?

Sure! When are you going to start?

DEA question #18:
Should the distribution outlets be located in the already overburdened inner city?

Inner cities currently are the places that suffer most from the gang warfare over lucrative drug deals. Legalising drug sales would deprive gangs of their most important source of revenues over night. Rich and powerful drug dealers would no longer be role models for youngsters in the ghettos. The drug-using population would no longer be as alienated from law enforcement as it is now. Expensive prison cells would be freed up for violent criminals instead of non-violent drug offenders. Nobody is likely to benefit more from an end to drug prohibition than people living in the ghettos of the cities.

Drug reformers are not afraid to debate these issues. What we must recognise is that there is no single solution that is perfect, only a combination of policies that are subject to change in an attempt to reduce overall harm associated with drug abuse.

Any comments welcome.

Joe Wein

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