How to Legalize Drugs Without Creating More Social Pathology

Wednesday, August 17th, 2011

The insanity of the War on Drugs is a common topic in progressive and libertarian circles, says Devin Finbarr — who is no longer progressive, and who isn’t quite libertarian, either:

The war on drugs is carried out with just enough capriciousness and leniency that it falls short of actually wiping out the drug markets. But enforcement is strict enough that the markets operate without the protection of the law. The result is organized gang violence, turf wars, and an economic incentive for youths to enter a life of crime.

Decriminalizing possession has always struck me as a questionable half-measure:

Simply decriminalizing possession does not help very much. In fact, it would make the black market problem worse. Demand would rise because consumers would face fewer consequences, but the sellers would still be black market gangs.

I’m not sure what a completely unregulated drug market would bring:

Complete legalization would also likely be a disaster. The consequences of drug addiction have been utterly devastating to inner city communities. I encourage everyone to read the book “The Corner” by David Simon (the creator of the Wire). “The Corner” describes a year Simon spent shadowing a family in inner city Baltimore. The impact of drugs is stark and devastating.

I don’t think the common rebuttal is the only meaningful rebuttal:

The common rebuttal is that since all this pathology is happening despite drugs being illegal, drug [prohibition] clearly doesn’t work. But this ignores that drug prohibition actually does more or less work for most communities. I can walk around my city without ever being tempted to buy heroin. My corner CVS does not sell speed balls next to candy at the front counter. As a result, most people do not face frequent temptation to use drugs, most people do not find it easy to locate drugs, and most people do not use drugs.

It’s simultaneously true that (a) drug prohibition clearly does not eliminate drug use, and (b) drug prohibition likely does reduce drug use.

More interestingly, I suspect drug prohibition radically reduces casual drug use by the middle class, while barely if at all reducing hardcore drug use by the criminal underclass and high society (pardon the pun).

Anyway, Devin’s solution is “quite simple”:

Legalize all drugs, but make them hard to obtain. The government auctions off a limited number of drug selling licenses at a steep price. The sellers are only permitted to sell drugs privately to licensed consumers. All public advertising and public selling of drugs is banned. Drug dealers are not even allowed to operate public web sites or list themselves in the phone book. Since the ban only restricts public transactions and promotion, the ban is easy to enforce. When drug consumers buy their drug license, they receive access to a private web site where they can find listings of the drug sellers. The consumer orders online or over the phone, and then picks up the drug from the sellers private, unmarked office.

The difficulty of obtaining a drug consumption license varies depending on the drug involved. A marijuana license might be available from city hall, and cost either $300 or 10 hours of community labor. To obtain a heroin license, the consumer might have to travel to a nondescript office in an out of the way location, and watch the final fifteen minutes of “Requiem for a dream” over and over again in a loop for four hours. The heroin license would cost either $2000 or 50 hours of community labor.

The government taxes and regulates the drug market to limit addictiveness, cheapness, and danger to the consumer. All government drug revenue is dedicated to a blind charitable trust, so that the government is not tempted to promote drug use to increase revenue.

The license to consume drugs seems a bit over the top — and introduces another opening for a (small) black market — but the rest of the plan is just the standard liquor-store model, dialed up a notch — which seems to have eliminated the market for speakeasies and bathtub gin just fine.

I pity the poor druggies in Pennsylvania though, who won’t be able to get heroin on Sundays, and who’ll have to buy their weed by the bushel from the distributor.

More seriously, another, quieter model is to tax legal narcotics more and loosen the restrictions on doctors’ prescriptions.

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