Saturday, August 31, 2013

On the Legalisation of Marijuana & the War on Drugs

One of the more exciting and reported-upon developments of the day of the 2012 Presidential election were the success of ballot initiatives legalising the recreational use of marijuana in Colorado and Washington. These initiatives seemed to set the stage for a showdown between Federal and state authorities over the legality of marijuana, as possession of marijuana remains a Federal crime. Happily for Coloradan and Washingtonian marijuana users and nascent marijuana-related businesses, the Attorney General Eric Holder announced this week that the Federal government would not challenge the new laws, and would instead focus on organised crime and preventing underage use. This is a big transition for America as a whole as it means that other states can freely legalise marijuana without worrying about getting into a fight with the Federal government. Furthermore, it is the crumbling away of a central element of the apparatus of the War on Drugs — an initiative that has resulted in an eightfold increase in the prison population since 1980. Arrest for marijuana possession is the fourth most common cause of arrest in the United States — resulting in over 750,000 arrests per year — and over 12% of the both state and Federal prison populations is in jail for offences related to marijuana possession.

Economically, the War on Drugs is a rather concerning thing. Most obviously very large amounts of resources — time, energy and money — are devoted to its pursuit. And that has opportunity costs. Every dollar spent locking up nonviolent marijuana users or killing innocent people with SWAT teams is a dollar that is not spent training doctors, or educating children, or investing in clean energy technologies, or developing cures for diseases or anything else that people have a need or want for. According to the Open Society Foundation, the costs of a drug control system mount to over $100 billion dollars per year. That is quite a large allocation of resources. And for what?

Well, drug criminalisation and since the start of the War on Drugs stronger drug enforcement hasn't stopped the use of drugs. People were using drugs before the war on drugs, and they're still using them now. There has been a modest drop in illegal drug use — from 14.1% in 1979, to 8.7% in 2011 — but this may not even be down to the War on Drugs, as there are very many other factors determining drug use beyond legality or illegality including culture, drug supply, drug discovery, etc that influence whether an individual or group of people across society will choose to use drugs.  And in terms of social harm, the illegal drugs may not even be the most harmful ones. And according to Professor David Nutt of the Lancet, the most harmful drug is an entirely legal one — alcohol:

Prohibition of alcohol, of course, was tried in the United States and was a disastrous failure. It didn't stop alcohol use, but it did empower a whole new criminal class. Protection rackets, organised crime and gangland murders were more common during Prohibition than when alcohol could be bought legally. 

More importantly, the evidence suggests that rehabilitation is superior to punishment in terms of cost effectiveness, and in terms of preventing drug users from using drugs — drugs, of course, are rife in prisons. Prison can be highly harmful to drug users due to it exacerbating or causing mental health problems and spreading sexually or needle transmitted diseases. And those who are unlucky, and are criminally prosecuted for drug use face the danger of a downward spiral, as ex-convicts find it much harder than the general population to find work. Other issues include problems of splitting up families — huge numbers of children, especially from ethnic minorities who are more likely to go to prison have grown up fatherless since the beginning of the War on Drugs — as well as the empowerment of criminal gangs and cartels whose entire business model and high profit margins are based around drugs being controlled. The United States itself is not getting the worst of it — the war between the drug cartels for territory and smuggling passages in Northern Mexico has devastated the region politically and economically and resulted in thousands of gory and gruesome deaths. Violence, protection rackets and organised crime are also active in other Latin American countries including Guatemala, Honduras, Colombia, Venezuela and Nicaragua. Once again, prohibitionism is failing.

What I think the War on Drugs is really about is not so much deterring or preventing drug use, but about making a statement that drug use is unacceptable in society. In a country where the last three Presidents are confessed  illegal drug users — who if they had been caught could have faced years in prison — the hypocrisy stinks to high heaven. Of course, drugs can have a disastrous impact on the lives of individuals and the wider community. Drug users can often become workless thieves, stealing for drugs and neglecting their families. Certain drugs consumed in higher quantities can cause brain damage, and illnesses. But evidence suggests that rehabilitation is much more effective than punishment in preventing such effects. The War on Drugs stinks of the Nixon era in which it was born — moral panic, moral hypocrisy. The legalisation of marijuana in a number of states first as a medicine, and now for recreational purposes is breaking down the failed prohibitionism and moral hypocrisy. 

In the long run, we are perhaps headed toward a more flexible model where most drug use is legal but controlled and regulated. Drug users can receive a controlled and uncontaminated product, so they can be surer of quality and safety — instead of having to worry about the contaminants used by criminal gangs today. With drugs being sold by regulated businesses instead of by street criminals, the selling of drugs to children and to problem users can be more easily monitored and prevented. And those who develop a drug problem can more easily receive rehabilitation — paid for through taxes on the drugs being sold. 

Further into the future, the advent of 3-D printing and molecular manufacturing means that the spread of drugs — including experimental recipes — will be completely unstoppable. Every home with an advanced 3-D printer will be able to print drugs, both traditional recipes and experimental ones. In such a context — although I am sure that authorities will try to prevent the distribution of drug recipes over the internet, as they are doing now with gun components — the only thing that can really prevent drug abuse are old-fashioned personal responsibility, parental responsibility, rehabilitation in case of addiction, and medical treatment in case of overdose.

In the even longer run, drugs may become obsolete as desire modification becomes a reality. Now that would make Richard Nixon's head spin. 


  1. Nice post! I really like the part about opportunity cost. I've been harassing Noah for years about that concept.

    The thing're not really getting to the heart of the problem...

    "They will not indeed submit to more labours and privations than other people, for the relief of distressed fellow creatures: but they make amends by whining over them more. It is not difficult to trace this sort of affectation to its cause. It originates in the common practice of bestowing upon feelings that praise which actions alone can deserve." - J.S. Mill

    People vote for things that they wouldn't be be willing to personally pay for. The war on drugs isn't the first time that it's happened...and it certainly won't be the last. The solution? Give people the opportunity to put their own tax dollars where their mouths are. Pragmatarianism would effectively solve the preference revelation problem and ensure the optimal provision of public goods. Can I getta w00t w00t?

    1. Nathanael3:10 AM

      Your problem is that you don't understand the crucial importance of redistribution of wealth.

      I'd actually support a system where each person got to decide what to do with their proportion of the government budget. However, it is critical to have high taxes on the rich and no taxes on the poor. If you don't do that, the system decays into manorialism.

    2. Nathanael, is every bakery going to be a success? Obviously not...right? If that were the case then poverty would be eliminated because everybody who lacked money would be guaranteed money simply by starting a bakery. No need for redistribution.

      So what factors determine whether a bakery will be successful or not? Maybe it simply boils down to luck? That can't be right. The fact of the matter is that it's a given that some bakers are going to make less mistakes than other bakers. As a result, some bakeries are going to be more successful than others.

      It boils down to insight and foresight. A successful baker sees more accurately than an unsuccessful baker. And it's up to consumers to determine which baker sees more accurately.

      You want to redistribute wealth from a wealthy baker to a poor baker? You want to give more influence to people who see less accurately? You want to take flour from a successful baker and give it to an unsuccessful baker?

      Your intentions are good, but unfortunately, because you're failing to think things through you're simply increasing the severity of the problem you're trying to solve.

      If you truly want the poor to have better options in life...then you have to think things through. Better options depend on people doing better things with society's limited resources. Consumers determine who exactly are the people who are doing better things with society's limited resources. The people they give their positive feedback (money) to are the people with the most insight/foresight. Therefore, we all will greatly benefit by allowing taxpayers to choose where their taxes go.

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  3. Rothosen9:27 PM

    I have always thought the two dumbest aspects of the war on drugs was the enrichment of the drug cartels and forcing my nephew to associate with someone who sells crack merely because he wants some weed.

  4. The Prohibition was no failure, that's a myth - alcohol consumption went down a whooping 75%. The question is, however, whether or not that success was worth all the cost that you mention - especially the rise of organized crime. But that's another story.

    1. Nathanael3:08 AM

      Uh, we can't actually tell that, because *reporting* on alcohol consumption became impossible. Data on alcohol consumption during Prohibition is inherently suspect, for obvious reasons.

      That's one of the problems with prohibitionist policies. This is one reason tax-and-regulate policies work better: it makes it possible to TELL whether they're working.

  5. I've often considered the 2 dumbest facets of world war 2 upon medications has been the particular enrichment from the drug cartels and making my personal nephew to keep company with someone who markets break merely because he wants a number of bud.

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  6. can 3-d printers produce bud?

    1. Anonymous3:22 AM

      If so i need that now! Xp

  7. "Every home with an advanced 3-D printer will be able to print drugs, both traditional recipes and experimental ones."

    3-D printers that print at the atomic level? I think you have been reading too much science fiction.