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March 5, 2007 | by  | in Opinion |
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Forbidden Fruit

Why Drugs Should Be Legal

Earlier in the year, as Jim Anderton talked about his support for a party pill ban, John Campbell asked him whether by his logic alcohol should also be banned. Anderton replied with a sly grin, “Don’t tempt me.” To be sure, Jim Anderton is wrong, but at least he’s consistently wrong.

Not only should alcohol and party pills be legal, so should all drugs. There is no moral justification for distinguishing between certain drugs and, as we will show, there is no practical justification. We can analyse the harms of prohibition from the perspective of the dealer, the buyer, and the taxpayer.

Consider first the harms associated with being a drug dealer (or an unregistered pharmacist, a less loaded term). One of the many justifications for the illegality of drugs is that there is a link between drugs and violent crime. This link is more often than not caused by the prohibition of drugs. The drug dealer is just like any other businessman – with agreements between himself and his supplier, debts owed by some customers, and personal debts to those higher up in a drug-dealing organisation. Unfortunately for the drug industry, all such agreements are unenforceable in a court of law. The industry needs to find alternative means of enforcement. The typical method employed is the threat or use of force. There is little reason for Dick Smiths to pay money for a drive-by shooting of IBM, their computer supplier, because they can just settle in court. The drug industry has no such luxury, so it turns to guns.

The drug dealer also faces costs like any other businessman. One of his major costs is the preventative measures he must take against the police attempting to close down his business and incarcerate him. These high costs mean that drug dealing is a harder industry to get into – it raises the costs of entry into the market. In turn, the drug dealer who has entered the market must ensure a consistent and reliable form of income. Dealers often pay ‘muscle’ to ensure that they have a monopoly over a particular region. When there are many dealers, they are likely to come into conflict. The talk of ‘gang wars’ in areas like Hamilton are usually turf-wars – a battle to control the prime streets for drug dealing.

All of these barriers and artificial costs increase prices for buyers of drugs. These higher prices have an interesting effect on the safety and quality of drugs offered. High prices for drugs like cocaine sometimes price consumers out of the market, resulting in innovation from drug entrepreneurs. The invention of ‘crack’ is largely related to these exorbitant prices. Crack is an affordable drug which contains cocaine mixed with baking soda and water, before being hardened into rocks. Similar, albeit more dangerous, additives are added in the production of pure methamphetamine, ‘P’, to ensure its affordability, and unfortunately, its negative social impact). If costs were lower because there was no prohibition, then there would be little need for these inferior goods which are potentially dangerous.

The costs absorbed by taxpayers are also large. The average number of drug convictions is 12,600 a year1. Taxpayers pay for the cost of police time in investigation, public prosecutors’ time in preparing and carrying out a case, and, for those sent to jail, the costs of incarceration.

Six per cent of all convictions in 2005 were related to drugs – 75 per cent of those were related to cannabis. It seems odd that we waste so much money on a substance that is less addictive than nicotine, and doesn’t make people violent. The cost to the taxpayer and human life is larger when you include the increase in violent crime prohibition causes. Jeffrey Miron looked at the United States’ correlation between violent crime and the enforcement of drug prohibition (as measured by expenditure) and concluded that “the homicide rate is currently 25 – 75 per cent higher than it would be in the absence of drug prohibition.” In other words, the state is effectively murdering people to stop some of us using our own bodies as we see fit.

This analysis of the harms misses some obvious points. Consider all the people who do not seek help for their addiction because of fears (both social and legal) of admitting to being a drug user. Or consider the fact that drug dealers, who have high levels of repeat business, have an incentive to get customers addicted by offering packs of various drugs below cost price – incentives that don’t exist for supermarkets selling cigarettes or alcohol. Or the benefits of being able to buy drugs knowing that their potency and their safety was guaranteed. Or the benefits of legalising the research and development of better, safer drugs – for example, of a drug that replicated the effect of ten beers for the price of one. That’d be awesome.

Of course the use of drugs can and does have social costs. The prohibition of drugs has not rid us of social costs, it only hides some of them. Legalisation allows us to help drug addicts overcome their problems while giving those who can use the drugs in a safe manner the ability to do so.

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