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The Economist and the Drug War

The Economist has come out with another series of powerhouse features on the drug war
“bullet” Dealing with Drugs: On the trail of the traffickers
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This article is mostly a detailed review of the situation in Mexico, complete with the usual quotes from Mexican officials that the violence is proof that the war is working. The Economist doesn’t take a strong obvious position here, but notes that there’s no evidence that the cartels are in danger, concluding “And the drug business, ever supple, will adapt and survive.”
This chart was a particularly interesting addition to the article, showing that nothing we do to attempt to eradicate coca can possibly work. Certainly in the last 20 years, we have been funding and actively participating in immense eradication efforts. The effect? Absolutely zero. In fact, production went up.
“bullet” Levels of prohibition: A toker’s guide
This article gives a brief overview of enforcement differences around the world, noting tha, while the UNODC would like to hold Sweden up as an example of oppressive drug policy that works, the real story doesn’t support that as a world-wide model:

A survey last year by the World Health Organisation examined drug-taking in 17 countries and found no link between the strictness of prohibition and the amount of drug consumption. (The lenient Netherlands, interestingly, has one of the lowest rates of ‹problemŠ drug use in Europe.) ‹Countries with more stringent policies did not have lower levels of such drug use than countries with more liberal policies,Š the researchers concluded. For every strict regime like Sweden, there is another such as Britain or America where a tough approach co-exists with widespread drug use.

“bullet” The cocaine business: Sniffy customers
This article focuses mostly on the smuggling of cocaine to England, noting that “as one route closes, another opens up” but noting that many of the criminals lack market sophistication making the job a bit easier for the police at the current time.
“bullet” Drug education: In America, lessons learned
This is an overview of drug education efforts here (complete with a paragraph on DARE), with this fine conclusion:

It may seem odd that the campaign against tobacco, a legal drug, has displayed so much more Úlan than the war on illegal drugs. Yet this is natural. Making a drug illegal may discourage some people from taking it, but it also discourages frank conversation and clear thinking. It is much easier to attack something if it is brought into the light.

“bullet” But the best piece in the entire issue was the lead story:
Failed states and failed policies: How to stop the drug wars (with the subhead: “Prohibition has failed; legalisation is the least bad solution“)
The article starts out talking about the failures of the drug war, even using the phrase “Al Capone, but on a global scale.” And then they get to their recommendation:

Legalisation would not only drive away the gangsters; it would transform drugs from a law-and-order problem into a public-health problem, which is how they ought to be treated. Governments would tax and regulate the drug trade, and use the funds raised (and the billions saved on law-enforcement) to educate the public about the risks of drug-taking and to treat addiction. The sale of drugs to minors should remain banned. Different drugs would command different levels of taxation and regulation. This system would be fiddly and imperfect, requiring constant monitoring and hard-to-measure trade-offs. Post-tax prices should be set at a level that would strike a balance between damping down use on the one hand, and discouraging a black market and the desperate acts of theft and prostitution to which addicts now resort to feed their habits.

Selling even this flawed system to people in producer countries, where organised crime is the central political issue, is fairly easy. The tough part comes in the consumer countries, where addiction is the main political battle. Plenty of American parents might accept that legalisation would be the right answer for the people of Latin America, Asia and Africa; they might even see its usefulness in the fight against terrorism. But their immediate fear would be for their own children.

That’s why we, in the consumer countries, need to fight harder to convince people. And then the article made another critical point:

That fear is based in large part on the presumption that more people would take drugs under a legal regime. That presumption may be wrong. There is no correlation between the harshness of drug laws and the incidence of drug-taking: citizens living under tough regimes (notably America but also Britain) take more drugs, not fewer. Embarrassed drug warriors blame this on alleged cultural differences, but even in fairly similar countries tough rules make little difference to the number of addicts: harsh Sweden and more liberal Norway have precisely the same addiction rates. Legalisation might reduce both supply (pushers by definition push) and demand (part of that dangerous thrill would go). Nobody knows for certain. But it is hard to argue that sales of any product that is made cheaper, safer and more widely available would fall. Any honest proponent of legalisation would be wise to assume that drug-taking as a whole would rise.

And we do generally assume that drug-taking as a whole would rise, even though there is, in fact, no hard evidence even of that. But the point is that’s OK, because then we can focus our efforts on reducing the harm of the abusive drug taking and not worry about the responsible drug taking.

There are two main reasons for arguing that prohibition should be scrapped all the same. The first is one of liberal principle. Although some illegal drugs are extremely dangerous to some people, most are not especially harmful. (Tobacco is more addictive than virtually all of them.) Most consumers of illegal drugs, including cocaine and even heroin, take them only occasionally. They do so because they derive enjoyment from them (as they do from whisky or a Marlboro Light). It is not the state‰s job to stop them from doing so.

What about addiction? That is partly covered by this first argument, as the harm involved is primarily visited upon the user. But addiction can also inflict misery on the families and especially the children of any addict, and involves wider social costs. That is why discouraging and treating addiction should be the priority for drug policy. Hence the second argument: legalisation offers the opportunity to deal with addiction properly.

Exactly. The fact is that we can never, in a prohibition regime, effectively deal with those who have problems with drugs.
The final conclusion:

A calculated gamble, or another century of failure?
This newspaper first argued for legalisation 20 years ago (see article). Reviewing the evidence again (see article), prohibition seems even more harmful, especially for the poor and weak of the world. Legalisation would not drive gangsters completely out of drugs; as with alcohol and cigarettes, there would be taxes to avoid and rules to subvert. Nor would it automatically cure failed states like Afghanistan. Our solution is a messy one; but a century of manifest failure argues for trying it.

I sure do love listening to people who understand economics talk about the drug war.

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