The Drug Legalization Quandry
31 October 1999
Not a day goes by without some news related to the illegal drug trade.
5 year old is killed while playing outside his apartment building by a stray bullet from a gang dispute over territory for their drug businesses. Andean guerrillas kidnap hikers near drug growing region.
Why is there a "war on drugs"? Why are drugs illegal? What are the alternatives?
First let's look at the drug business and examine what aspects of it have a negative effect on society.
We can fairly divide the business into four major pieces:
There may be finer pieces or multiple steps, such as part of production near where the base is grown, transportation to another place,possibly in another country, where more production is done. Those aspects bear little impact on the points of this discussion.
Described thusly it's like the business of many products we're familiar with, such as canned corn, a polyester shirt, cigarettes, and alcohol. So why does the drug business have such an adverse affect? The real questions should be what effects does the drug business have on society, why does it have these effects, and are they really adverse affects. A very important distinction to make is the difference between the effects of the business and the effects of the product. The effects of the product only pertain to the consumption piece.
We'll look at these questions for each of the pieces of the business.
The agricultural aspect of the piece is similar to most other crops. There is nothing inherently negative in this.
On a non-agricultural level there are two negative effects on society. One is that forced labor is frequently used. Because the business is illegal the profit is high (we'll look at that more thoroughly later). To make the profit even higher workers are minimally compensated. They are often motivated to remain under such conditions by implied or direct threat to them or their families.
The other negative effect is that the person or organization who controls the agriculture is highly protective of the crop and operation (due again to the profit) and may go to great lengths, all the way to financing guerilla insurections, just to stay in business.
The three effects that this piece has on society is the possible use of forced labor, the lack of safety precautions that may be appropriate, and the extreme protectiveness of these operations. As with the Growing piece, these are the result of trying to keep costs to a minimum, thereby maximizing profit, and of staying in business when the governments are trying shut them down.
Besides the potential use of forced labor and the extreme protectiveness of the distribution operation, the most widely experienced affect this piece has on society is in the nature of the competition. The competition in generally violent and routinely this violence victimizes people who have no association with the business. They were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Much of the gang problem society is experiencing is fueled by its association with the drug business. Many gangs derive their income by being part of the drug distribution. Profit from this is generally responsible for the larger than life appearance, which appeals to many youngsters of meager (and not so meager) means.
The problems noted in this piece of the drug business are "that drugs are bad for you" (we'll address this at greater length later), some drugs are addictive, drug use can affect work performance, drug use can affect personal relations and responsibilities, drugs sometimes cause direct health issues due to poor production, some drugs cause the user to lose so much touch with reality that he or she commits other crimes without comprehension or even knowledge of the wrong done, and some users commit crimes as a means of financing their drug purchases.
The Profit Factor
A great many of the problems caused by the growing, production/synthesis, and distribution phases of the drug business are directly associated with profit. The purpose of any business is to derive profit. However, legal businesses in the free world operate in the realm of governed free enterprise. In this realm, competition flourishes making the profit a combination of consumer demand and consumer opportunity to purchase elsewhere. This tends to keep profits from skyrocketing, because wherever a business is making a high profit, there is room for another business satisfied with less profit to move in and lure customers with lower prices. Monopolies, price-fixing, use of threat or force to eliminate competition, and other non-free enterprise practices are addressed by the laws. Employees are likewise protected from abuses by the law. With so much of the business in the open, the risk of getting caught doing illegal activities is less worth the risk for the profit possible.
However, a business dealing with an illegal product is already outside of the law. At this point the notions of fair play and free enterprise go out with the trash. With monopolistic control of the business, prices aren't a result of competition, but are set as high as people will still pay. Profits sky-rocket. And to increase profits many other practices, such as forced labor and bribing officials, are followed.
Why don't the businesses (not the product) of canned corn, polyester shirts, cigarettes, and alcohol have such adverse effects on society? A legal business has a harder time concealing illegal practices, and in free-enterprise the profits aren't as great, making the incentive to perform illegal activities less worth the risk.
Here's a synopsis of the effects of the illegal drug trade:
I think that the only effect that doesn't arguably have a negative effect on society is that "drugs are bad for you".
We can classify these effects into two categories, one is the effects due to the business, the other is effects due to the product. The following are the effects due to the business:
Leaving the following as the effects due to the product:
A Legalized Drugs Gadankenexperiment
Let's look at the effects on society of a legalized drug trade. We'll look at it in the light of the effects due to the business and those due to the product.
We'll use the alcohol business as a model for the drug business - All or most drugs are legal for adults; they are sold from licensed dealers; and carry a drug tax.
The most easily seen differences are that forced labor, unhealthy work conditions, extreme protectiveness, bribed officials, and violent rivaly are all drastically reduced, if not eliminated. The current state of the alcohol business versus the state during prohibition in the US is the obvious example.
Crimes committed to finance drug puchases will probably decrease drastically too. With a free-market drug business, prices will be sharply reduced compared to their illegal counterpart making it easier for people to finance their drug purchases without resorting to crime. And perpetrators of such crimes will be much easier to catch as area "drug" stores can be monitored for people matching the description of an offender. After all, now we know where people go to buy their drugs.
Also, in such a controlled atmosphere children will have less access to drugs. When I was young I had easier access to drugs than to beer. I would venture a guess that that hasn't changed.
Considering the effects due to the product, with drugs legalized all production and synthesis would be under the perview of health standards. This would minimize problems due to poor production.
Addiction, and affects on personal relations, responsibility, and work won't see any great easing with legalized drugs.
And there's the distinct possibility that drug use will increase. However, this is the same dilemma faced with alcohol abuse. While it has a devastating effect on some, as a society we seem to be able to cope. And this is an issue even with the illegal drug trade. With legalized drugs, people will be able to more openly seek help for drug abuse.
And that tax... it could be used to help finance drug abuse treatment.
There is still the issue of drugs that are known to deeply affect rational behavior. Maybe we keep these illegal. In this experiment that means there is a much smaller effort needed to police this. Plus, with many drugs legal it's probable that many people won't be lured to try those illegal drugs. Another option is to make them legal, but confine their use to particular "parlors" where people could check themselves into a padded cell with a small dose of the drug and leave when they are sober again. What other benefits will we see? How about a freeing of billions of US dollars currently being spent by many countries to finance the war on drugs. That money could be used for education and health.
I've purposefully left out discussion of "drugs are bad for you" as there is a whole different issue surrounding it.
"Drugs are bad for you"
This is the only issue which differs from the alcohol business. While some may consider alcohol bad for you, it is legal and subject to all of the other issues we've discussed. And so far the impact on society has been controllable. Certainly we've gotten harsher on drunk driving and are protecting battered spouses better. However, making alcohol illegal hasn't been a consideration when dealing with these issues. So what does this amount to?
First, I should say that drug use is an adult thing. I don't believe children have the capacity to make such high impact decisions regarding themselves. Of course, at what age a person reaches such maturity varies greatly from person to person.
Second, I am considering the aspect of drug use that one does him or herself. This is a decision a person makes for him or herself. Any direct consequence which causes someone else to be a victim, such as having a car accident involving others while under the influence of drugs, is to be judged for other decisions involved, like mixing drugs and driving.
There are two groups of thought regarding the notion that "Drugs are bad for you". One group feels that adults can make decisions for themselves. Sometimes they make bad decisions, but unless there is a victim as a result, the decision is the adult's perogative.
The other group feels that many adults are incapable of deciding what's good or bad for themselves. This group thinks that they know better and feel it's appropriate to force their judgement on others.
It is this latter group that drives the current anti-drug legislatation and efforts. For whatever moral or health reasons, they feel that adults shouldn't use drugs. Therefore, instead of letting adults decide for themselves whether or not it is morally or healthwise okay, they are imposing their values on others. So the issue doesn't come down to whether or not there are victims, but just that even without victims they feel that they know better than others and that it's wrong for others to use drugs.
I understand that the war on drugs is costing billions of US dollars, and that it's estimated that only about 5% of the drugs entering the US are intercepted. I doubt that the relationship between money spent and effectiveness is linear. So, it will probably take much more than 20 times the current spending to shut the drug trade down. Is this really how we should be spending our money given all of the other problems we have - saving adult drug users from the evils of using drugs? I think everyone probably agrees that anything which victimizes another person is wrong. But beyond that right and wrong varies drastically from person to person. Alcohol, nudity, dancing and even buttons are issues of right and wrong for various people. And that's perfectly fine for people to decide for themselves. But I think it's hard to truly call this a free society when someone else decides what victimless activity or item is wrong for everyone else.
How can any group have the audacity to claim they know better than all the other people? How does a society even decide which group's view of right and wrong for victimless activities and items is the correct view of right and wrong? Wouldn't the truly mature and right view be that in a free society all adults are equal and that all adults should be allowed to decide for themselves what victimless activities and items are right or wrong for themselves?
From what I've seen from the history of prohibition in the US and it's similarities to the present day drug trade, that those who've decided for the rest that drugs are wrong are actually causing much more pain to many more people than if they had the respect for other adults to just let them make up their own minds. A legal drug business would be much better overall for society. How much longer are we going to watch innocent people die so that all of those "incapable" adults can be "saved" from making the "wrong" decision to use drugs?