01 November 2007

Why be an anti-drug war radical?

(From an email discussion on a libertarian mailing list, to a fellow member who was unsure about ending drug prohibition altogether. To read the definitive libertarian treatment of this issue, be sure to check out Prof. Mark Thornton's Economics of Prohibition.)

The pro-liberty position on prohibition is the one that is both just and most likely to have the best outcome.

If we are really worried about gang violence, cut off their exclusive, monopoly hold on the illegal/illicit drug market in urban centers. The drug war indirectly subsidizes gang violence by driving profit margins up while driving the responsible, law-abiding businessmen out of the market and removing any legal (and non-violent) recourse for breached contracts, stolen goods, fraudulent sales, etc.

If we want to reduce the number of overdoses, stop allowing the War on Drugs to create artificial irregularities in the supply line that result in "hot doses" of drugs like heroin after a series of "bunk" (low potency) lots of the substance. Most heroin overdoses seem to result from irregularity in the supply line that cause people to take more of the drug than they realize after learning their level of tolerance from their use of a batch of drug with different potency. The "hot dose" combined with other substances, particularly alcohol and benzodiazepines like Xanax, result in fatalities where combination with a lower-potency drug have previously produced the desired effect without the tragic consequences.

If you are concerned about the most vile and dangerous homecooked drugs, like crystal meth, stop the governmental hampering of the market--the thing that drives people to these more dangerous substitutes for other, imported drugs. Cocaine is an addictive drug that I think it is unwise to toy with, but the facts show that powder cocaine doesn't pose such an immediate threat to the abuser's health as the cheaper, more accessible, substitute stimulant, meth. When some drugs are outlawed, other less desirable but more readily available drugs are used as substitutes.

If you are worried about kids doing drugs, allow the legal market to distribute them. If a store sells a dangerous item to an infant (a non-majority-age individual who is legally incapable of giving consent for dangerous activities or any other binding contracts), that store can be held responsible. If a kid buys drugs from "Big Mike" who got them from some shadowy drug dealer, you are far less likely to be able to get any relief from irresponsible sellers.

If you want fewer people to do drugs, remove the "taboo" of illegality from behaviors that are essentially harmless to others. By outlawing victimless acts, we teach people to disrespect the law. The resultant acculturation into lawlessness is not a good thing.

I don't think most pro-drug war types are mean-spirited folks. I think they just don't understand the real ramifications of the actual policies in place. It is nice to hear a politician say "we're gonna stamp out drug abuse by doing X, Y, and Z." It seems that voting for that politician or that measure is voting against drug abuse itself. But what one must consider is whether the policy will actually have it's intended (or purported) effect. It feels good to "do something," but the stick of government force often fails to work the way those who wield it believe it will.

We should heed Frederic Bastiat's advice from the final words of his short but powerful work The Law:

"Away with the whims of governmental administrators, their socialized projects, their centralization, their tariffs, their government schools, their state religions, their free credit, their bank monopolies, their regulations, their restrictions, their equalization by taxation, and their pious moralizations! And now that the legislators and do-gooders have so futilely inflicted so many systems upon society, may they finally end where they should have begun: May they reject all systems, and try liberty; for liberty is an acknowledgment of faith in God and His works."

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