As promised, I thought I’d flesh out some of my more recent thoughts on drugs. Drugs are harmful to society for three basic reasons:
1. The psychopharmacology of some drugs leads some individuals to act in anti-social ways.
2. When an individual becomes sufficiently habituated to drug use, he may not be able to support his habit through his normal income and therefore may turn to crime to support this habit. Note the use of the word habit – this can occur before addiction.
3. The economics of drugs sales can lead to systemic violence such as shoot-outs between suppliers or punishment of subordinates.
I thought I’d look at four different proposed solutions to these problems:
The war on drugs.
(My preferred solution) A ‘reformation of manners’ that provides a stronger civil society that discourages drug use.
Unfortunately, we have no way of knowing what the “equilibrium” state of drug use is. Until relatively recently, it was very low. There is no real tradition, Coleridge and de Quincey aside, of drugs being particularly widely used in the Anglosphere. According to the US government, 7.1% of the population aged 12 and over uses illegal drugs (about 16 million people). This compares to 47 percent who drink alcoholic beverages (about 107 million, of whom about 13 million are heavy drinkers) and the 30 percent that smoke (c.69 million). It is obviously still a tiny proportion of the population. Would it be higher if there were no war on drugs? Almost certainly. Given the propaganda that drugs are harmless, ably dealt with by Mark Kleiman below, I imagine that a considerable number of people who are currently inhibited from experimentation by the various legal and social sanction in place would try illicit drugs. The argument that anyone who might like to try pot already has done so strikes me as very odd.
But let us suppose that the equilibrium level of drug use in the US is a conservative 10 percent of the population aged 12 and over – about 22 million. With that assumption we can look at the various benefits and disbenefits the proposed solutions bring:
The war on drugs reduces the psychopharmacological effects on people by restricting the numbers who use drugs by sanctions. It may, however, increase them somewhat by exposing those who do use the drugs to harsher effects. The war on drugs also seeks to reduce the habituation effects by imprisoning those who commit drug-related crimes. The war on drugs’ great problem is that it creates an illegal market, which leads to systemic violence. There is, however, every indication that the systemic violence involved in the illegal drugs industry has shrunk considerably since the early 90s.
Drug legalization, on the other hand, would almost certainly increase the numbers affected by the psychopharmacological effects of drugs. It would probably also increase the numbers of crimes committed to pay for drugs. It would certainly, however, reduce the systemic crimes as the illegal industry would presumably be unable to match the economies of scale as legal industries took over. There would, however, almost certainly be a substitution effect as not all of those employed in the illegal industries would turn to legal activities as well. Moreover, if some drugs remained illegal (does anyone really advocate legalizing PCP?) then some illegal supply industry would remain. Moreover, the legal industry would almost certainly look to maximize its customer base. The number affected by problems 1 and 2 would rise above the equilibrium level as a result.
I should also add here that the experience in the UK with the significant black markets in alcohol and tobacco should show those people that advocate the "legalize and tax the bejeesus out of it" approach that that strategy would do nothing -- or very little -- to shrink the illegal industry.
Drug decriminalization strikes me as the worst of all worlds, raising the numbers affected by problems 1 and 2 while doing nothing about 3, except possibly encouraging an increase as the illegal industry took advantage of the increased customer base. I can easily see crime rates rising to the levels of the early 90s as the industry expanded again. Indeed, this seems to be what happened in Brixton following the decriminalization experiment there. Later falls in the number of street crimes were more likely affected by the general blitz on street crime ordered by Tony Blair, which may prove very hard to sustain. The UK has, of course, chosen this route. I shall be very interested to see how things shape up over the next few years.
Finally, there is the route I prefer, which is a general strengthening of civil society leading to stronger families and stronger communities. This should reduce the equilibrium number of drug users, and so should reduce problems in all 3 categories (except possibly in 3, temporarily, as gangs fight for a smaller pool of customers).
There is some interesting evidence that drug use goes through trends, the three most recent having been heroin injecting, coke/crack and marijuana/blunts. The first two overlapped considerably, but those who use marijuana/blunts are unlikely to use heroin or crack. Two questions spring to my mind: is the current era just another fad which may be replaced by a worse drug, which may well encourage other drug use? And, what effect did the war on drugs have in seeing off the crack trend? I don’t know the answers to these questions, but am always interested in views.
Now there comes the comparison with alcohol. As Orrin Judd has mentioned recently (I can’t quite seem to find the exact source), prohibition was very like gun control, in that it attempted to restrain a very strong cultural component. As the usage figures make clear, however, drugs – even marijuana – are nowhere near as integrated into mainstream culture as alcohol and guns are. In some ways, as Norman Dennis implies in his review of alcohol and drug use in the UK
, drug use can even be thought of as an alien invader into our culture. It may be one that we adopt as part of our general culture, but I doubt it. To that extent it may remain a folly of the youth subculture – like Trotskyism – but bans on it will never be comparable to the problems that prohibition brought with it. Banning booze is like trying to ban the word “the.” Banning drugs is like trying to ban the word “ontological.”
All in all, then, I remain highly skeptical that legalization would be any better for society than the war on drugs. I am convinced that decriminalization would be worse. If a stronger civil society emerged, however, then there might be scope for limited marijuana growth and exchange as Professor Kleiman suggests. Until that day, however, people are still going to try to sell what they grow to other people who can’t be bothered or are simply not capable of it. And it is part of the weakness of our civil society that there are so many that simply can’t grow plants.