Ending the prohibition of drugs: a question of economics, morals and ‘high’ finance.

Warning signs in Amsterdam: ‘White heroin sold to tourists as cocaine’. It’s late November in 2014 and three tourists have died so far. Just as in the movie Pulp Fiction, they had snorted pure white heroin thinking it was cocaine. Unlike in the movie, however, John Travolta was not there to bring them back from the brink with an intracardiac injection of adrenaline. And while the tragic events in Amsterdam may sound like an isolated case of life imitating art, the truth is that it isn’t; this month four children suffered first- and second-degree chemical burns to their legs, after having ridden their bikes through a seemingly innocuous puddle they encountered on a path in the forest. Investigators later determined that the offending puddle contained toxic chemical waste, presumably dumped in the forest by criminals running a clandestine drug-lab. The incident might as well have been taken straight out of an episode of ‘Breaking Bad’.

Policymakers are eager to cite the aforementioned examples as a reason to justify the almost universally adopted practice of prohibiting the manufacture and use of so-called recreational drugs, except for medical or military purposes. But the tragic truth is that those three tourists might still be alive today if they could have obtained the drugs from a safe source. Because not only does the war on drugs do nothing to prevent all the misery surrounding the illegal drug industry, it is actually the leading cause of the problems. As the Nobel-prize winning economist Milton Friedman once said during an interview: “The role of the government is to protect the drug cartel. That’s literally true!”

Mr. Friedman was arguing strictly from an economic point of view. He reasoned that the drug prohibition should be viewed as nothing more than yet another economic instrument wielded by the government to control a market, in a true sense no different from the regulation of alcohol and tobacco. While intended to protect citizens from harm, the prohibition’s real effect has instead been to artificially inflate the prices and to stimulate the development of new drugs. And ever since the drug market was turned into a ‘high’ finance industry, the drug cartel bosses have been laughing their way to the banks, but not from inhaling nitrous oxide. And ironically, activists lobbying to end the prohibition may well find their own drug dealers picketing against them, instead of  standing alongside them.

In essence, agencies such as the DEA in the US are to the illicit drug trade what OPEC is to the oil trade. This is also literally true; when OPEC first drove up the oil price by restricting the availability of oil, this subsequently stimulated innovation to obtain oil from other sources, such as by hydraulic fracturing. Likewise, when the DEA reduced the availability of cocaine, the market responded by inventing crack. The resemblance with the drug industry is so uncanny that even the word ‘addiction’ is commonly used to characterize our dependence on oil. 

And speaking of oil addictions; the drug cartels are certainly happy with OPEC right now, because they need fossil fuel to get the drugs into a country; by airmail, in the intestinal tracts of drug ‘mules’ on intercontinental flights, by tunneling across the border, in cars with hidden compartments, small airplanes, fast powerboats and even submarines. You name it, they’ve got it. There is no doubt they’d find a way to get drugs onto the ISS if the astronauts wanted to ‘space out’ in a different way. After all, the infamous Sinaloa cartel boss “El Chapo” was smuggled out of a maximum security prison with 24/7 camera surveillance… twice. So people who think there is a way to prevent a veritable maelstrom of drugs from flooding a country are deluding themselves. Yet for some reason there appears to be no shortage of applicants for this Sisyphean task.

One such person, the former executive director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Antonio Maria Costa, argued in a 2009 report that legalizing drugs because of difficulties in enforcing the prohibition would be like legalizing human trafficking or slavery for the same reason. And statements like that demonstrate precisely where the anti-legalization people are missing the point, which is simply demonstrated by means of substitution; “Legalizing homosexuality just because it is difficult to enforce the law would be like legalizing slavery.” As you can see, I have substituted “homosexuality” for “drugs”. Does that seem ridiculous? It isn’t. Believe it or not, there are still countries where homosexual behavior is illegal and in some cases even carries the death penalty. And this fact illustrates the main fallacy in that particular argument against lifting the drug prohibition; just because a behavior was criminalized at one point in history does not mean that the original reasons for doing so were sound. And the reverse is also true, which makes the choice for comparing drug use to slavery and human trafficking all the more ridiculous—had Mr. Costa perhaps forgotten that slavery was once a perfectly respectable practice in his country?

When pouring over the many arguments for and against prohibiting the production and distribution of psychopharmacological compounds for recreational use, it doesn’t take long to see that the pro-legalization arguments tend to come from the intelligentsia, the medical professionals and Nobel prize winning economists. And unsurprisingly the anti-legalization arguments come from, for example, a former US president whose crowning achievement was to begin a disastrous war in Iraq in order to satisfy his nation’s other addiction problem; oil. And while there seem to be plenty of moral arguments against starting wars over natural resources, it is far more challenging to find moral justification for the criminalization of some inherently private activity. Regardless of whether that activity concerns gratifying some particularly lascivious sexual desire, or developing a proclivity for recreational drug use.

The only seemingly reasonable argument against using recreational drugs is captured by the famous one-liner ‘drug use is not a victimless crime’. Proponents of this argument claim that because some crimes are committed due to being under the influence of drugs, it follows that drugs must be prohibited. However, that argument seems to ignore the fact that the same is true of alcohol consumption. Countless accused alcoholics have stood before a justice magistrate and attempted to evade culpability for their transgressions by blaming it on the bottle. Yet instead of advocating a ban on alcohol, the offending dipsomaniacs themselves are simply held accountable for their actions. This begs the question; if such personal responsibility is perfectly acceptable when people smoke cigarettes, or go out for a drink on a Friday night, then why wouldn’t it be just as acceptable to regulate other substances in similar fashion?

Indeed there seems to be increasing support to either end or relax the prohibition on drugs. Not only for ideological reasons, but also for economical, medical, moral and criminological reasons. And there is a very strong case for it; as a matter of principal, and as long as they are sound of mind, adult individuals ought to have free command of their bodies. This idea is so essential that it touches upon the very foundations of human rights. For this reason, advanced societies have seen the legalization of abortion, the legalization of euthanasia, and, indeed, the end of slavery and the legalization of gay marriage. So perhaps now it’s time to end the war on drugs as well? No doubt some will even say it’s ‘high’ time. 

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