Sunday, July 13, 2014

Legalizing Soft Drugs to Fight #OrganizedCrime

Does caffeine lead to cocaine use? Obviously not. But if caffeine were outlawed, a black market would emerge. Drug gangs, which are highly skilled at operating outside of the law and have pre-existing distribution channels, would begin trafficking illegal caffeine pills. If people were forced to use black market distribution chains to obtain a mild stimulant, such as caffeine, they would almost certainly be more likely to opt for a stronger stimulant, such as cocaine.

Either people deal with drug dealers, or they don’t. If they do, the dealers are likely to try to upsell them on other products. Drug dealers are like any other salespeople: They want to obtain the highest profit margin possible. Cocaine sells at a much higher margin than caffeine pills would, even if caffeine were outlawed. Even if most people resisted the dealers’ insistence that cocaine would provide a better experience, some non-drug users would try it; some would even become addicted. Caffeine use would likely decline, while use of cocaine and other illicit drugs would increase.

The above hypothetical is analogous to the prohibition of marijuana. People often refer to marijuana as a gateway drug that leads to people using stronger drugs. Yet there is no intrinsic gateway effect from marijuana. But once you’re buying marijuana on the black market, it isn’t much of a step to purchase psychedelic mushrooms, cocaine or ecstasy. Once you have a dealer, he or she will try to sell you other drugs. Marijuana isn’t a gateway drug; but black market marijuana is.

Legalizing marijuana would seriously impact the bottom line of many criminal enterprises, as it accounts for around half of global drug gang profits. There’s no doubt these gangs would try to make up for this by pushing the drugs that remain illegal. However, legalized marijuana would disrupt the entire black market, since dealers would no longer be able to lure customers in by selling them weed, only to sell them something else later. They would have a much more difficult time engaging customers to begin with. And if dealing becomes unprofitable, gangs will have a hard time finding dealers to buy their wholesale products. While marijuana use would likely increase (though it actually decreased in Portugal after decriminalization), gang profits would decrease and the availability of other drug would go down as well.

One might argue from the above logic that all drugs should be legalized. That would be simplistic. Some drugs may pose such a threat to users and society that the trade-off of allowing gangs to profit off them from selling a small amount is preferable to legalizing them, even if that only means a marginal increase in usage. Drugs such as crystal meth fall into this category. A true harm-reduction approach to drugs would weigh both the costs of drug usage, and the cost of prohibition. Both can be substantial. We need a rational approach to making these calculations.

One way to go about this would be to create three categories of drugs. The first would be milder substances that are somewhat harmful, but are also widely used. Hard liquor, cigarettes and marijuana are substances that would occupy this category. The harm from the substances is less than the destruction resulting from prohibition. These drugs should be restricted to adult use and should carry specific excise taxes. The second category would include drugs that can be very harmful to users, but rarely fatal, and rarely cause significant externalities. The prime example is cocaine. The harm caused by cocaine rarely extends beyond users and their families. These drugs should be decriminalized, so that problem users can seek treatment without fear of legal repercussions.

The third category would include drugs that are extremely harmful to the users and society as a whole, such as crystal meth, and should remain illegal. While the sale of these drugs would continue to line the pockets of drug gangs, the harm from even a modest increase in people using them would be substantial. Gangs will always exist. But strangling their most benign revenue sources would reduce their ability to finance distribution of the worst drugs, as well as other evils, such as human trafficking.

Drug policy is often considered the domain of morality. It shouldn’t be. Issues of personal morality should not be legislated. But when public safety is at stake, it can make sense to crack down on certain drugs. A utilitarian, harm reduction approach to drug policy would be a vast improvement over the reckless, moralistic approach we have now.

Thanks to Steve Lafleur.

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