The Drug Laws Don't Work
Here, I explain some problems with drug prohibition.*
[ *Based on: “The Drug Laws Don’t Work,” The Philosophers’ Magazine, no. 41 (2008): 71-5. ]
(Note: My point is not merely that it “doesn’t work”; that’s just the title that the magazine editor gave to the article, not my title. My point is that prohibition violates rights and does more harm than good.)
Suppose I have a computer, and I’m a really bad computer guardian. I install crappy programs that slow down my machine without doing anything useful. Periodically, I spill Coke on the keyboard, and it has to be replaced. One day, I throw my computer out the window into my back yard, breaking it permanently.
As a result of destroying my computer, I lose my dissertation that I’ve been working on for 5 years. It was a brilliant dissertation, so it is a great loss to the world. Also, I’m very unhappy for the next several months, which in turn makes my family and friends unhappy. So my poor computer stewardship has negative consequences for others as well as myself.
Q: What should be done about this? Perhaps I should be arrested and sent to jail?
No. No one would support that. Why not? Because it was, after all, my computer. I’m allowed to do what I want with it (that doesn’t impinge on others’ rights), even if what I’m doing is destructive.
Now compare another case. You have a body, but you take poor care of it. You often ingest things that have little or no nutritional value and that make your body function worse. You stuff it with potato chips and drugs. This prevents you from finishing your brilliant dissertation, which is a great loss to the world. It also makes your family and friends unhappy. So your poor body-stewardship has negative consequences for others as well as yourself.
What should be done about this? Should you be thrown in jail?
Again, no. It’s your body. If anything, you have even more rights over your body than I have over my computer. You can do what you want with it (that doesn’t impinge on others rights), even if what you’re doing is destructive.
That’s the first argument for legalizing drugs.
2. The Evil of Drugs vs. Drug Laws
I speculate that most people still oppose legalization of most drugs (other than maybe marijuana), because they have negative associations with drug users and the drug trade. Drug users are generally unattractive people, with unattractive lives. The drug trade is tied up with sordid criminal organizations, and surrounded by violence and corruption.
But those things are really more properties of drug prohibition than properties of the drugs themselves. During alcohol prohibition, the alcohol trade was taken over by organized crime and became associated with violence. After legalization, that stopped.
Why? Prohibition means that the product must (by definition) be provided by criminals. It guarantees these criminals that they won’t have to compete with legal businesses. If they did, the legal businesses would outcompete the criminals (being generally better at business). The talent criminal organizations have is talent at evading the law, not business talent. That’s why they flourish when and only when normal businesses (run by law-abiding people) are excluded.
Prohibition means that contracts won’t be enforced by the government, so if you have a dispute with your dealer, customer, or whatever, you have to settle it yourself. That’s why the trade is filled with violence.
Prohibition also means that the prices go way up, which drives people to steal things to get drug money, and it funnels huge profits to criminal organizations.
So the most sordid aspects of illegal drugs are really sordid aspects of the drug laws.
3. In Praise of Defeatism
Defenders of drug prohibition like to say that legalization advocates are “defeatist”, that we’re just giving up in the war on drugs and letting the drugs win, and that we have “no solution” to the drug problem. Two quotes:
“What [legalisation advocates] all have in common is a defeatist mentality that America is losing the war on drugs, and a shared faith that we can somehow win it by surrendering.” —Republican Senator John Kyl
“The easy cynicism that has grown up around the drug issue is no accident. Sowing it has been the deliberate aim of a decades-long campaign by proponents of legalization, critics whose mantra is ‘nothing works’, and whose central insight appears to be that they can avoid having to propose the unmentionable—a world where drugs are ubiquitous and where use and addiction would skyrocket—if they can hide behind the bland management critique that drug control efforts are ‘unworkable’.” —U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy
This is a pretty dumb perspective. Imagine that you’re sick, and you’ve been eating arsenic to cure your illness. I tell you to stop, because arsenic will not help your illness, and it’s poisonous. Imagine responding, “Stop being defeatist! You’re not proposing any solutions, just mindlessly chanting ‘nothing works’! I won’t cure my illness by giving up.”
That is a very dumb attitude, one likely to get you killed. The practically relevant fact is that eating arsenic makes things worse; whether or not I am “defeatist” is completely irrelevant. You should not keep eating arsenic just because I haven’t proposed an alternative cure. You should not keep eating it just so that you won’t be seen as “giving up”. No one (I hope) would make such stupid errors in real life, but somehow in the public policy arena, that’s what we keep doing.
Anyway, most social problems cannot be solved (in the sense of eliminated); they can only be mitigated. Saying this is not being defeatist; it is being a realistic adult. The government does not have the power to eliminate recreational drug use.
Why is there drug use? Basically, because (i) some people have bad lives, (ii) some chemicals make them feel good, or at least less bad, and (iii) if there is a demand for a product, someone will supply it. These are very robust features of our world. None of those things is going to change. The government is not going to bring it about that people don’t like pleasure, or that no unhealthy chemicals cause pleasure, or that no one is willing to supply them in exchange for money, or that everyone who breaks the law can be caught. Since they obviously can’t do any of those things, they cannot solve the drug problem.
So a more rational goal would be harm reduction. Once drugs are legalized, we can get organized crime out of it. The government could even regulate drugs for safety, preventing dealers from, e.g., cutting their drugs with other dangerous substances. And more addicts might be willing to seek help with their drug problem, if they weren’t afraid that revealing their problem might land them in jail.
Compare the experience of Portugal, which saw huge drops in overdoses and HIV infections after decriminalization: https://www.portugal.com/op-ed/portugal-drug-laws-under-decriminalization-are-drugs-legal-in-portugal/
The drug laws are killing people. It really is like eating arsenic because you don’t have a cure that actually works.
For more on the subject: