— THE PROBLEM —
Chapter 1. Introduction
A major world problem
Who can doubt that the world faces a major problem with the illicit use of drugs? Many would call it a drug crisis, even, for it is no longer restricted to the margins of society, if indeed it ever was. It touches all our lives and few can claim to have been unaffected by it. We have learned of drug abuse among our friends and acquaintances, within our own families and in our own neighbourhoods. Most of us have personal knowledge of individuals who have died through drug abuse, and we all know people who have suffered because of it. Of the crime that comes in its wake we hear daily.
There are basically three approaches to dealing with the drug problem: "try harder", "get tough", and "get soft". The first proposes continuing with more-or-less the present system of restricting the use of "controlled substances" by a confusing combination of education, medical provision, miscellaneous taxation, and occasional criminal sanctions for unauthorised distribution and use. Despite repeated failures, it is believed (or hoped) that improvements in the system can yet be made and the problem at least contained.
The second proposes "cracking down" on drugs, eliminating the problem "once and for all". The rhetoric (though not the practice) of the so-called "war on drugs" falls in this camp. Greater police powers and tougher sentencing, it is claimed, will put all the dealers behind bars and save our children from the menace of illicit drugs.
The third proposes legalising the sale of drugs across the board, in the belief that this will make the problem go away. It's not the drugs that's the menace, it's the laws against them. If we didn't have the laws, we wouldn't have a problem.
The sensitive reader will already have detected a degree of cynicism in my description of these three approaches. Their apologists (or so it seems to me) seldom attempt any honest evaluation of the situation, or of the merits of other options, or of the demerits of their own position. Instead they argue as dogmatists, emotionally tied to a single point of view: "liberal democracy good", so carry on regardless; "drugs bad", so declare a moral war; "freedom good", so legalise everything.
Many pointless discussions
Discussions of the drug problem almost invariably leave me infuriated with all sides. Indeed, I have never heard any such debate or discussion on the radio or television that even begins to address the full complexity of the issues. Most of what is written on the subject is little better. Many of the most knowledgeable and intelligent writers, whom one might have expected to have provided thoughtful arguments and careful analysis, turn out in retrospect to have been unduly wedded to one or other of the extreme dogmatic positions; others provide little more than derivative propaganda. Naturally, I contend that, unlike practically everyone else, I am fully capable of providing a calm, rational and unbiased analysis of the entire problem and all possible solutions. In this essay I attempt to do just that. The reader may judge the extent to which I succeed.
Working through to the answers
Since my conclusions will be controversial and upset almost everyone, I won't tell you yet what they are. You'll see how they come about as we work through the analysis. You might be tempted to skip ahead to the last chapters, to find out what I'm going to say. I advise against it. If the drug problem had an easy answer, it would not have shown itself so obdurate to date. Once you have followed my lead through the complex byways of this topic, and reached the centre of the maze, I hope you will agree that my answers have a certain elegance; but until that point is reached they are likely to prove difficult to understand and hard to accept.
You may not like my usage of words like drug, user, addict, habit, pusher and dealer; please bear with me; there is no entirely satisfactory nomenclature available. For the most part, I use the word drug to refer to a substance, compound or preparation, often but not necessarily controlled by law, used for recreational but not medicinal or nutritional purposes. By recreational purposes I mean that people take it to be sociable, or to feel good, or to stop feeling bad; and that there was in general no medical reason for them to start taking it. From time to time I shall also refer to the legitimate medical use of drugs and the crossover problem of iatrogenic addiction. The word user refers to anyone who takes a drug — not necessarily an addict. An addict is someone who is addicted to a drug. The meaning of the word addiction is in dispute; it is often taken to imply physical or psychological dependence on the addicting drug, perhaps associated with physical symptoms or cravings upon withdrawal. Here I employ an economic meaning, defined by an empirically measurable low user elasticity of demand; we'll look at this in some detail later on, but, roughly speaking, you maintain a habit at least for a short while even if the price goes up a bit, whereas you maintain an addiction for a long while even if the price goes up a lot. A dealer is one who deals or traffics, not necessarily dishonestly; a pusher is one who deliberately encourages addiction. Unfortunately, it will not always be possible for me to use these and other terms in a totally unambiguous and consistent way. However, I will attempt to make my meaning sufficiently clear in context.
One problem or many?
In talking of the drug problem I may seem to be begging the question. Is there a drug problem? Or is it only a drug-law problem, as many of the proponents of legalisation would contend? Slightly less pedantically, aren't we inviting oversimplification by conflating many different drug problems into one? Not all drugs are alike. Not all the problems are alike. Alcohol abuse should not be confounded with heroin addiction. Marijuana is not on a par with cocaine. Yet if I were to attempt to describe the history, geography, pharmacology, psychology, sociology and economics of the use and misuse of each and every habit-forming or psychoactive compound I should overflow an encyclopaedia — and still miss my thesis. For it is what these have in common that describes what we all intuitively recognise as the drug problem; we are looking for essential principles and generic answers, not restricted instances or redundant detail.
You will find no references or footnotes in this essay; this is deliberate, since wherever possible I wish readers to be able to confirm my conclusions by direct reasoning from general knowledge. Publications on the drug problem need to be treated with considerable scepticism; many of them are so biased as to be worthless, or worse, and the general reader has no way of knowing which to trust. Reinforcing my statements by reference to other authorities would thus be of little value. Besides, I'm lazy. Readers who wish to delve more deeply will be best advised to search the literature for themselves.
Chapter 2. The Way We Were
Once upon a time
Once upon a time there were no drugs and no drug problems and all God's children were happy. Or . . . once upon a time there were no drug laws and no drug problems and all Nature's children were happy. Or . . . once upon a time everybody obeyed the law and there was no drug problem and every citizen was happy. Choose one according to ideology.
Or consider instead just how things really were. There were always drugs, but they were never so available, so affordable, so varied and so potent as they are now. There have always been drug problems, but they were seldom if ever so menacing before. And there have been diverse laws and exhortations against the misuse of drugs since the beginning of civilisation, but there have never been so many laws and regulations as there are today. There was never a golden age of pure substance innocence; yet we did at least enjoy a sheltered childhood, to which we can never return. The genie, to switch metaphors, is out of the bottle.
Alcohol becomes cheaper
In Britain, in earlier times, the only readily available intoxicant was alcohol; and ordinary people could afford only weak ale or small beer. It was hard work even getting drunk on this; alcoholism, as we understand it today, was unknown. Improvements in the techniques of fermentation brought stronger drinks and more drunks, but it was the arrival of distilled spirits that turned drunkenness into a social problem, not merely a personal one. At first, prices were high enough to deter most would-be drinkers, but as wages rose and cheaper spirits became available (most notoriously gin) the problem escalated. True alcoholism, with its attendant poverty, crime, and moral depravity, made its appearance.
Fortunately (and fortuitously) a solution was found — excise duty. This tax, levied principally, one assumes, for the sake of the revenue, held the price of strong drink at a level high enough to keep the alcohol problem within bounds (we shall consider what the removal of this tax might mean for alcohol consumption and for society in general later). Even today, alcoholism tends to be a bigger problem in countries where the tax on alcohol is low relative to wages, that is, where alcohol is more affordable.
It was not only price that acted to deter excessive drinking; moral, religious and social sanctions also applied. In medieval times almost everyone went to church, but the Church's deprecation was muted by the use of Latin, which the common people didn't understand. The Renaissance brought the vulgar tongue into play: sermons were long, yet considered high entertainment; congregations were huge. Think of the dozens of two-thousand seater churches Sir Christopher Wren built in the City of London alone. At this time, drunkenness was openly condemned from the pulpit, and everyone heard the message. But it didn't stop people drinking. Later, during the Industrial Revolution, church attendance began to drop off, especially among the lower classes. This was the time of the moral dominance of the temperance movement. Yet alcoholism among the poor remained a major scourge. Until very recently women were powerfully discouraged from drinking by the disdain in which a drunken woman was held, whether as an upper class lush or a lower class sloven. Yet among the gin-addicts of the Victorian poor the wives were often the worst.
New drugs appear on the scene
Exploration and trade brought new plants, new products, new drugs to Britain. There was tobacco. Then there was hemp. Then opium. Then coca. There was also tea and coffee. Each was initially expensive, available only to the wealthy in small amounts of poor quality and low potency. The dangers were seldom understood; tea, for example, was initially believed more hazardous than opium. Consumption of such intoxicants was generally recognised as a vice, but so long as it was confined to a small group — like opium smoking to chinamen — its seriousness was not perceived. Even when a practice became widespread, as with the use of tobacco, the dangers were not always obvious.
With time, these products became more affordable and the quality improved. Superior strains of plant, containing more of the active principle, were developed (tea that didn't come up to scratch was dumped in the Thames in an ultimately successful attempt to force foreign growers to improve the quality of their merchandise, though there seems to have been an unanticipated side-effect in the shape of the American Revolution). More potent derivatives appeared; bhang and hemp-seed were followed by hashish and quat, then marijuana and cannabis resin; raw opium was supplemented first by morphine, then heroin; coca leaves were replaced by cocaine, then crack. More convenient preparations also appeared; tincture of opium, which could be drunk "for medicinal purposes" without any of the paraphernalia of the opium den; cigarettes and cigars, which were much less of a hassle than pipe tobacco and made much less mess than snuff or chewing tobacco. Inevitably, consumption rose with each "improvement", and concern about the drug problem rose with it; the temperance movement and societies for the suppression of vice also flourished.
Similar tales could be told of most other countries. The main restraint on consumption was the fact that the most dangerous intoxicants were too costly for ordinary people to buy, a restraint sometimes strengthened by taxation (for example, bhang, a cannabis-based beverage, was heavily taxed in India, even before the days of the British Raj). Outright prohibition was rare, but not unknown (Islamic countries in particular often banned alcohol — a fact that paradoxically may have encouraged the use of hashish and opium as alternatives). Social sanctions against excess no doubt played a part; but although it is hard to quantify their effectiveness, they do not appear to have been especially successful. However, we should note that taxation has not always been set high enough to discourage consumption significantly; duty on tobacco in particular has usually been treated more as a means of raising revenue than as a means of limiting smoking.
Drug addiction becomes a problem
It was during the nineteenth century, a period of rapidly increasing prosperity, that drug addiction started to become a major social problem both in this country and in America. The proliferation of patent medicines and opiate nostrums like laudanum and paregoric, and an amazingly complacent and liberal approach to the prescribing of morphine by the new medical profession, brought addiction to the masses and the opium drunkard to the attention of both newspaper columnists and social reformers. The pendulum swung back. New regulations reduced the availability of the opiates, and of cocaine, and induced a greater degree of responsibility among doctors and pharmacists. This was instrumental in curing the immediate epidemic and in keeping the lid on the problem until after the Second World War.
Finally, in the twentieth century, as rising prosperity introduced ever more potent preparations to a wider market, artificial drugs like PCP and LSD began to be manufactured and distributed among whole new categories of users. The so-called designer drugs are their inevitable successors; although many are no more than fads, others may prove highly dangerous. There is no obvious limit to the availability and potency of such substances; they might be engineered to be (almost) harmlessly pleasurable or else instantly and irreversibly addictive.
Any solution must cope with change
Any alleged solution to the drug problem that fails to take into account this historical process is likely to be overtaken by events, as the future brings forth an ever-expanding range of inexpensive designer drugs and novel techniques for the production of traditional ones — such as opiates from genetically engineered yeast or hallucinogenic milk from modified cows. Other forms of addiction may also arise — such as addiction to the direct electrical stimulation of the pleasure centres of the brain (indeed it is a little hard to see why this commonplace of science-fiction has not already become popular). Not only is it impossible to return to the "simple" days of the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries, as some of the more naive proponents of legalisation suggest, it will doubtless prove impossible even to keep things the way they are.
Chapter 3. The Way We Are
A deteriorating situation
Readers are no doubt familiar enough with the situation today. Drug abuse has never been a more serious problem. The raft of laws meant to deal with it is widely flouted. Vast profits are made by traffickers in illicit drugs, profits that come ultimately from the purses of honest citizens. Drug addiction has multiplied, and crime has multiplied with it. Epidemics of heroin addiction, cocaine addiction, amphetamine abuse, barbiturate abuse, even glue-sniffing come and go, but the trend is always upward. Drug abuse has become endemic; and the problem is getting worse.
How serious is the problem? It is hard to be sure. Still, the United Kingdom registered around 10,000 new addicts a year in the nineteen nineties, up from under a thousand in the early seventies and around two and a half thousand in the early eighties. The total number of registered addicts is thus on the order of 100,000 (perhaps 0.2% of the population). This does not include those who are addicted, but who fail to register for treatment or maintenance. Nor does it include the millions of young people who use (or who are alleged to use) drugs like Ecstasy or marijuana. Nor does it include the abuse of prescription drugs such as sedatives and amphetamines. Nor does it include alcohol and tobacco. Yet the UK is one of the places least affected by the world-wide growth of the illicit drug trade.
Perhaps the most alarming feature of the problem is not its current magnitude but the fact that the situation is deteriorating. We should not however be misled by temporary reductions in the crime figures, or the numbers of registered addicts, into believing that we are finally getting the better of this mischief; by the very nature of the phenomenon we must expect year-to-year fluctuations to be large. The historical trend is apparent.
Attempts to control drug abuse
Most of the time, governments wish to restrict, control or eradicate the abuse of drugs within their own territories. How do they attempt to do this? The answer varies from country to country; some are strict, some are less strict; some are sympathetic to users, some less so; some are more consistent, some less. In the Third World especially, corruption is rife. In Europe, actual corruption is comparatively rare; but inadequate enforcement of existing law is common. In the Netherlands, for instance, laxness to the point of an almost complete failure to prosecute has become official policy — what is misleadingly known as decriminalisation. By contrast, the face of the Orient is stern; on the Pacific rim, the penalty prescribed for drug trafficking is often death, though performance seldom matches the promise. In America, law enforcement practice ranges unpredictably from draconian cruelty, with the abandonment of the rule of law and the provisions of the constitution, to downright ineffectiveness and inaction. Perhaps the best example of a country with a moderate, civilised and occasionally consistent policy on drug control is the United Kingdom — and perhaps that is why the problem is less pressing here than elsewhere.
Specifically then, how have successive British governments attempted to deal with the drug problem? Partly by taxation or excise duty (in the case of alcohol and tobacco); partly by regulation (in the case of prescription drugs); partly by criminalisation (in the case of illicit drugs including marijuana); partly by medical treatment (especially for opiate and cocaine addiction — and of course for alcoholism); and partly by education and propaganda (both in the schools and in the media).
It would be unfair to accuse government of dogmatic adherence to a single strategy, since official policy has been characterised by a pragmatic willingness to try a little of everything; but at the same time it is arguable that this plethora of approaches has itself contributed to the scale of the problem and the difficulty of solution. Perhaps it has not been a total failure, but it has certainly not proved a complete success.
In the legislative field, a wide range of statutes and regulations has been employed, from the Pharmacy Act of 1868 to the Dangerous Drugs Act of 1920 and the Drug Trafficking Offences Act of 1986. These are similar but not identical to legislation elsewhere in the Commonwealth, such as the Misuse of Drugs Act (Singapore), or in the United States, such as the Harrison Act of 1914 and the Controlled Substances Act of 1970. Just to make things interesting, these different laws sometimes go by the same name; for example, Britain also has a Misuse of Drugs Act.
It would not be helpful to examine these laws in detail here. For one thing, nobody considers them wholly satisfactory; for another it is not their wording but the implications of the underlying policies that is at issue; furthermore, laws, regulations and policies are changing all the time, and much of what I describe is sure to be out of date by the time you read it. However, one point should be noted: anti-drug laws have not arisen out of common or equity law; they are universally of the nature of arbitrary or statute law.
Now statute law is not necessarily bad, nor is it always in conflict with the common law, which it may sometimes attempt to codify; nor is judge-made case law necessarily the same as common law, legalists' definitions notwithstanding, for judges are all too often arbitrary or politically motivated, whereas the true common law is the law of natural justice. Nevertheless, it is largely because drug laws are statutes or regulations imposed by governments that they tend to be unreliable in their adherence to the principles of justice. The relevance of this point will become apparent later on.
Under these laws, various forms of criminal sanction have been employed against dealers, traffickers, smugglers, pushers and users, as well as those who launder the proceeds or who are otherwise associated with the drug trade (or who are believed to be so associated): these include fines, the garnishing of bank accounts and the confiscation of assets; but the principal punishment is normally imprisonment, albeit weakened by the likelihood of remission or suspended sentences. However, capture and conviction rates have generally been considered disappointingly low.
Action at source
Attempts have also been made to contain the evil (as it has been characterised) at source, in the producing countries of Latin America and the Far East. Methods employed have included diplomatic and economic pressure, assistance with eradication programmes, secondment of police consultants or military advisers, and, with or without the permission of the governments directly concerned, the occasional direct military intervention. However, such active or pre-emptive involvement more accurately depicts the stance of the United States than of the United Kingdom.
It has not helped matters that governments have also at times become involved in the drug trade; it has proved too convenient an economic and political weapon to be relinquished. The funding for terrorists, freedom fighters, rebels and resistance movements alike has often been provided through the sale of illicit drugs. Intelligence assets have been paid off in opium. Drug trafficking Mafiosi have been used for covert operations. Enemy personnel have been compromised by drug addiction; conspiracies have abounded. Such practices go back at least to the Second World War.
Inadequacy of existing policies
It is apparent that on the one hand the availability of legally-prescribed drugs on the NHS has been insufficient to undercut the black market, while on the other hand the likelihood and severity of punishment has been insufficient to deter illegal distribution and use. Customs inspections have failed to stem the flow of illicit drugs into the country, and the police have been unable to prevent them from subsequently reaching the market. Similarly, taxes have been insufficient to restrict smoking; and regulation has been insufficient to prevent widespread abuse of prescription drugs. Medical treatment has produced a dearth of cures and a ubiquity of backsliding. Education, once the great white hope of liberals, has proved ineffective, not least because of a lack of belief in the integrity of the educators.
As we proceed with the analysis, we shall hope to understand more of the complexities of the drug problem and the way we are today. Why is the problem so intractable? Why have none of these policies worked? Why are the prospects for the future so bleak? Why does it seem that we have no answers? What's wrong with the ideas of the radicals or the reactionaries? What's the matter with legalisation, or the War on Drugs? Why are the solutions that are proposed inadequate? And why is it so difficult to create a just and effective legislative framework for the control of recreational drugs?
Chapter 4. Alcohol And Tobacco Are Drugs Too
A mythical problem?
We often hear that the drug problem is a myth, because alcohol and tobacco cause far more deaths than heroin, cocaine, LSD and all the rest combined. Well, so they do, but alcohol and tobacco are drugs too. They are addictive and dangerous and lead to crime; they impose immense burdens upon society and the economy. They just happen to be taxed and legal. Indeed (libertarians note!) they are such a major problem precisely because they are legal.
First, consider alcohol: the vice of drunkenness has been known since ancient times, indeed it has often been implicated, perhaps exaggeratedly, in the collapse of civilisations; it has certainly played a part in the downfall of many a human being and the destruction of many human lives. As noted above, the nature of alcohol abuse has changed over time as the potency of available liquors has increased; nowadays, persistent drunkenness easily becomes alcoholism, which must surely be treated as a classic example of drug addiction, involving as it does the phenomena of tolerance, withdrawal, physical and psychological dependence, behavioural change and the possibility of death from overdosing. It is hard to find any reason, beyond that of social acceptability, not to consider alcohol an addictive drug.
However, it is clear that in normal use alcohol is only weakly addicting; moderate, responsible drinkers are in the majority, alcoholics very much in the minority. Later we shall see how alcohol's high user elasticity of demand defines it as a "soft" drug; paradoxically, this may make it exceptionally dangerous in a free market, more so even than "hard" drugs like heroin and cocaine. As we all know, drinking to excess is dangerous not only to the drinker, but also to other people, especially those imperilled by drunk driving; hooliganism and vagrancy are other all-too-frequent results.
Tea and coffee
Another weakly addicting substance, often labelled the world's most popular drug, is the caffeine in tea or coffee. It is almost impossible to become addicted to tea, and not much easier to become addicted to coffee. Indeed, although some people may overdo the coffee drinking and appear to become excessively irritable as a result, it is doubtful whether any of them are truly addicted; if the price of coffee went up, they'd cut down. It seems more likely that they are irritable because of the pressure they're under that leads them to drink a lot of coffee than because of the coffee itself. I shall not be considering coffee as an addictive drug. This is not because caffeine isn't addictive. It is — but only when taken in a concentrated form such as a pill. There simply isn't enough caffeine in coffee or other beverages to lead to addiction. Or to put it another way — it's just not practicable to drink enough coffee to become addicted.
Tobacco is clearly a drug on any reasonable definition (though its active principle nicotine may not be the only addictive component). Its users display tolerance, withdrawal, psychological dependence, and (weak) behavioural shifts. They also have a very low user elasticity of demand; even major price hikes lead them to economise on tobacco only very slightly. In short, tobacco users display all the signs of drug addiction.
One way in which tobacco differs from most psychoactive drugs, including alcohol, and the probable reason for its social acceptability, is the absence of any major behavioural effect on the user, so long as he is not deprived of his daily dose. The regular smoker can get on with his normal life, drive a car in safety, concentrate on his work, perform a thousand and one tasks, all the while acting in a socially unexceptional fashion. The heroin addict, LSD freak or habitual drunkard is not so fortunate.
Nevertheless, tobacco is a hard drug and a deadly one. Indeed it is one of the hardest or most addictive drugs we know, certainly the hardest in common use. It is an uncomfortable fact that practically all smokers, getting on for half the adult population, are addicted. They do not often admit their addiction, pretending instead that they smoke because they like it, although the euphoria or "buzz" the first few cigarettes gave them is long gone. This pretence is the behaviour pattern known as "denial", especially familiar to those whose work is with alcoholics.
No one likes to acknowledge, even to himself, that he is such a feeble, weak and worthless creature that a mere non-living chemical can destroy his freedom of will and turn him into a hapless slave. Yet acknowledge it we must. I'm not suggesting that any of us is truly worthless — of course we're not — for even the hardened addict is much more than a slave and retains a great deal of his free will; but the human frame is weak, and there but for the grace of God go you or I.
Chapter 5. All Drugs Are Dangerous
Marijuana isn't safe
We often hear that marijuana should be legalised because it's harmless. Nobody ever died from smoking pot, we're told, and anyway it's obviously much safer than tobacco. There's a lot of truth in that. There's also a lot of falsehood.
It is true that, compared to tobacco, less of the hemp weed needs to be smoked to maintain a habit, so some of the health hazards may also be correspondingly less; but to be safer than something that will kill around 20% of the population is hardly a recommendation.
It is also true that no one drops dead from smoking a reefer — overdosing on marijuana is all but impossible — but then no one drops dead from smoking a cigarette either. That doesn't make tobacco safe. And it doesn't make marijuana safe.
Long term risks
Even with drugs like heroin, where overdosing is common, the death rate is likely to be dominated by the long-term damage resulting from repeated use — just as with tobacco. The difficulty here is that it is very hard reliably to associate long-term medical or psychological problems with the antecedent drug use. It took centuries of widespread use and the collection of immense amounts of data before the dangers of tobacco smoking were recognised and quantified. Comparable data for illegal drugs does not even begin to exist; and there is no mechanism by which it could be gathered; in a regime in which the use of such drugs is banned, large-scale adequately controlled experiments or surveys are impracticable.
It is certainly true that many of the presently observed risks of drug-taking are simply the result of the activity's illegality. There can be no guarantee of purity, strength, consistency, quality or safety of products bought on the black market. Potentially dangerous impurities and uncertain doses are the rule, not the exception. Add to that the appalling circumstances in which addicts "shoot up" and their understandable unwillingness to seek help for any resulting medical problems and we can see the force of the argument for legalisation. But we ought also to realise that there are similar if lesser risks intrinsic to the activity itself; even if heroin is legalised there will still be overdose deaths, as with barbiturates today.
We simply do not know how dangerous in the long run recreational drugs (other than alcohol and tobacco) may be; short of full legalisation and a highly addicted population we are unlikely to find out for sure. That a tiny proportion of young people suffers a fatal reaction to their first experiment with Ecstasy is unfortunate yet (except to those immediately involved) insignificant; but the possibility that millions may suffer from irreversible brain damage is alarming. Even if on this occasion the claim proves unfounded, what about the next fashionable drug, or the one after that? Sooner or later we are bound to draw the short straw.
By the very nature of the problem, the dangers are frightening and unknown — and may indeed prove catastrophic. It is true that the introduction of new drugs in medicine faces much the same difficulties; but here there are clear benefits to offset the risks, and usage can be more easily controlled and monitored.
Drugs have side effects
Objection: If we can't demonstrate the existence of long-term health hazards, why assume there are any? Aren't we behaving like the health nuts who keep telling us to stop eating bread, butter, sugar, meat, eggs, cheese, sweets, chocolates, potatoes and anything else more appetising than raw carrots, nuts and lettuce, or drinking coffee, tea, milk, or toothrotting soft drinks? Not really. There's a difference. The human body needs food; it doesn't need drugs (not so long as it's healthy, anyhow). It's designed to take sustenance; it's not designed to take intoxicants. Indeed, the very word intoxicant means poison.
For a century or more doctors, medical researchers and pharmaceutical companies have dedicated millions of man-years and billions of pounds to the search for medicines that are beneficial, effective, yet free from harmful side effects. They have failed. In all that time, not one completely harmless drug has been found. Even the common aspirin will eventually ruin your stomach lining and kill you, if you take it in quantity every day.
I don't wish to imply that medicine isn't useful — of course it is — but as a necessary evil rather than a positive good. The advantages of medicinal drugs often outweigh the disadvantages; yet we must accept that there are always drawbacks, which become worrying whenever a course of treatment is unduly prolonged. Some people (such as diabetics) may actually need a particular medicine in order to survive: this is their misfortune; it in no way alters the general fact that drugs are dangerous.
There's a reason why active drugs always have side effects. It's this: the human metabolism is a complex of intricately-tangled interactions; every molecular species naturally present does umpteen different jobs; any artificially supplied drug will similarly find itself altering the natural metabolism at umpteen different points. Side effects are thus inevitable — one can only hope they won't be too deleterious.
So wouldn't it be an absolutely astonishing coincidence — nay, a miracle! — if of all the pharmacologically active substances ever investigated, only the illicit recreational drugs were actually free from harmful long-term side effects?
Drugs about as harmful as tobacco
Still, even if all drugs are harmful, some may be more harmful than others. We have already remarked that marijuana may be less harmful than tobacco. What of other drugs, like amphetamines or hallucinogens — are they more harmful or less? Who knows? The data just aren't good enough. Might we steer consumption away from the more harmful drugs in favour of the less harmful? Doubtful. Even if we knew which was which, some of the more harmful drugs would probably turn out to be more attractive too — or simply more addictive. Then can we get any handle at all on how harmful addictive drugs in general are likely to be, after legalisation? Surprisingly, despite our lack of detailed knowledge, we can. Typically, addictive drugs are likely to be just about as harmful as tobacco (though some might still give us a nasty surprise and prove considerably more dangerous).
Now why should drugs come out roughly as harmful as tobacco? For this reason: in a regime of full legalisation the delivery method of choice will probably be the doped cigarette. By comparison with most other methods it is cheap, convenient, efficient, reliable, profitable, popular, safe and socially acceptable; by safe I mean that the possibilities of overdosing and infection are effectively ruled out; by socially acceptable I mean that whereas the smoker is sometimes disapproved of, he is seldom if ever despised the way other addicts are; indeed, in many circles, smoking is considered cool. Although health hazards could no doubt be reduced considerably if drug intake were instead effected through the use of inhalers, like those provided to asthmatics, it is hard to see consumers accepting their rather wimpish image. Furthermore, the doped cigarette could make use of the industrial plant, distribution networks and commercial enterprises already in place.
I can foresee tobacconists and corner newsagents stocking a range of opium, cannabis and cocaine enhanced brands at a ten or twenty percent premium above ordinary tobacco. Indeed, if drugs are ever legalised, it is hard not to see this as the inevitable outcome. Although not everyone would buy his drugs this way (some might still snort coke just as a few still sniff snuff), doped cigarettes seem likely to account for by far the greatest volume of sales. Moreover, for the convenience of manufacturers and consumers, we might expect potencies to be adjusted to yield typically the same twenty-a-day habit across the range. Whichever drug he chooses, the consumer will end up smoking just about the same number of cigarettes a day. Thus the overall long-term health hazards are likely to be much the same as for ordinary tobacco smokers at present.
To sum up this chapter: the extreme claims of certain activists, that recreational drugs like marijuana, or even heroin and cocaine, are not particularly dangerous, or would not be dangerous if only they were legally available, must be rejected; moreover, we must accept that the presence or absence of acute health hazards is not a reliable guide to the long-term risks, which we can normally expect to be considerably greater, typically leading, as with tobacco, to the premature deaths of on the order of fifty per cent of chronic users.
Chapter 6. Drugs Can Harm Other People
Is drug taking victimless?
We are often told that drug-taking is a victimless crime and therefore ought not to be a crime at all. This has a certain plausibility. If we ignore the fact that the drug user makes a victim of himself, or at any rate argue that this is irrelevant in law if not in morality, we may be led into too hasty an acceptance of the argument for legalisation. For drug-taking can harm other people. It is not always victimless.
Harm to others
Rowdy drunks in the street, if not an outright menace to society, are at least a decided nuisance. Drunks behind the wheel of a car are unquestionably a menace. Smokers polluting the air that others have to breath are a nuisance at best, a health hazard at worst (though here I must make it clear that the recent passive-smoking scare goes way over the top — the risks cannot be anything like the 20,000 UK deaths a year now being bandied around).
Almost any psychoactive drug is likely to interfere with one's ability to carry out everyday tasks: to drive a car in safety, to operate industrial machinery, or to perform brain surgery — to select only a few examples out of many. In the modern world, in which all of us have to rely upon the capability of other people to do their jobs and fulfil their obligations in an effective and responsible manner, the dangers of untoward drug use are considerable. In the modern world, we need our wits about us. There are few positions in which one would be willing to trust a drunkard; much the same must be true for any other mind-altering drug.
We should not take the debunking of the "dope fiend" myths that used to be so widely disseminated as an excuse for falling into the opposite error. These drugs do indeed cause behavioural shifts, which can often have alarming consequences. True, only a tiny percentage of cocaine users will turn into raving lunatics — but those that do may be quite a bother. Not all psychedelics will lose touch with reality — but some of them assuredly will. Perhaps not every user will be a public danger or a public nuisance, just as not every drunk litters the sidewalk or sings in the street, but it can hardly be doubted that, one way or another, drug addicts will have difficulty filling the role of the normal citizen.
Public health problems also arise, especially where the sale of drugs is banned; the spread of AIDS and other diseases through shared needles is an obvious example. Less obvious is the tendency of drug addicts to be more prone to infection and thus more apt to pass infections on to other people with whom they come in contact; a population higher in drug users will thus have a higher disease endemicity and a lower resistance to epidemics. People who don't take drugs themselves will suffer and even die as a result.
Then there are the crimes that are committed by drug users under the influence of drugs — crimes many of which would otherwise never have been committed. Again, we need not accept the caricature of drug users as malevolent and maniacal fiends to realise that the problem exists. Few people doubt that drinking can encourage crime; what is true of alcohol is also true, in varying degrees, of other recreational and even medicinal drugs.
Drug users must pay
Drug users, it is clear, place innocent people at risk through their actions. It does not follow from this that drug use ought to be banned. It does however follow, I believe, that drug users, or the drug trade, must bear the full costs of such additional imposed risks; for it is blatantly unjust that anyone else should have to bear them instead.
Nevertheless, we must not forget that if we criminalise drug use, this also harms other people — most especially the victims of the crimes that addicts commit to fund their costly habits. It seems clear that the harm done to other people per addict is greater by far if drugs are illegal (and expensive), than if they are legal (and cheap), as is the damage done to the individual addict himself. Even so, criminalisation may be appropriate if the number of addicts is thereby reduced sufficiently that the total harm to innocents is also reduced.
Against that we may set the argument that where drugs are legal it may be practicable to make users pay for any harm they inflict on others. A harmfulness tax, for example, might be levied on the sale of drugs, like today's excise duty on alcohol and tobacco; this would be calculated on the basis of the full social harm consequent upon the use of that drug.
Furthermore, where the use of drugs brings a heightened risk of liability, as in driving a car or practising as a hairdresser, the drug user might expect to have to pay a correspondingly higher insurance premium; failure to take out adequate third-party insurance would then be an offence, for which the miscreant could expect to be punished. And where any tort or crime is committed under the influence of drugs, civil or criminal proceedings can be expected to follow.
Thus, in a regime of legal drug use, innocent people can be protected and drug users obliged to carry full responsibility for their actions. But where drugs are illegal it is likely that society as a whole will have to carry most of the burden.
Chapter 7. Passive Smoking Is An Assault
Smokers pollute the air
The anti-smoking lobby has recently been making a lot of mileage out of the issue of passive smoking, and we do not have to buy the whole package to accept that there is a genuine problem here. At the very least, it is apparent that smokers polluting the air that others have to breath are committing a public nuisance. And even if tobacco smoke were not dangerous, deliberately blowing smoke into a non-smoker's face would still be violating his rights and committing an assault, albeit not an especially serious one. Smoking at someone is an unpleasantness broadly equivalent to spitting at them. Such assaults and nuisances should certainly be prosecuted.
The hazard from passive smoking not great
However, it is all too easy to exaggerate the problem. Passive smoking is hardly the scourge it is now portrayed as being. If tobacco is killing off smokers at a rate of 100,000 a year in the UK, by far the greater part of that hazard must be the result of active smoking — that is, sucking the poison directly from the cigarette into the lungs. Although the unfiltered smoke from the cigarette end is more dangerous, most of it disperses harmlessly in the air, only a small fraction ever being rebreathed. If smokers do most of their smoking indoors, we might plausibly be able to attribute up to 20,000 deaths a year to passive smoking; but these are smokers' deaths, already included in the 100,000.
So how many non-smokers will die of passive smoking? The figure has to be a lot smaller. First, even where non-smokers are working in the same room, the air will be thicker in the immediate vicinity of the smokers; typically the non-smokers will take up only about half as much ambient smoke as the smokers themselves. Second, birds of a feather flock together. In other words, smokers tend to work with other smokers, and smokers tend to marry other smokers. The tendency of non-smokers to avoid smokers is even greater. This separation is enhanced by the correlation between smoking and socio-economic class (working class people are more likely to smoke than middle class people), and the corresponding separation of work and home environments. Third, smokers and non-smokers alike often live or work alone, or spend much of their time apart from other people (for example, in the cab of a lorry, or in a private office); thus much smoking takes place in circumstances in which passive smoking is effectively ruled out. Fourth, non-smokers often will not permit smoking in their presence; even where they have no formal authority, they may be able to apply sufficient social pressure to shame the smokers into compliance. Thus, traditionally, before feminists turned women on to smoking, housewives commonly refused to allow their husbands to smoke in the house, driving them out into the backyard instead.
Putting all of this together, it is hard to see how passive smoking could kill more than say 2000 non-smokers a year. Even that is probably pushing it. A figure of around 1000 a year is perhaps more defensible. Of these, few can be considered a violation of the victim's rights. Nobody forces you to marry a smoker. Nobody forces you to work with smokers (or not as a general rule). Probably the only serious consequence of passive smoking is the effect on children brought up in smoking households. There we do have a problem; possibly six hundred such children a year may die as a result (not necessarily or even usually in childhood). Whether this justifies any form of legal sanction against smokers with children is debatable; but it is hard to see how it could ever justify any blanket ban on the sale of tobacco, on tobacco advertising and sponsorship, or on smoking in public places (though such a ban might conceivably be justified on other grounds).
There is little need for special legislation on passive smoking. On private property, smoking can legitimately be controlled by the owner, who has the power either to permit it or forbid it. For example — and leaving aside the question of children — you are entitled to smoke tobacco in your own home, or allow your visitors to smoke; if anyone doesn't like it, they needn't come in. Equally, you are entitled to prevent people smoking there; again, if they don't like it, they can leave.
In the workplace, an employer may designate certain areas for smoking and others as non-smoking. Or he may bar all smoking on the premises or on company business. So long as he and his employees abide by the terms of their contracts, there is no problem. If you don't like the conditions of employment, you don't take the job.
As for public places, there seems insufficient basis for penalising smoking in the open air (except in such unusual cases as qualify as assault); only in confined spaces is there any significant nuisance. Hospitals, libraries and the like can normally be relied upon to restrict smoking appropriately on their own authority. Restaurants and shops — the focus of much proposed and actual anti-passive-smoking legislation — are public only in the sense of being open to all comers. The recognition of private property rights in most of these so-called public places readily solves the apparent dilemmas of passive smoking.
Thus, if a restaurateur states clearly on the menu board outside that smoking is (or is not) permitted, no one has any cause for complaint. If the railway company decides to provide both smoking and non-smoking carriages, there is no difficulty (unless passengers in non-smoking compartments are subjected to smoke drifting in from elsewhere, when they have a case for damages against the company, or passengers violate the terms upon which the company has agreed to convey them, by lighting up in a non-smoker, when they themselves are rendered liable to a fine).
If these issues had not been so distorted by false arguments and blatant propaganda on behalf of the so-called public interest I should not have felt it necessary to go into such detail; as it is it seems important to set the record straight. Smoking should not be permitted in a police station, or a court of law, or a prison, or any other place that non-smokers may be forced to attend, nor in any building to which they have an unconditional right of access, nor in any place where they have been contractually guaranteed a smoke-free environment. Otherwise the mere existence of passive smoking risks cannot justify any further statutory intervention.
The problem of the children is more difficult. Parents who smoke certainly do put their children at risk, though the risk is not particularly great — a death rate of perhaps 1 in 300. A not entirely satisfactory solution would be for such children to sue the parents for the expected loss due to ill health and loss of amenity, in all perhaps a year's average income; alternatively they might sue for divorce or leave home. However, I would argue that the dangers are by no means great enough to justify direct intervention, so long as we are willing to respect the rights both of children who want protection and of those who don't want it.
A model for other drugs
As previously noted, if drugs are legalised the doped cigarette is likely to become commonplace. Although this complicates the passive smoking issue somewhat, it does not compromise the underlying principles (so now you know what this chapter is doing in an treatise on the drug problem). In most cases, the simple enforcement of property rights will prevent involuntary passive drug abuse. Property owners will have to specify what kinds of cigarettes or what other forms of drug use will be permissible on their property; users and abstainers will then have to choose how to travel, who to visit, and where to eat, shop, work and relax. Passive smoking can thus serve as a model for dealing with the varied harms that drug users may inflict upon other people.
Chapter 8. Drugs Cause Crime
Categories of drug related crime
It is frequently and correctly pointed out by opponents of the present system that a large percentage of today's crimes are drug-related. Opinion (or dogma) is divided upon whether such crimes are principally caused by the drugs or by the drug laws. We may usefully categorise drug-related crimes as follows:
1) Offences against the drug laws themselves.
2) Offences committed by drug dealers to secure their spoils.
3) Offences committed by drug users to support their drug habits.
4) Offences committed by drug users under the influence of drugs.
Offences against drug laws
Offences against the drug laws are clearly artefacts of the legal regime and would cease to exist as and when those laws were repealed. Given that the investigation and prosecution of such offences relating to the production, smuggling, distribution, vending, possession and personal use of illicit drugs accounts for a sizeable fraction of law-and-order expenditure, not to mention police manpower, court time and prison places, it is apparent that the elimination of this whole category would be highly beneficial.
Offences by drug dealers
The second category describes the "rent-seeking" behaviour of undoubted criminals. Here we have gang warfare, double-crosses, murders, enslavements, robberies, threats, thuggery, blackmail, bribery, corruption and all the rest. It should not be necessary for me to go into further detail. Whatever the theoretical merits of a free market in psychoactive substances, as matters stand today the suppliers of black market drugs are not unreasonably to be characterised as "scum". Although we may not care very much what these criminals do to each other, we cannot be indifferent to the fate of innocent bystanders who "see too much" or are "caught in the crossfire". Legalisation, it is claimed, would eliminate this category of crimes by undercutting the basis of the illicit drug trade. We need to be cautious about accepting this claim. Although some drug traffickers will no doubt retire or turn honest, most will seek to expand into any still-banned sectors (eg. sales to minors), obtain control of the new legitimate market (which they will see as a prize), or diversify into other profitable criminal endeavours. In the short term, at least, "organised" crime might even increase.
Offences by drug users
The third category is currently the most worrying, since it is clearly on an upward trend and may already account for as much as a half of all crime. Its existence is clearly the result of the high street-price of drugs consequent on their illegality. Maintaining a habit is more than most users can afford, especially since their addiction usually reduces their earning capacity also. Since the free-market price of these drugs would be lower by at least a factor of ten (and most probably by a factor of a hundred) it is clear that legalisation would have an enormous impact; individually, addicts would be overwhelmingly better off, and all but the very poorest would be able to fund their habit without resorting to crime. Unless the number of addicts increased hugely, this category of offence would all but disappear.
Offences under the influence
The fourth category should be understood to embrace not only criminal acts committed under the influence of drugs but also civil wrongs (including those associated with passive smoking) and various damages not currently addressed under the legal system (such as acting as a disease carrier, perhaps), but not harms that violate no rights (for example, the distress of family and friends). It is a category often ignored, possibly in reaction to the absurd "reefer madness" propaganda of former decades. Except in relation to alcohol, it is not a major factor in drug crime today. Nevertheless, such offences do exist. They would become important if plummeting prices on legalisation led to the large increase in total demand that economic theory would predict. We should note that even though alcohol prices are kept artificially high by taxation, and alcohol consumption thereby kept down, crimes committed under the influence of alcohol have become a serious social problem; similar problems might be expected to arise with the legalisation of other drugs.
Chapter 9. Drug Crimes Are Victimless
It may seem strange if I now argue that drug crimes are victimless. Haven't I just finished proving that they have many victims? Nevertheless, there is an important technical sense in which drug crimes are indeed victimless, because nobody brings any complaint.
Let me clarify that. We're talking here about category 1, most of category 2, and some of categories 3 and 4 above. When an addict (or anyone else) mugs you for your wallet, there is no question but that a crime has been committed and that you are the victim; you immediately complain to the police. But when a dealer sells drugs to a user, complaining to the police is the last thing on their minds; the transaction is private, and meant to stay that way. So how are the police to know that that particular offence ever took place? When a parcel of drugs is smuggled into the country, no outraged victim calls the cops. When one gang of drug dealers sets upon another, the victims, being criminals themselves, are in no position to complain. As far as the law is concerned, there is no complainant, thus no victim. This causes substantial difficulties and raises the spectre of corruption.
Ideals of common law
Consider an ideal common law regime. When one individual violates the person or property of another an offence is committed. The victim may then bring suit against, or prosecute, the person he accuses of committing the offence. If the case is proven, the defendant is obliged to make restitution. Overall, an offender's expected penalty should equal the victim's expected loss plus costs. The function of the court is to render judgement and enforce it against the party at fault, but it has no direct interest in the outcome (although it has an indirect interest if it makes good the victim's loss, as in justice it should, whether or not a conviction is actually obtained in any particular case). Indeed, if the parties can reach an out-of-court settlement of their dispute, there is in general no necessity for the court to become involved at all. Without a complainant there is no complaint.
Yet there are some offences for which this common-law ideal seems impracticable: namely, offences against the rule of law itself — treason, terrorism, oppression, corruption. Here the offence is not merely against some identifiable person, but against civil society as a whole. A terrorist's bomb may destroy a merchant's shop (and for this damage the terrorist ought to pay under the common law), but this is the least of his crime; for his purpose is to terrorise and oppress not only that particular merchant, but all similar merchants actual and potential, and all their actual and potential customers. There is no way we can gather together or even identify all his victims, still less determine the magnitude of the loss each has hypothetically suffered. Therefore the state must take it upon itself to prosecute and punish, on behalf of all its citizens. The just and proportional penalty is incalculable, but it is surely large, for what act could do more evil than the destruction of the rule of law itself? Hence the traditional sentence of death for treason.
Other offences may not be aimed specifically against the rule of law, but nevertheless lack identifiable and particular victims, and the state will be obliged to act in these cases too. Many drug offences fall under this heading. Unfortunately, the state now chooses to prosecute ordinary criminal cases in the name of the people or the sovereign, as if there were no identifiable victim under common law; this unnecessarily blurs a real distinction. Where the state is a party to the action, the legal system cannot be entirely impartial; there is undoubted scope for corruption. When the number of cases is small, yet the severity of the offence large — as with treason — this scope is limited. So too where there are actual victims to complain. But where "victimless" offences comprise a large fraction of the caseload, we are asking for trouble.
Chapter 10. the Corrupting Effect Of Anti-Drug Laws
No victim to complain
The civil rights implications of drug-law enforcement are well known. But perhaps I should outline some of the more serious problems. For each of these, the ideal solution, where practicable, would attempt to identify specific victims in such a way that each prosecutable offence could be brought under the aegis of common law; and if no such victim can be found consideration should be given to abolishing the offence in question.
Because there is no victim to complain, it is easy for dishonest officers to get away with taking bribes, and for drug traffickers to get away with bribing the police — not to mention the judges, juries, witnesses and anyone else whose perjured testimony or corrupt assistance might come in handy. After bribery, of course, comes blackmail — whether the police blackmailing the traffickers or vice versa. A climate of corruption arises in which it is very hard for anyone to retain his integrity; "everybody does it", so if you want to be one of the boys you've got to do it too. Although this is far less of a problem in Britain than in America, there are no grounds for complacency.
Because there is no victim to complain, police officers are tempted to act as agents provocateurs, soliciting the very crime for which they subsequently make an arrest. Entrapment becomes the norm. The police break the law, in order to catch "criminals" who otherwise might not have committed any offence at all. The police are then praised for their crimes, not punished, whilst their victims, the people they deliberately led into error, are vilified and cast down. Talk about Alice-in-Wonderland!
Because there is no victim to complain, police officers demand and receive extraordinary powers of search and seizure. The merest suspicion of involvement in a drug-related offence, perhaps no more than a telephoned tip-off, is considered "probable cause" for a warrant, which may not even be applied for until after the fact; illegal search-and-seizure becomes commonplace. Due process flies out of the window. Any property, not just contraband, that might conceivably have been used by some person at some time for something even peripherally associated with drugs may be confiscated, to be held in defiance of constitutional or other guarantees until the courts get around to holding a trial. Even when a defendant is acquitted, sequestrated property will not always be returned, and in the meantime a legitimate business may have been destroyed; compensation for such losses would be most unusual.
Closely related is the tendency, now enshrined in American if not quite yet in British law, to look upon all property associated with known traffickers as tainted, even that which is bought and sold in an entirely legitimate fashion. This taint is believed to be contagious; thus if you ever received a cheque for decorating the house of a man who subsequently turned out to be a drug dealer, all the money in your bank account — defined as a "money-laundering" account — could be seized. Theoretically, so too could the assets of your elderly mother, to whom you once made a small but tainted gift. This is, of course, absurd, but seemingly not too absurd for the war against drugs.
The keys to this injustice are twofold. First, a reliance upon the saw "give a dog a bad name". If a criminal gets some of his money from drug dealing, all of it must be suspect — never mind trivialities like proof or even evidence. Second, a failure of proportionality, a failure to "make the punishment fit the crime", the point of the Old Testament rule of "an eye for an eye", which forbids excessive punishment. There is also the danger that even the confiscation of the trafficker's own property may be treated less as a punishment than as an excuse for grabbing everything the state, or the enforcing agency, can lay its hands on.
This is not to say that the confiscation of a criminal's property or assets is of itself unreasonable or unjust. On the contrary, in the context of a fine, whereby a prison sentence might be reduced by say one year for every £40,000 confiscated, it would be entirely appropriate. Nor would it violate the rule of law if for certain serious offences all assets of the convicted felon were forfeit (perhaps up to some specified maximum), any lesser penalty being adjudged too lenient.
Is the cure worse than the disease?
None of this need be taken to imply that the anti-drug laws are in the nature of a statist conspiracy to destroy the rule of law and the principles of common justice, in order to replace them with a totalitarian or bureaucratic police state. Such conspiracies may exist. But it seems more likely that these evils and injustices are here largely but not wholly the unfortunate and almost inevitable result of well-meaning attempts at bringing under control a very real and difficult problem. Nevertheless, we might reasonably ask whether the cure may not be worse than the disease.
Chapter 11. The War On Drugs Isn't
A declaration of war
The failure of the so-called "war on drugs" is widely seen as discrediting the hard-line approach to drug control. In reality it does nothing of the sort. The reason is simple: the war on drugs is a phoney war. It is a war we have not yet begun to fight.
Forget the rhetoric. Forget the politics. Forget, for the time being, any question of right or wrong. What would a real war on drugs entail? Here's the scenario:
The passage through Parliament of a Defence of the Realm against Dangerous Drugs (Temporary Provisions) Act sets aside the civil authority of customs and excise, the courts and the police; this is tantamount to a declaration of war. Habeus corpus is suspended. Jurisdiction devolves onto the military, which is ordered to crush the drug trade by whatever means it deems tactically and strategically sound. D-notices ensure that the press prints only what it's told to print. Parliament must now toe the government line.
At home, the army performs spot checks of vehicles and passengers entering the country; all smugglers are summarily executed. However, the army's major effort is directed against the street-level pushers; these are soft targets, easy to detect and capture; after interrogation and torture they face the firing squad. Intelligence on those higher up the chain is thus not difficult to secure. Information gathered this way allows commando raids to be launched against the traffickers' warehouses, distribution centres and headquarters. Some of the drug lords may attempt to put up a fight, but against the firepower of a modern army they haven't a chance. So they're holed up in a house with a dozen hostages? Slam an anti-tank missile through the window. So they've set up a strong-point protected by nests of machine-guns? Napalm the block. So their shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles are threatening our helicopter gunships? Call in an artillery strike from twenty miles away.
In the overseas theatre, our commanders take the view that the producer countries are harbouring the enemy. They demand that the export of drugs be stopped, on pain of massive military retaliation: If the Colombian people and army do not destroy the cocaine cartels, they say, we will destroy Medellin, then Cartegena, then Bogata, and so on, until the menace is ended or the country has been bombed back into the stone age. In the meantime, the Navy will blockade the seaports and interdict air traffic. Warplanes flying from naval carriers or bases in the Caribbean will carry out raids into enemy territory: napalm and defoliants against the coca plantations, cluster bombs against the villages.
Rather than allow themselves to be nuked into oblivion, we may assume that the Colombians will end the export of cocaine — whatever the strength of the drug lords and the cost to their economy and internal liberties. We may also assume that once Colombia has fallen into line — or been made an example of — the rest of the producing countries will follow suit.
Lack of will
All right. Enough fantasy. It should be obvious enough that in an all-out war the drug traffickers would be exterminated and the drug trade eliminated. What hinders us here is not lack of ability but lack of political will. We hope that the words will stand in for the real thing. We want the results, but are unwilling to pay the price. Perhaps indeed the price is not worth paying; perhaps indeed a war is unnecessary or unjustified; but if that is what we believe, we should say so without undue pretence.
Let me point out one serious danger. If the drug problem keeps getting worse, sooner or later we'll have to call in the army to deal with it. If we treat them the way the Americans treated their military in Vietnam, by subjecting them to rules of engagement that prevent them from going out and winning, we will corrupt the armed forces in the same way that the police and courts are being corrupted today. It may then prove impossible to win the war, much as, without a pitiless external threat, it would even now prove difficult or impossible for corrupt third-world armies to eradicate the drug problem in their own countries. For the drug lords would already "own" many of the units intended for use against them; and unless the army backed off the result would be chaos and civil war. In such an event there might then be little alternative but to admit defeat and accept a move to legalise all drugs across the board — if indeed the drug lords and their bought politicians would even then permit it — for it is a paradox of our topsy-turvy world that the dealers in illicit drugs are the very last people to want the trade legalised.
A war on drugs is a drastic option. However, it need not be quite so drastic as in the scenario above; carrying the war to the producing countries is unnecessary and unwise — not to mention ethically dubious — and politically and militarily dangerous. Moreover, since most if not all drugs could if necessary be grown or manufactured locally, destroying the existing producers would not of itself solve the problem. Self-evidently, the most vulnerable aspect of drug trafficking is at the point of sale; therefore this is the point against which an attack would be most logical. If the distribution network within this country can be destroyed, and if trying to buy or sell drugs here gets you killed, the prevalence of drug production elsewhere in the world will be of little significance.
It is abundantly clear that, despite the rhetoric, we do not at this time have anything approaching a war on drugs. Thus to argue that the war on drugs doesn't work is to miss the point. It is an error on the same level as the common practice of blaming free-market capitalism for ills that are actually the result of government intervention.
It is also clear that, at present, there is no political will for a genuine war on drugs. To argue in favour of one at this time is either disingenuous or unrealistic. Nevertheless, it remains an option, a viable option, that might in some circumstances prove acceptable or even unavoidable.
— COMPLEXITIES —
Chapter 12. Prohibition Can Work
Half hearted prohibition
We are often told that anti-drug laws are futile because history shows that "prohibition cannot work". The failure of Prohibition in America is cited as proof. There can be little doubt that it was a failure. The experience of the United States with the Volstead Act and the gangsterism of Al Capone was sobering. Or rather, it wasn't! But the lesson drawn is invariably the wrong one.
Prohibition in America failed because it was half-hearted. Most of the people didn't want it. The politicians wanted it only for other people. So the law was never adequately enforced. The proliferation of speakeasies in which the consumption of illegal liquor was permitted with scarcely any official restraint was notorious. The law was clear — they should have been closed down. But even the President regularly flouted the law. And not just the law — the very constitution he was sworn to uphold!
Let me make it clear that my criticism of the inadequacies of federal enforcement of the Volstead Act is not to be taken as implying my approval of Prohibition in principle. To be blunt, I do not approve of the prohibition of alcohol; I consider it an unnecessary and unconscionable interference with the liberty of the individual. Nor should anything I say here be taken as defining any particular stance on the much more difficult question of the prohibition of addictive drugs. What is being discussed is not so much the morality as the practicality of prohibition. In ethics we learn that "ought implies can"; there is little point in attempting to decide what we should do until we understand what we can do.
Prohibition in America
Pressure towards the prohibition of intoxicating liquors built up in America after the civil war. There is disagreement as to the driving force behind the temperance movement; some accuse the movement of being anti-Catholic, others of being racially motivated; still others point to the Puritan strain present in colonial society from the outset and most noticeable today in the so-called religious right. However, the parallel growth of the temperance movement in Britain would seem to point rather to the newly-awakened liberal concern with poverty; for the squalor and destitution in which the poor were so often seen to live — and which so shocked the middle-class Victorians — was blamed largely on the evils of drink. Indeed, no one who reads the records of the time can be in any doubt as to the validity of the link. People were poor because they drank, and drank because they were poor, in a vicious cycle of degradation.
Whatever the underlying reasons for the strength of the temperance movement, the results are clear. By the end of the nineteenth century more than half of the states of America were "dry". True, there were loopholes — until 1913 liquor could be imported by mail order from the remaining wet states — but gradually the prohibitionists were getting their way. And they were succeeding! Alcohol consumption was down and so it seemed were rowdiness and poverty. The problems later associated with Prohibition, such as organised crime and political corruption, did not arise — or not to any worrying degree. The Demon Drink was on the way out. Indeed, if the statistics are to be believed, the temperance movement was so successful that even today only around 70% of Americans drink, compared with well over 90% in the UK (frankly, I find that 70% figure hard to swallow; if true, it may be down to the fact that more Americans are church-goers; but perhaps all it means is that 30% are under the astonishingly high drinking age of twenty-one).
The Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution was ratified in 1919 and came into operation in 1920, making the manufacture, sale and transportation of intoxicating liquors for "beverage purposes" illegal everywhere in the US. The Volstead Act then defined "intoxicating liquor" as anything with an alcohol content of more than half a percent; this came as a nasty shock to many of the amendment's own supporters, who thought they were prohibiting distilled spirits, not beer and wine. Alcohol for "medicinal purposes" was exempt — more on this later.
Problems with Prohibition
The problems that arose with Federal Prohibition have relevance to the wider question of drug control. These problems include: organised crime, corruption of politics, the police and the courts, contempt for the law, criminalisation of ordinary citizens, damage to health, destruction of livelihoods, and the extraordinary cost to the economy. Prohibition also failed in its primary purpose, that of eliminating the widespread abuse of alcohol.
At the risk of raking over too familiar ground, let me spell out what Prohibition meant. It did not create the phenomenon of organised crime, but it certainly gave it a boost into the big league. Al Capone and his minions took on the aura of Robin Hood and his merry men — perceived as public benefactors rather than criminals. In the public eye, the buccaneering myth masked the reality of bloodshed, threats and violence. Yet whatever the excuse, and however attractive the legend, Robin Hood himself was no saint; strip away the pretence and we find a gangster. Like Al Capone. One of the greatest dangers of bad laws is the way they make heroes out of villains; or, which is worse, make heroism out of villainy. Another danger is that contempt for the bad law spills over into contempt for the good. By making ordinary people criminals, Prohibition encouraged the commission of wrongful acts they would otherwise never have entertained. This was especially true for those whose livelihood depended on drink; brewers, distillers, wine-makers, grape-growers, bar-owners, hoteliers; the list seems endless.
The organised gangsters did not stick to rum-running and shooting each other. They were also into corruption. They bought judges, juries, policemen, politicians, prosecutors and witnesses. They even bought elections. Where they couldn't buy, they threatened or blackmailed or murdered. Although Prohibition did not create political corruption in America, it undoubtedly gave it free rein and encouraged its spread. Ultimately it was the American taxpayer who paid. No one knows how much he paid. But it was a lot.
Much of the damage to health came from the fact that bootleg liquor was often adulterated with wood alcohol, which causes blindness. Deaths from methanol poisoning may have exceeded a thousand a year. Perhaps more important, if less dramatic, was the shift away from unwieldy beers and wines towards concentrated spirits, which were more easily bootlegged — but which, being more potent, also led more easily to alcoholism. This factor may have caused additional deaths in the tens of thousands a year. Moreover, since drinking was illegal, few would admit to having a drinking problem, and so the medical treatment of alcoholism was further undermined.
It has been suggested that alcohol consumption actually rose during Prohibition. This seems improbable. The only evidence for an increase is anecdotal — no statistically significant comparison of the legal with the illegal regimes is now or ever would have been possible. Estimates of the consumption of bootleg liquor must inevitably have been tainted by political expediency — depending upon whether one wanted to prove that Prohibition was, or was not, working, or that this department, or that, should receive a higher budget.
However, we can get a handle on the likely change in alcohol consumption by looking at the effect of Prohibition on prices. This was probably not great. Certainly we would not expect there to have been any net fall in price, even though the bootleg trade was able to cut costs by evading taxes; otherwise the black market would already have taken over. At the same time, the facility with which home brewing, wine making and "moonshining" could be undertaken, and the legal availability of medicinal alcohol, would have prevented the price from reaching exorbitant levels. On balance, the effect was probably a modest price increase. Because alcohol demand is elastic, this will have led to a similarly modest reduction in consumption (but an increase in the anti-social nature of that consumption). Since the period was one of rising prosperity, this reduction must be offset against the rise in demand induced by the increased affordability of drink at a given price; but this increase would have occurred anyway, unless taxes had also been increased in proportion. The bottom line is that, although the precise effect of Prohibition is unknown, any reduction in alcohol consumption was surely slight — far short of the goals of the prohibitionists.
Analogy with fight against drugs
It is clear that Prohibition and the fight against drugs have much in common; it is for this reason that I have discussed it here at such length. For if Prohibition was ill-conceived (as surely it was) then the same could evidently be said of today's so-called war on drugs. However, before we agitate for the abolition of this modern Prohibition, let us note one uncomfortable fact. The evils of Prohibition were not eliminated by the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment; organised crime did not go away, the corruption of politics, police and courts if anything became worse, respect for the law was not renewed, damage to the economy was not reversed, government spending did not fall, and excessive and anti-social drinking continued.
Making prohibition work
None of this was inevitable. Prohibition could have worked. Let's look at how. The Eighteenth Amendment made bootlegging a crime against the constitution. Bootleggers and their customers were not merely criminals; they were traitors; the conspiracy of organised crime and the smuggling and distribution of illicit liquor by armed gangsters was insurrection; the whisky-guzzling senators and presidents were committing treason. Under the War Powers provision of the American Constitution (suspending the writ of habeus corpus in time of invasion or rebellion) they would all have been liable to summary execution.
Had the political will existed — it didn't, of course — the trade in bootleg liquor could have been squashed almost before it got started. Take the speakeasies. How long would they have lasted if as soon as the authorities got to hear of one it was raided by armed troops who immediately lined everyone up against a wall and shot them? How long would Al Capone have lasted after army snipers were tasked to take him out?
Back off a peg. Suppose we stick to the civilian regime. We could still introduce the death penalty for bootlegging and racketeering. But suppose we don't. Suppose we stick to the Volstead Act as promulgated. It was obviously politically viable — it passed. Was it ever workable? Certainly it was — or would have been had the determination to enforce it not been lacking. Take the speakeasies again. How long would they have lasted if as soon as the authorities got to hear of one it was raided by armed police who immediately carted everyone — and I mean everyone — off to the lockup, there to stay until convicted by a court of law and sentenced to a long spell up the river?
Am I flogging a dead horse here? Isn't it already obvious that Prohibition would have been effective if enforced with sufficient ruthlessness or honesty? I'm not saying that every last drop of alcohol would have been eliminated. But surely the excess that plagued the nation would have been overcome.
Prohibition in other countries
I've discussed the experience of the United States at considerable, perhaps inordinate, length. But prohibition was not unique to America; for instance, Iceland had it for almost thirty years. We don't hear very much about prohibition in other countries, possibly because, for the most part, where it was enforced it worked. Good news is no news. We only hear about the failures. Even in America there must have been millions who stopped drinking as a result of Prohibition, but how often are they even mentioned?
In Islamic countries Prohibition has been traditional for over a thousand years. They are not renowned for the presence of the Italian Mafia. They also provide evidence for my claim that what counts is whether the law is enforced whole-heartedly or not; Islamic states in which it is not well enforced display the social ills of drunkenness, alcoholism and corruption; those in which it is enforced by and large do not. The severity and certainty of sentencing is sufficient to deter.
Chapter 13. Medicinal Use Under A Regime Of Prohibition
Leakage from medicine to illicit use
When an intoxicant has legitimate medical uses prohibition creates considerable difficulties. If ordinary commercial distribution is banned, what happens on the medical side? Either doctors will be prevented from prescribing it, or there will be a leakage from the legitimate medical sphere into the illicit "recreational" sphere. One might try to differentiate the products (thus morphine is used in medicine, whilst heroin is sold on the streets) or discourage the medicinal use of certain preparations (thus cannabis itself cannot as yet normally be prescribed, though THC and other constituent cannabinoids may be); but this is of limited effectiveness (since morphine is also used by addicts, when they can get it); usually, the medicinal form is more potent and thus more desirable. Moreover, where the street product is of uncertain strength, and liable to be cut with unknown and sometimes dangerous fillers, the medicinal product is pure and reliable. An illicit market in legitimate medicinal preparations is therefore almost inevitable.
Outright theft of medicines from pharmacies, doctors' bags and doctors' surgeries is the most obvious but not the most serious problem here. It is a crime on the same level as other drug-related crime, where addicts rob and steal to buy black market drugs, and will attract similar penalties. If we can deal with the one we can deal with the other. A minor ethical difficulty (minor from the point of view of society) is whether doctors should go armed to protect themselves from robbers; if they do, Hippocrates lies uneasy in his grave; if they do not, home visits by general practitioners, especially at night, may have to be curtailed.
There's a bigger problem. The honesty of doctors and pharmacists is not unlimited. The temptation to supply illicit drugs or prescriptions for cash will be enormous. The profits are likely to be even greater than for regular drug dealers and the risks comparatively slight.
If medicinal drugs are sold to addicts in an openly illegal manner, offenders can simply be prosecuted and the trade stopped (or at least reduced to manageable proportions). The difficulty lies in drawing the line; when is a sale justified on medical grounds and when is it not? Is a prescription real — or is it phoney? This problem becomes increasingly serious the more earnestly drug abuse is combated, and the greater the penalties that accrue to illegal supply and use.
Defining medical use
Even defining legitimate use in law is far from easy. There are basically three possibilities. In the first, we define legitimate medicinal use as that which the patient's doctor considers legitimate. It makes sense, since he is obviously the person in the best position to judge, but it is so open to abuse as to be unworkable. In the second, we define legitimate medicinal use as that which a reasonable man would consider legitimate. This leaves the doctor in the unenviable position of never knowing where he stands; for how could he ever be sure that a lay jury would accept his medical judgement? Shall he supply painkillers to this sick person or not? Shall he try to help this addict or not? He's in a quandary. The third possibility involves trying to specify each and every situation in which a particular drug may or may not be administered. This pharisaic approach is hopelessly impracticable. No one could ever lay down such detailed rules, and even if they could, no doctor could possibly remember them.
Existing law is an unsatisfactory compromise of all three definitions. From the first we take the requirement that these medicines be obtainable only by doctor's prescription from a registered pharmacist. The doctor is then placed under the authority of his medical peers, who can suspend his license on proof of malpractice; only in exceptional circumstances will he face an ordinary court of law. A number of specific rules, some of which have legal force, are added for guidance; thus in the UK heroin and methadone are only to be prescribed to registered addicts.
The medical monopoly
A seemingly minor but potentially deadly side-effect of the present system is the way it perpetuates the doctors' and pharmacists' professional monopolies. On some calculations they are responsible for hundreds of thousands of excess deaths a year in Britain alone. It is a fact of human nature that doctors do not always act in the interests of their patients; like the rest of mankind, they appreciate wealth and status. The medical monopoly, created in the mid-nineteenth century to boost the income of doctors and pharmacists by restricting competition, led inevitably to poorer services and higher prices. In this respect it is no different from state monopolies in transport, in industry, in the utilities and services, in broadcasting, in education, in welfare and in a host of other fields. Remove the discipline of the free market from any endeavour and it deteriorates. Fortunately, both the damaging effect and the underlying injustice of state subsidy and protection are at last beginning to be recognised; many, though by no means all, of these erstwhile monopolies have now been opened to competition.
The medical monopoly is seldom questioned; yet as a direct result, medicine today is less effective, more expensive — and in shorter supply. To put it bluntly: it is killing people; just as not so long ago surgeons killed countless young mothers by refusing to wash their hands between patients, until the white-coated ritual of sterile procedure was invented to wean them away from a bloodier hieromancy. This is not the occasion to discuss these issues in depth; I mention them mainly because of the constraints that eliminating the monopoly would place on the treatment of the drug problem. If we allow almost anyone to set up as a physician or pharmacist and dispense illicit drugs, that will blow a hole in the side of Prohibition, a hole we will not find it easy to patch. This may be taken as an argument against lifting the monopoly, desirable though that would be on other grounds.
Full legalisation best
Prohibition in the United States, you will recall, made an exception of alcohol for medicinal purposes. The results might have been expected: a proliferation of quack remedies, an enormous increase in the number and sales of alcohol-based patent medicines, and a corruption of those sectors of the medical profession that pandered to the demand. It might have been worse: had Prohibition been adequately enforced the pressure upon doctors and druggists would have been even greater.
From the perspective of legitimate medicine, if not necessarily of the medical profession, it would be best if all drugs were legalised; for then no impediment would exist to legitimate medicinal use. This is not to say that drug use would be uncontrolled; in a free market under common law, in which property rights in developments were both recognised and well-enforced, pharmaceutical companies, wishing to manage and preserve their assets, would determine the conditions under which they would permit their trademarked and patented products to be dispensed. The widespread misuse of antibiotics, which has created so many resistant bacterial strains, would probably never have occurred. After all, drug companies don't want their drugs to become worthless.
Yet even if drugs are not all legalised, we cannot reasonably ask doctors to give up the legitimate use of all substances that might also be abused; to do so would be to deprive them of all sleeping potions, nostrums, narcotics, tranquillisers, painkillers, anaesthetics, antidepressants, antihistamines, stimulants, surgical spirits — perhaps even coffee.
A way must be found to combine legitimate medical use with any method of control of non-medical or recreational use that may be deemed socially necessary. Obviously, this is most readily achieved under a regime of full legalisation.
Chapter 14. Partial Legalisation Is Not Enough
It is sometimes held that either the decriminalisation or else the partial legalisation of various drugs is an appropriate response to a growing problem. Glowing but misleading reports of the situation in the Netherlands, where small quantities of marijuana can be bought quasi-legally in coffee shops, are commonly presented as evidence. American writers similarly cite the United Kingdom's experience with the provision of heroin and other drugs on the NHS as a success story. Evidently, observation of the drug problem obeys the inverse square law; distance lends enchantment. The ground truth is less appealing.
Decriminalisation is the word used when the law stays the same, but the police and courts turn a blind eye to certain classes of offence. This is considered less radical than actual legalisation. It appeals to politicians and bureaucrats because it can be introduced without all the broo-hah-hah of pushing through potentially unpopular Acts of Parliament. In the Netherlands, for instance, the importation, distribution and sale of marijuana is still a serious crime, but individual users are mostly left unhassled and the speakeasies it's sold in are left unmolested, so long as the right palms are kept greased.
Speakeasies? They don't call them that, so far as I'm aware, but that's what they are all the same. The parallels between decriminalisation and Prohibition are too close for comfort. In the short term decriminalisation may seem to work, but it's a dangerous game. Because marijuana is still illegal, it sells in the coffee shops at far above the free-market price. This keeps demand within bounds. Whether consumption has actually risen or fallen is hard to say. It is certain that customers are thereby attracted into the Netherlands from neighbouring countries and that this is imposing strains on relations within the European Union.
This is not the first experiment with decriminalisation. Some years ago Switzerland tried it with heroin. The idea was to stem the spread of AIDS by providing heroin addicts with clean needles, which would only work if the addicts weren't prosecuted. So in Zurich's Platzspitz park what can only be described as a drug ghetto was created, in which the rule was "anything goes". The result was disastrous. Whether there was any beneficial effect on the spread of AIDS is doubtful, but the upsurge in open drug abuse was so marked that the policy had to be abandoned.
Although decriminalisation is usually considered appropriate only for soft drugs like marijuana, I find myself bound to urge against its application to any drug or indeed to any other illegal or quasi-legal activity (such as prostitution). Thus far in this treatise I have for the most part tried to avoid moral issues in favour of getting the facts straight first, but here I must take a stance and say: decriminalisation is wrong in principle. It implies that it's all right to break the law, so long as you don't break it too much, or you don't get caught, or you're not important enough to catch, or you know the right people to bribe.
Enough preaching. Decriminalisation is not only corrupt — it's stupid. It brings the law into contempt, creates a climate of graft and dishonesty, and positively begs the drug lords to buy and blackmail police officers, politicians, officers of the court, bureaucrats, anyone in a position to sweep their crimes under the carpet. Decriminalisation grants officials discretion over when to uphold the law and when to ignore it. This is arbitrary power — not the rule of law. No one knows the rules — because there aren't any. To follow this path is to abandon the gains of civil society for the venality of a third-world dictatorship. Laws should be upheld. Laws should be clear. Discretion makes bad law. Decriminalisation destroys law.
In addition we must note that even at its best decriminalisation solves little; most of the problems associated with drug abuse remain; most of the crime; most of the hazards; most of the social harm; and on top of these we add the burden of hypocrisy.
Hereafter, then, let us assume that liberalisation means legalisation, in which the law is enforced in good faith, but certain statutes concerning drug use are abolished or amended. Such legalisation can be full or partial, universal or particular. For example, we can permit sales to grown-ups, but not to minors (this is how the law stands on alcohol today). Or we can permit sales of marijuana, but not heroin. There need be nothing dishonest or unprincipled about such partial or particular laws, though it is arguably best to avoid them where we can, because they require us to draw a line whose position is always somewhat arbitrary. Why eighteen years of age rather than eighteen years minus a week? And if heroin's bad and marijuana's okay, where do we put pipe opium or peyote?
However, the major difficulty with partial legalisation is rather different: it won't solve the drug problem. Suppose we allow sales to persons above the age of twenty-one; these, we say, are old enough to know their own minds; if they want to use drugs, that's their funeral. The price of drugs falls; the crime associated with drug use by over-twenty-one-year-olds disappears. What do the criminal drug dealers do now? Give up and go home? Well, yes, some of them will do just that. Others will observe that sales to under-twenty-one-year-olds are still illegal and thus still offer rich black-market pickings. They drop their smuggling operations (unless the drugs are heavily taxed) and buy wholesale at market prices. Then they concentrate their drug-pushing efforts on the 18-21 year age bracket.
Since drugs will be available to anyone who is (or successfully pretends to be) over 21, the black-market price will be far lower than at present, but still sufficiently higher than the free-market price to support handsome profits. The greater the number of young addicts the higher those profits will be, so the suppliers will go all out to win new customers. The degree of violence and criminality in this new market may be less than now, but the scale may be even greater; the number of "illegal" addicts may actually increase. Over time, the upward trend of drug-abuse and drug-related crime is likely to resume; the problem hasn't been solved.
So we legalise sales to eighteen-year-olds. Does that work? Hardly. The drug pushers simply start selling more to minors. The story goes on. As we progressively reduce the legal doping age, younger and younger children are dragged into the net. The fact is, criminals don't care who they sell to. They'll rob babies in the crib or turn toddlers into junkies if there's even half a chance it will make them a buck. And children as young as four or five can steal or beg considerable sums to maintain a drug habit. It happens even today; not often; but enough.
Well-meaning attempts to legalise drug use for part of the population will only redirect the activities of the criminals to those excluded, however reasonable those exclusions may be; few of us want to see young children buying coke (unless it comes in cans!), but the drug pushers don't see it that way. Partial legalisation will only make the problem more horrifying.
The British Solution
Can we get around this difficulty by making drugs legally available only to registered addicts? Not entirely. This has been a key element of UK policy for many years. It is clear that it has failed to eliminate the drug problem. It has even failed to stop it getting worse. There seem to be several ways of handling such a scheme, each with a built-in failure mechanism.
The first error is to make it difficult or disadvantageous for individuals to register as addicts; indeed, since registration is an admission of lawbreaking it is hard to see how this can be entirely avoided without falling into the trap of turning a blind eye to crime (the perils of which we have already discussed above). If addicts find the demands of registration too onerous they will refuse to play along and will continue to purchase their drugs on the black market.
The second error is to allow the addicts too little of the drug to satisfy them (or to fob them off with an alternative like methadone instead of the "real thing"); a variant upon this is to dispense only a small quantity at a time, forcing users to come back to the clinic for every single fix — possibly several times a day. The black market will serve these addicts as a supplementary supply.
The third error is to allow the addicts more than they need; then they will take the surplus and sell it on the streets. Since only the addict himself knows the "right" dose, with the best will in the world doctors cannot systematically avoid both Scylla and Charybdis. To make matters worse, many doctors believe they have a responsibility to wean such addicts away from the drug that is destroying their lives; even though full maintenance of a habit may be lawful, conscientious doctors may be unwilling to prescribe more than a steadily declining dose; less honourable suppliers will then make up the shortfall.
The practice of dispensing controlled drugs to registered addicts, sometimes called the "British Solution", is unfortunately no solution at all. At best it ameliorates the suffering of existing users and softens the impact of drug-related crime. For it to be completely successful it would be necessary to make registration painlessly simple for everyone, including juveniles, and to be willing to supply each drug on demand in unlimited quantities, either without charge or at no more than the free-market rate. But this would be equivalent almost to full legalisation; after going this far we might as well take the final step.
Now consider particular legalisation; suppose we legalise marijuana but not heroin. Marijuana users can get all they need at affordable prices; according to the theory of legalisation this eliminates the marijuana problem (later we shall question this assertion, but for the moment we accept its validity). But what do the heroin addicts do? The legal and ready availability of one drug does not prevent people from becoming or remaining addicted to an another one; otherwise there would be no heroin problem today, because everyone would get drunk instead. The legalisation of marijuana will not stop people taking heroin either. So what do the criminal drug dealers do? They abandon the marijuana trade and concentrate their drug-pushing efforts on the remaining illegal drugs, including heroin. The drug problem persists. Probably it gets worse; assuming that it is the soft drugs, or the ones deemed least dangerous, that are legalised, the black market must now deal almost exclusively in the hard drugs, or the ones deemed most dangerous.
Suppose the scope of legalisation is extended further, to other previously-controlled substances. The drug pushers move on again. Even when all the current crop of drugs has been legalised and their illegal market has evaporated, they will not meekly surrender. Instead they will turn to the creators of designer drugs for new and more alluring products; engineered with enhanced addictivity, these will induce powerful highs of novel and more varied kinds, begetting further generations of addicts.
A more effective variant of particular legalisation might be one that permits the sale of the less potent forms of the principal drugs, while banning the more potent forms that create the most serious problems. Thus we might permit opium, but not heroin; coca leaves but not cocaine; marijuana but not cannabis resin; peyote and magic mushrooms but not LSD. The idea here is that since anyone who wants the effects of any of the major drug groups — narcotics, euphorics, hallucinogens, etc. — could obtain an appropriate low-cost preparation legally, there would be little demand for illegal and highly-expensive alternatives. However, this is unlikely to offer a complete solution; addicts of the more potent drugs like heroin or crack are seldom satisfied with the weaker highs of less potent preparations. Moreover, this will not prevent drug traffickers moving on to greener pastures, unless relatively harmless versions of each new drug can be placed on the market the moment they come into fashion — an improbable scenario.
On balance it would appear that neither partial nor particular legalisation — still less, decriminalisation — can be expected to prove effective. At best, such measures may provide a stopgap, or mitigate some of the ill effects of the growing problem. If we decide to go this radical route, full legalisation would seem to be essential for ultimate success. Particular legalisation of a single drug family might reasonably be employed as an experimental test of the social and economic effects of legalisation; but it is unlikely to find a useful role in long-term policy, except perhaps in the case of alcohol, tobacco and possibly marijuana.
Chapter 15. The Question Of Minors
Age of consent
Even those persons who are most addicted to individual freedom are almost always prepared to accept that the protection of young children may sometimes take precedence, or at least that it is not always appropriate to allow such children the full range of adult privileges. It takes time to learn responsibility. Thus, even in libertarian circles, there is little objection to the principle of additional constraints on minors, such as the imposition of an "age of consent" for various activities. If a child is as yet too young or too untutored to give informed consent, it cannot reasonably be held responsible for the unfortunate effects of doing drugs, or drinking, or having sex, or voting, or crossing the road. Surely not even the most extreme anarchist would condemn a father as a tyrant for forcibly preventing his toddler from toddling into the path of an oncoming bus?
Yet as we have just seen, there are grave difficulties in attempting to restrict access to drugs only to those above a certain age; it may well make matters worse. There seems to be no entirely satisfactory answer. For what are the alternatives? To permit unrestricted legal access, thereby placing all supervisory responsibility onto frequently irresponsible parents, may leave many children inadequately protected. Yet to deny legitimate access to adults, merely because children may inadvertently be harmed, is even more unjust.
Enforcement of age restrictions
Current practice is to regulate sales of alcohol and tobacco in such a way as to deny ready access to young persons. The specific age-limits and the details of the regulations vary. How does this work out? Not very well. Young people today smoke and drink almost as much as adults, even if it is illegal. Many of them actually smoke and drink because it's illegal.
We often hear politicians and pressure groups calling for a crackdown on retailers. This is unreasonable. It can be hard enough telling a fourteen-year-old from a man in his twenties, let alone a tall fifteen-year-old from a short sixteen-year-old, so it's quite unrealistic to suppose that a harried shopkeeper can infallibly spot the difference. I know I couldn't. Either we discriminate against young-looking grown-ups or in favour of grown-up-looking youngsters. This dilemma could be avoided only by a totalitarian policy of identity cards.
Even if youngsters could be stopped from buying booze in the pubs and shops, there's no way of preventing adults (or youngsters just over the age limit) from passing it on to them. Unscrupulous persons would undoubtedly take advantage of the situation to turn an illicit profit.
That underage drinking is a bad thing is rarely disputed (though perhaps we ought only to deprecate underage drinking to excess) but whether there is much mileage in banning it is another matter. It should be clear that, whatever the original intentions, existing licensing laws have proved signal failures; they do not prevent, or even seriously impede, underage drinking. Children as young as ten or eleven have little difficulty in getting hold of alcohol. One does not have to approve of underage drinking to believe that these laws serve no useful purpose and should be abolished.
Abolition of age restrictions
If the drinking age were merely lowered, say to thirteen or fourteen, the problem would simply be shifted down a peg. Shopkeepers and publicans would face the same old difficulties; and ever younger children would think it clever to imbibe. All the arguments against partial legalisation apply. But what would happen if the drinking age were lowered all the way to zero? What would happen if there were no restrictions on the purchase of alcohol by minors?
Probably not a lot. After all, most young people who want to drink are drinkers already. Admittedly, in the immediate term demand would go up, with the previously underage taking advantage of their new freedom. But once the novelty had worn off consumption would be more likely to go down at least a little. For the most part, teenagers drink because it's the grown-up thing to do — it must be grown-up, or why aren't children allowed to do it? Once disabused of that notion, they might decide that since alcohol actually tastes rather horrid they'd prefer a soft drink instead. They might even ask for milk!
But will alcohol always be an "acquired taste"? The latest bugbear of the temperance lobby is "alcopop", which is certainly more attractive to children than beer or wine: but don't panic, it won't make that much difference; underage drinkers have been mixing vodka and orange juice for years.
One promising possibility is that if children can be introduced to alcohol by degrees, they may be less prone to excessive drinking — to drunkenness and alcoholism — when they are grown up.
None of this addresses the issue of excise duties — of whether alcohol prices should be artificially raised by taxation to reduce consumption overall — only whether the laws for children should be the same as the laws for adults; my conclusion here is that they should be the same, whether for alcohol, tobacco or any other drugs. Either ban them for all, or allow them for all. A halfway house will fall down. We should not attempt to protect our children by invoking laws that cannot be enforced; misplaced sentimentality must not be permitted to confound the rule of law.
Chapter 16. Tougher Sentencing Is Not Enough
Putting dealers behind bars
If legalisation will not solve the drug problem (and we have seen that partial and particular legalisation, which is about as far as political reality will stretch at the moment, certainly will not), what about getting tough on the drug traffickers instead? We're not talking about an all-out war on drugs here, just tougher sentencing. Let's put more of the drug dealers behind bars — and for longer.
Is this practicable? Certainly it is. It would also be politically popular — something that cannot be said of the radical alternative of legalisation. But would it work? Unfortunately not. Oh, it wouldn't be completely ineffective — it would deter some criminals — but it wouldn't solve the problem. Let's find out why.
Imagine that you're a burglar. You expect to get caught and convicted say once out of every sixty burglaries, and get sent to prison for say five years; that's a month a burglary. If the average burglary nets you more than a month's honest work you make a profit. So you keep committing crimes. Now suppose the penalty is increased; either the sentences are twice as steep or the police catch you twice as often. Now your burglary no longer pays; you get say six week's money for two months inside. You pack it in and go straight. Only a few of your mates can still make a living on the higher tariff — only the most skilful burglars remain in business. Of course, real criminals aren't so rational and economically sophisticated, but the same principle applies: increase the effective penalty and you reduce the attractiveness of crime; fewer crimes will then be committed.
Thus with most crimes, as we increase the expected penalty, the crime rate falls rapidly. But with drugs, increasing the penalty merely increases the costs of doing business, raising street prices accordingly. If street prices rise, addicts have to commit even more crimes to support their habit; roughly speaking, this will tend to increase the number of these crimes by about as much as the long-term reduction in the number of addicts that results from the higher price (we'll look into this more later). In other words, things stay more-or-less the same; in the short term they actually get worse.
Even the rise in price may be temporary. If costs go up an alternative to raising prices is to do more business; in such circumstances legitimate companies run advertising campaigns or engage in predatory price-cutting. Drug traffickers may do the same; they're in business just as much as butchers or bakers or candlestick makers.
The cost of crime to criminals
At this point it may be helpful to get a feel for how much current sentencing policy adds to the costs of doing business in drugs or committing crime. The answer is: not very much. Very roughly, crime costs us honest citizens around £10 to £20 billion a year in the UK, not including expenditures on the police, courts and prison services, nor the harm done to the users of illicit drugs. To the dealers, the drug trade is probably worth about £5 billion a year. Prison sentences probably impose a perceived equivalent cost of around £20,000 a year on the average felon, so for a prison population of 50,000 the total effective penalty comes to about £1 billion a year; we might double that to £2 billion a year to take account of other forms of penalty, such as fines or the recovery of stolen loot. The cost to the drug trade is maybe £1 billion a year.
From this admittedly crude estimate it is apparent that criminals typically pay only 10% to 20% of the cost of their crimes. Punishment is light, so crime is rampant. If instead criminals were penalised to the full measure of their crimes, that is, if average sentences were increased five or ten fold, we might expect crime rates to fall to only 1% to 4% of their present values. However, such dramatic changes are not at all likely in today's political climate.
The immediate burden of the law thus accounts for possibly 20% of the street price of drugs at the present time. So where does the rest of the price come from? Can it all be profit, operating costs and penalties overseas? It seems unlikely; there's a discrepancy here which I confess I do not fully understand. Still, even if we doubled sentences across the board the price would only rise by about 20% — or not at all if 20% more addicts can be found to make up for the extra cost. Since drug abuse is growing at something like 10% to 20% a year this gives us no more than one or two years' grace; and since existing addicts would have to commit more crimes to pay the higher costs it probably doesn't even give us that much. Even to begin to get to grips with the problem we'd need to multiply sentences ten or twenty fold — and that's not yet on the cards.
Improving conviction rates
Rather than increase the actual sentences handed down by the courts, we might find it jurisprudentially more effective, and politically less controversial, to concentrate on improving our capture and conviction rates. Although in theory a rational career criminal should be indifferent between a 50% chance of a one-year sentence and a 25% chance of a two-year sentence, in practice criminals are less-than-rational optimists; they don't believe it can happen to them. Increasing the probability of punishment can have a disproportionately large effect on the perceived penalty. By the same token, a punishment that is unlikely to be inflicted has comparatively little deterrent effect, however severe the maximum penalty may be.
In most countries suffering from rising crime, the problem is not so much leniency of sentencing as infrequency of punishment; most crimes go unsolved or even unreported; most offenders go uncaught, at least until they have committed a large number of offences; most defendants go free, or get away with probation or suspended sentences; and most prisoners get paroled. The United Kingdom is no exception. The challenge is therefore not so much to increase the severity of available sentences, as to ensure that a far larger proportion of offences lead to the offenders being sentenced, and serving out their full sentences in prison.
Although a great deal along these lines could undoubtedly be accomplished by a determined administration, it must be understood that this would run counter to all the allegedly liberal trends of twentieth century politics and jurisprudence. Today there are few real incentives to improved performance. Indeed, such incentives as do exist are often perverse. The police, whom we might expect to spearhead such a drive, cannot avoid the realisation that more crime means a bigger budget, more manpower, and greater political clout. For judges and lawyers, of course, it means more money. Politicians too find crime a convenient peg on which to hang their careers.
Profits that rise with penalties
However, even if we succeed in bringing most offenders to justice, this will not of itself solve the drug problem. The profits of drug trafficking are so huge that even the near certainty of conviction would be insufficient to deter all traffickers, or drive organised crime out of the business. The total number of drug dealers would probably go down, at least for a time, and the street price of drugs would probably go up; but although the total profits of the drug trade might fall, the profit on individual deals would soar even higher; plenty of people would still be willing to take the risk. The higher stakes could also be expected to lead to higher levels of violence among both traffickers and users.
The difficulty here is that there is no specific sentence severe enough and certain enough to make the illicit drug trade unprofitable. There is no such sentence, bar one, because the higher the price, the higher the rewards; any increased penalty is matched by a similar increase in incentive. The exception, of course, is the death penalty (though in a later chapter we shall examine a method of linking penalty to rewards in such a way that no net profit can be achieved and a death penalty need not always be imposed). No gain, however great, can compensate a self-centred businessman for the ineluctability of his imminent demise. Drug pushers don't want to die.
The death penalty
So why doesn't the death penalty seem to work? Singapore, Malaysia, Burma, Iran — they've all tried it, and they all have a major drug problem still. The answer's simple. It's not enough just to have the death penalty on the books, or to put on a few show trials and a few public executions; death must be the regular and all-but-inescapable penalty for the crimes it is meant to halt.
Why are there 25,000 murders a year in the United States, even though the death penalty has been reintroduced in many states? Because there are only about a dozen judicial executions a year. If you commit a murder, the risk of being executed is only 1 in 2000. How many potential murderers will that deter? Practically none. But hang fifty percent of all killers and the murder rate will plummet. Since the subject of this treatise is the drug problem, not crime in general, I won't pursue this topic further here. The key point is that the same thing applies to drug dealing. Only the near certainty of execution will have the desired deterrent effect; the number of executions in the countries named has been far too few to be effective.
Lack of political will
As a matter of practical politics, we should note that at present, even if it were possible to sentence drug traffickers to death (and this would certainly qualify as tougher sentencing!) it is unlikely that anywhere near enough of them would actually be executed to bring the drug problem under control. The problems that attach to the death penalty for murder in America would also apply to the death penalty for drug trafficking.
To put the magnitude of the sentencing problem into perspective: nobody knows exactly how many people are criminally involved in the drug trade, but in Britain alone the figure must be somewhere in the tens of thousands. That's not including the users. We're not ready to kill them all; are we even ready to gaol them for life?
Short of the change of political will that would make an all-out war on drugs possible, there is no obvious way in which tougher sentencing could solve the drug problem. In some ways, it would even make it worse.
Chapter 17. Drug Addiction Is Not A Freely Chosen Life Style
The right to live one's own life
It is often claimed that all drugs should be legalised as a matter of principle, because every individual has a fundamental right to live his own life the way he wants, so long as he does not interfere with the similar rights of other people. Subject to that proviso, he has the right to decide the disposition of his own property. It's his body; so he has the right to fill it with whatever drugs he chooses, however stupid that may be; and nobody has any right to stop him or interfere with his freely chosen lifestyle.
This is the position commonly held by libertarians, classical liberals and many liberal democrats. If we believe in liberty we must accept the strength of this position; we do not have the right to interfere with any individual's freedom of choice, merely because we disapprove of the nature of that choice. If people choose to take drugs, it's nobody's business but their own.
Or is it? We have already seen that drug use can often harm other people too; it is our business to protect these other people. If banning drugs were the only way we could protect them and their liberties, it would not be improper. However, this is not the argument here. We have previously noted that a combination of taxes, mandatory insurance and court action may be capable of forcing the drug user to pay for any damage he causes. The rights of others thereby having been protected, we have no further right to thwart the user's own free choice.
Do drug users choose?
We have to conclude that if drug users really do choose to take drugs, if drug use really is their freely chosen lifestyle, then we must allow them this free choice and move to legalise all drugs.
But it's not so. Drug addiction is not a freely chosen lifestyle.
Consider this point. Ask yourself whether anyone actually ever sat down and said, "I know that if I take this drug it will make me feel bad more than it makes me feel good. I know it will addict me. I know I will be unable to give it up. I know I will become dependent. I know that the craving will haunt me all the days of my life. I know that those days themselves will be miserably shortened. Yet I freely chose to become an addict. I chose to become a slave to this drug. I chose misery and degradation. I chose sickness and anguish and poverty. Leave me be; by mine own will I destroy myself."
Come on! Nobody ever said that. Nobody would say that. Not unless they were utterly insane and quite incapable of rational choice.
Let's be clear on this matter. We don't hear people saying things like this before they start taking drugs. Afterwards, of course, as active drug users, it is commonplace for them to attempt to rationalise their actions in just such a way. At least, they usually claim that they're not actually addicted; they can give it up at any time; they can take it or leave it; they use drugs only because they like the feeling. Drivel! They're lying — to us and to the world and most especially to themselves.
The blunder that leads to addiction
In reality, people seldom if ever genuinely choose to become drug addicts, or even drug users. What happens is usually something more like this: in a moment of weakness they allow themselves to be persuaded by their with-it friends to try out some recreational drug; in the recollection of the euphoria induced by the drug and the approbation of their peers they repeat the experiment, suppressing any thought of consequence; all too soon they come to realise their mistake, only to find that they're already hooked and it's too late to withdraw. Then they will defend their self-image through denial of their addiction; and worse, in their degradation they will promote the further spread of the disease, and in their turn will tempt more innocents as they themselves were tempted. Misery, as they say, loves company.
In effect, people become drug addicts not by choice but by error, a single episode of folly or irresponsibility yielding an awful and disproportionate harvest. These remarks may be overstated; I do not wish to imply that the descent into the pit is always so easy or so inevitable. Few novices can be totally ignorant of the risks they are taking, nor can we place all of the blame on other people; and few continue in a habit without some conscious decision, nor is the drug user deprived of all power of choice. It is also apparent that drugs are not all equally addictive; some at least may permit their users almost unrestricted freedom in choosing whether or not to continue using them. Nevertheless, it is quite clear that the vast majority of drug addicts are not in this condition of their own free will, whatever they may say to the contrary, or however much they may deny their addiction.
When a heavy drinker insists that he has no drinking problem, we don't believe him. When a heavy smoker argues that his health-debilitating smoking is his own deliberate choice, we are rightly sceptical. So when a drug user tries to justify his behaviour in a similar fashion, as he surely will, we should treat his utterances with no greater credence. The word of an addict, or of someone on the way to becoming an addict, is unreliable; this is a fact of human nature, as certain as any psychological fact can be. It is conceivable that there are some few users who are in no danger of becoming addicts and who might therefore be trusted — but it would be foolish of us to take their word for it.
Fortunately, we do not need to rely on an arbitrary and subjective belief or disbelief in what drug users assert concerning their freedom of choice. We can instead measure the degree of addiction and the loss of choice objectively, through the user elasticity of demand. We shall look into this further below.
Consent must be free
The argument from natural rights, we should note, holds only for fully-informed, uncoerced, rational, free and prior consent; a condition that is seldom if ever satisfied in the recreational use of addictive drugs. Even the consumption of alcoholic beverages is rarely free from untoward social pressure. Sometimes, then, the application of a countervailing pressure (such as taxation or an outright ban) may actually leave one with more genuine freedom than under an ostensibly more liberal regime.
In the case of addictive drugs the question of how to maximise freedom of choice or minimise the violation of fundamental rights is a difficult one; it is not to be answered by a knee-jerk demand for legalisation at any cost. Liberal-minded people may find this hard to accept, but if we are honest we must conclude that for the most part drug addiction is not a freely chosen lifestyle; consequently, we are not bound to recognise any universal right of access to drugs.
Chapter 18. Elasticity Of Demand For Addictive Substances
Thus far in this treatise the term "elasticity of demand" has been used without detailed explanation. The time has come to rectify this omission. Economists will already be familiar with its essential technical meaning, but even they may profit from considering the distinction I shall draw between the user elasticity of demand and the market elasticity of demand, and its application to the specific problem of demand for addictive substances.
Let us begin by considering the law of supply and demand, which says that the market price is simply the price at which the demand matches the available supply. Suppose that a certain commodity (say, gentlemen's head-gear) is offered for sale at a certain price. A certain quantity of that commodity (a certain number of hats) will then be sold; this is called the demand for that commodity at that price. If the price goes up, less of the commodity will be sold; the demand will go down. If the price falls, more of the commodity will as a rule be sold at this lower price; the demand will go up. In general, if we alter the price, the demand will also alter. Just how much depends upon the elasticity of demand.
Elastic and inelastic commodities
If the demand goes up by just as much as the price goes down (and vice versa), the elasticity of demand is said to have the value unity (that is, it is numerically equal to one). A one percent change in price means a one percent change in demand. Notice how in this case total spending on the commodity (that is, demand multiplied by price) is independent of the actual price level.
If the demand goes up twice as much as the price goes down, the elasticity of demand is equal to two. A one percent change in price means a two percent change in demand. When the elasticity of demand is greater than one, as here, increasing the price reduces the total spend. Such commodities are known as elastic commodities; most products, including gentlemen's hats, fall in this category.
If the demand goes up only half as much as the price goes down, the elasticity of demand is equal to one half. A one percent change in price means only a half percent change in demand. When the elasticity of demand is less than one, as here, increasing the price increases the total spend.
Finally, if the demand doesn't change at all, whatever the price does, the elasticity of demand is zero. Commodities with very low elasticities of demand are known as inelastic commodities; basic foodstuffs are the textbook examples, but, as we shall see, addictive drugs also fall under this heading, at least for existing users.
There are several additional complexities we need to get our brains around. First, the elasticity of demand isn't an absolute constant; for most products, if the price falls low enough the demand will begin to saturate; the elasticity falls. Most gentlemen, having only a single head, find it unnecessary to own more than one top hat.
By the same token, if the price rises high enough, inelastic commodities will display an increasing elasticity, which eventually must rise above unity (or else total spending would become infinite). If bread becomes too expensive, people will stop buying it, and will starve to death instead. Not by choice — but because they simply haven't got the money. Likewise, at a high enough street price, even the most addicted drug user will be unable to sustain his habit; he just won't be able to steal enough.
We should also note that the market for a commodity does not necessarily extend to the whole of the population (only gentlemen buy gentlemen's hats, by and large), so demand may saturate even though not everybody has yet got around to purchasing the commodity. It is possible, therefore, that not everyone would become a drug user, even if the cost fell to zero.
Delayed response to change
The second complexity is that demand does not react instantaneously to changes in price, especially when the price goes up. People are used to purchasing a certain quantity of each commodity; it takes time for them to change their habits and rearrange their purchases. In the very short term, then, most products give the appearance of being inelastic, at least in the upward price-direction. Just how short that term is depends on how readily one can adjust one's spending pattern. The purchase of gentlemen's hats is almost completely elastic right away, since one can always wear one's old hat a little longer. The purchase of petrol is less so, since one may need the car to get to work. Demand is also elastic on the very shortest time scales — you can almost always put off a purchase for another few minutes at least.
Because demand lags price, and because upward and downward price movements display unequal short term elasticities, consumption suffers from a stickiness or hysteresis, which in turn can lead to instabilities or violent fluctuations in demand. This is particularly significant in relation to the demand for addictive drugs (because the drug habit is so strong and consequently the effect of hysteresis so marked); this is part of the reason for the phenomenon of the drug epidemic, wherein drug abuse seems to mimic the behaviour of an infectious disease. For a while, one particular drug may be all the rage, or a plague of dealers may descend upon one particular neighbourhood; clamping down on the supply seems to have no effect; then all of a sudden, the problem evaporates or moves on. Until the next outbreak of the disease.
User and market elasticities
The third complexity is the distinction between user and market elasticities of demand. Now there are two ways in which demand can increase; the number of users can become larger; or existing users can consume more. The user elasticity of demand defines how existing users alter their consumption in response to price. The market elasticity of demand relates to the total demand, which is the product of the average demand and the number of users. Thus the market elasticity of demand equals the user elasticity of demand plus the elasticity of the number of users.
For most ordinary commodities, both elastic and inelastic, the two elasticities follow similar patterns. Gentlemen's hats, for instance, show a user elasticity of perhaps 1½ and a market elasticity of about 2, whereas for bread the user and market elasticities are equal and small, perhaps ¼. Everybody eats bread, but not everybody wears a hat. Whether the two elasticities are equal or not depends largely on whether the product is the sort of infinitely divisible product that everyone can afford a little of (like chocolate), or a big item that one either buys or doesn't (like a video recorder) — or the sort of product that goes along with such an item (like video tape).
Addictive drugs are an exception: even though they can be bought in arbitrarily small quantities, they tend to show the greatest elasticity in the number of users (an elasticity around 1, or even more); the number of users can increase rapidly when prices fall, but naturally takes far longer to fall back when prices rise again. This means that although the user elasticity itself is likely to be small (say ¼) the long-term market elasticity may be considerably greater (say 1¼).
Elasticities for addictive drugs
Empirical evidence is needed to determine the actual elasticities for addictive drugs. However, we can provide some rough estimates of the relevant figures. A non-addictive luxury commodity like ice cream has a market elasticity of approximately 2, and a user elasticity very close to that. A potentially addictive and somewhat habit-forming commodity like alcohol has a market elasticity in the region of 1½ -1¾ and a user elasticity typically a little less (the number of people who drink is not a strong function of the price, since this is already near saturation, at over 90% of the adult population). The user elasticity can usefully be subdivided into two categories; the user elasticity of social drinkers (which is high), and the user elasticity of alcoholics (which is very low, perhaps ¼). Under present circumstances consumption is dominated by social drinkers, who of course are not addicted, and so the overall elasticity remains high; but if the proportion of alcoholics were higher this might no longer be the case.
An illicit "soft" drug like marijuana might display a market elasticity around 1½ and a user elasticity around ½ - ¾. The user elasticity, at a given price, might be a little higher under legalisation (less temptation to "go the whole hog" and greater opportunity for moderate use). A hard drug like heroin will then have a user elasticity around ¼ (perhaps less) and a market elasticity around 1¼.
A very hard drug like tobacco may have a user elasticity as low as 1/10 or 1/20. Furthermore, because the price is now low enough that almost all potential smokers are actual smokers (and addicted ones), the market elasticity is also low (probably less than 1/5). Thus tobacco is at the opposite end of the drug spectrum from alcohol.
I must emphasise that none of these figures is more than a rather crude estimate, consistent with available evidence, but open to considerable empirical and theoretical refinement. Nevertheless, they are generally adequate to describe the salient features of the history of drug taking, and to give us an insight into the likely effects of present and future policies.
Chapter 19. An Inelastic Choice Is Not A Free Choice
Pareto optimisation by free agents
What is it that determines whether the elasticity of demand will be high or low? In essence it is the presence or absence of freedom of choice on the part of the purchaser. The elasticity of demand for basic foodstuffs is low, and bread is the archetype of an inelastic commodity, because we all have to eat; we have very little choice in the matter. True, we can choose what to eat (and individual food products do indeed show high elasticities when their prices are varied relative to other foods), but not whether to eat (so the total amount of food we eat varies hardly at all, even when prices shift markedly).
The reason why freedom of choice is involved is this: a rational consumer spends his money in such a way as to maximise his net satisfaction. In general, his preferences and purchases are subject to a diminishing marginal utility (which means that the first biscuit he buys gives him the most pleasure, the second somewhat less, the third less still, and so on); thus instead of spending all his money on a single commodity (say, a hundred thousand biscuits), he spreads his spending across a wide range of available goods, shuffling his purchases to get the best overall result. If he can increase his satisfaction by buying slightly more of this product and slightly less of that, he will do so. Economists call this "Pareto optimisation". Housewives call it budgeting.
If the price of a commodity goes up, the consumer is worse off. Unless he reduces his purchases of that commodity he will have less money to spend on other things. But those other things now offer him better value for money. Consequently, the rational consumer will redirect his spending away from the now higher-priced commodity; his demand for it will go down. His demand is thus elastic, as he moves towards a new pattern of spending. Otherwise he'd be worse off than he needs to be.
If his choice is entirely unconstrained and fully rational, then in most cases the market elasticity will be approximately 2 and the user elasticity greater than 1. This means that when the price goes up he ends up spending less overall on that commodity. Still higher elasticities may arise when the consumer can switch to an almost identical product with a different brand name, but here we are assuming that commodities are sufficiently distinct that one cannot be directly substituted for another.
Habits and other constraints
Addiction is perhaps the most obvious way in which choice can be constrained, since an addict is not free simply to "take it or leave it"; he has lost much of his freedom to the demands of the drug. But there are other constraints on choice, which it may be instructive to examine first.
Habits are like addiction to a degree; indeed we could argue that addiction is merely the limiting case of a habit that is very hard to break. However, ordinary habits differ from addiction in being impermanent; they delay adaptation rather than prevent it. The elasticity of demand starts low, but gradually rises. Adherence to a habit can be perfectly rational; it costs time and effort to change. If tea becomes too expensive, I will have to hunt around for another beverage, experimenting with the various brands and products on the market until my preferences have become clear; it would be silly of me to go to all that trouble if the price rise were small or only temporary. If the government hikes the price of petrol, I don't immediately turn over to diesel, since that would mean scrapping my present car. There are practical limits on my freedom to change my spending habits quickly. In the long run, though, I will make the appropriate changes.
Necessities (mainly food, air and drinking water) are highly inelastic commodities. We must have them. We have no choice. In a way we might say that we are addicted to them. Of course, this "addiction" is to things that are good for us, things that our body truly needs. We may not be free to eschew them; nevertheless, they provide the basis for almost every other freedom we possess. Drug addiction is quite different; it is an addiction to something we do not need, an addiction which actively reduces our freedom of choice across the board. The sign of a necessity is that user and market elasticities coincide over a very wide range in price; there is little or no elasticity in the number of users. Perhaps we should note in passing though that, in extreme circumstances, an addictive drug might become a necessity — to the addict.
When the market for a commodity is saturated we have another kind of constraint. It is physically impossible for me to drive more than one car at once. Since I cannot choose to enjoy driving two cars at the same time, there is little point in buying more than one. Thus the market for motor cars can be expected to saturate at around one car per person. Clearly, the loss of elasticity through market saturation does not imply any necessary loss of rationality.
We can now see how addiction fits into the picture. A completely addicted person has no choice at all; his elasticity of demand is identically zero. More realistically, for the usual imperfectly addictive commodity, the user's elasticity of demand is the measure of his residual freedom. If it is close to zero, he is unfree. If it is less than one he is partly free. If it is greater than one he is completely free, at least in so far as his use of this commodity is concerned.
If the elasticity of demand rises over time (as it almost invariably will) this implies that the grip of habit or addiction is weakening. Even the most powerful addictions can be broken or cured in time — if only the addict lives that long! The greater the elasticity of demand, the greater the freedom; but the rate at which the user elasticity rises is likely to be particularly slow for illicit hard drugs.
The market elasticity of demand, especially with falling prices, is much higher. This is because potential addicts (or potential users, as they are more likely to think of themselves) are still free to consider the costs, though in practice they are all too apt to misjudge them. Their failure of rationality here is twofold: first, they grossly underestimate their long-term consumption, failing to countenance the likelihood or even the possibility of addiction; second, they take note only of the street price (if that), failing to perceive the ancillary costs of addiction. In effect, their human weakness leaves them unfree to see the world as it actually is. Nevertheless, since their judgement (or misjudgement) of the cost is largely proportional to the drug's street price, the rate at which people join the ranks of drug users displays the requisite elasticity. This explains why the drug problem has become progressively worse as drugs have become more affordable. At the same time, the currently low market elasticity of tobacco (a cheap and legal but highly addictive drug) is accounted for by market saturation.
If we accept that an inelastic choice is not a free choice, it is clear that the use of addictive drugs, marked by significant inelasticities of demand, can seldom be entirely free, and that objective measurement can provide us with a more reliable basis for analysis than the questionable protestations of existing users.
Chapter 20. Everyone Is A Potential Addict
We all know that drug addiction is something that happens to other people. Weak-willed people. Inadequate people. Not to people like us. It's all very sad, but of course drug addiction is something that only happens to other people's children. The children from broken homes. The children whose parents can't be bothered.
Bunk! Not one of us is safe. At any rate, not one of us can be sure we're safe, which amounts to much the same thing. It may be that there are a few people completely immune to the lure of drugs — people who would never become addicted no matter what the temptation. But don't bank on being one yourself. You're probably not. And your children probably aren't either. The best way to look at it is this: everyone is either an addict or a potential addict.
A heroin addict? Yes. A tobacco addict? Almost certainly. An alcoholic. Very probably. Like it or lump it, you just can't be trusted with drugs.
Now you're getting annoyed. How dare I insult you like this? There you were patting yourself on the back and, like the Pharisee, thanking God you were not as other folk — and I've gone and spoilt it!
But I'm not really apologising. This truth is not a comfortable truth, but we have to face it. Addiction is not something that only happens to the other guy, or the other guy's kids; and in your heart of hearts you already know it. You could be its victim too. And so could I.
Libertarians often complain about governments treating us like irresponsible children instead of responsible adults. They have a point. But all too often it is we, the supposedly responsible citizens, who give governments all the excuse they need by our own irresponsible behaviour. So it is with drugs.
Taking illicit drugs is stupid. So intelligent people are that much less likely to become drug addicts. But is intelligence enough? No — unfortunately, it isn't. Doctors and dentists are intelligent, yet they have the highest rate of drug addiction and alcoholism of all the trades and professions. Why? It's simple. They have ready access to addictive substances; so the full cost of drug use is much lower to them than to the general public. The fact that even highly intelligent doctors can be tempted by cheap drugs is an indication of what might happen if legalisation rendered such drugs widely and inexpensively available.
We might also note the prevalence of drug taking among the rich and famous, and the existence of drug addiction even among noted scientists, members of parliament, and the clergy. But if the wisest and most respected citizens of all are not immune, who is? The simple answer, of course, is "nobody". A slightly more sophisticated answer is "no body". A rational mind might be immune, but human beings also have an animal body, presumably the source of our vulnerability to addiction.
The addiction iceberg
The next question is this: if all of us are potential addicts, how come we're not all actual addicts? Well, not everyone is attracted to every drug, and not everyone has yet been exposed to the specific circumstances that would turn him into an addict; there are personal problems and peer pressures that most of us have so far escaped. At present, most drugs are available to the general public only at exorbitant prices; so the rate of addiction to them is still quite low. Only alcohol and tobacco are freely available; and here the addiction rates are far higher.
Let's not be complacent; addiction is not a minority risk. Not far short of half the adult population is addicted to tobacco. A similar proportion drinks too much, albeit mostly within the limits of "social" drinking; perhaps one in ten will at some stage in their lives fall prey to alcoholism; one in thirty will die of it. Large numbers (I know of no reliable estimate) get hooked on prescription tranquillisers; many others seem unable to get by without stimulants. And, moving a little further afield, it would appear that something like two thirds of the adult population now gambles to an arguably excessive degree on the national lottery (and if this is not precisely an addiction it nevertheless has many features in common, notably an irrational neglect of cost). It is clear that behaviour characteristic of addiction can be demonstrated in the majority of people.
I'm sorry to seem so preachy; my excuse is plain speaking. Please understand: I'm not blaming people for being addicted, still less for being addiction prone. I'm not even claiming that an addict is an inferior sort of person. To be addiction prone is simply to be human; and to be a human being is to be a potential addict.
Chapter 21. What Would Happen If Alcohol Weren't Taxed
The untaxed price of alcohol
The legalisation of currently illicit drugs would lead to a major reduction in the market price. Before considering what this price reduction would mean, let us examine a related topic, on which more reliable data are available, and ask the question: what would happen if alcohol weren't taxed? After all, to a libertarian the taxation of alcohol is (almost) as objectionable in principle as the criminalisation of other drugs; both measures violate our liberty, and surely could not be countenanced in an ideal world.
If excise duty and other taxes were abolished the price of alcoholic beverages would fall. This much is obvious. It is less clear how big the fall would be. Although taxes presently account for much less than 90% of the retail price, a reduction by about a factor of ten is nevertheless likely. The reason for this paradoxical result is that taxation distorts the market in such a way as to promote the preferential consumption of the more expensive varieties — or discourage consumption of the less expensive.
Suppose that a bottle of cheap plonk costs £1, a good wine £2 and a superlative wine £4. Most people, I venture to suggest, would buy the plonk. Now suppose that excise duty adds another £4 to the bill, so that plonk now costs £5, good wine £6 and superlative wine £8. A lot less wine will be sold. But where plonk has quintupled in price, and good wine tripled, the superlative stuff has only doubled. Now it makes sense to go for the best; the plonk is a waste of money.
As we noted above, the market elasticity of demand for alcohol is in the region of 1½-1¾. If we reduce the price by a factor of ten, demand should evidently increase thirty or fifty fold, turning us into a nation of dipsomaniacs! We need not take this figure too seriously, since the onset of market saturation, with a corresponding fall in elasticity, can be expected well before this point is actually reached. Nevertheless, a large increase in consumption must be anticipated.
The number of alcoholics is also highly elastic with respect to total consumption. The appropriate elasticity here seems to be approximately 2. Thus when drinking increases, alcoholism increases even faster. We can think of the phenomenon as a slippery slope. The more you drink, the further out on the slope you edge, the steeper the slope becomes, and the more likely you are to lose your grip. Once you overstep yourself, you start sliding; and once you start sliding you can't stop; you drink more and more, and end up an alcoholic. Overstep the invisible mark and you slide into the abyss. You only discover your limit when it's too late; few can successfully identify the point of no return in time to draw back. It doesn't help that the critical point is different for different individuals, and for the same individual at different times.
This elasticity means that if demand increases fifty fold alcoholism can be expected to increase some twenty-five hundred fold; the death rate of twenty thousand a year will jump to fifty million; and the entire population will die of alcohol abuse within the year! Of course, this is silly — we're extrapolating way too far, beyond the point of market saturation.
Social drinking and alcoholism merge
Let's come at this from another direction. Alcoholics typically drink roughly ten times as much as the average social drinker (under present conditions). At any time perhaps 1-2% of drinkers are active alcoholics, accounting for 10-20% of total consumption. In addition there are maybe five times as many non-drinking "reformed" alcoholics. Members of the drinking population fall into alcoholism at a rate on the order of 0.2% per annum.
So ordinary consumption could be expected to saturate and merge into alcoholism at about ten times the present value, with alcoholism developing at about 20% per annum. A price reduction by a factor of four or five would probably suffice to bring this about. Most drinkers would then become addicted over the course of some five years or so. This is less extreme than our first — and rather wild — prediction, but it's still alarming.
But just how reliable are these calculations? Not very. The figures are ballpark figures, wide open to debate. They should be taken with considerably more than a pinch of salt. All the same, the conclusions are robust — the details don't really matter. The elasticity is real — and that's what counts. Even if the price doesn't immediately fall enough to bring about market saturation, economic growth will continue to make alcohol progressively more affordable. In the long run, it will be available at essentially zero cost, and market saturation will be inevitable. Then all who can be addicted to alcohol will be (unless other factors intervene).
When we consider the high population addiction rate for tobacco, and the fact that most regular drinkers, even normally moderate ones, are apt to overdo the booze at times, it is hard to avoid that conclusion that if alcohol were very cheap and untaxed the rate of alcoholism would approach or exceed fifty percent of the adult population. Alcoholism in children would surely be similarly high.
The effect on society
What effect would this have upon society? Clearly, a catastrophic one. Imagine ten million drunk drivers on the road, slaying half a million innocents and goodness knows how many other drunks a year. Imagine the crime wave. When offences committed under the influence of alcohol already cost us several billion pounds a year, imagine this, magnified a hundred fold, soaking up 20-40% of the national product. Imagine the murders, tens upon tens of thousands a year. Imagine the doctors drunk in their surgeries, and the surgeons drunk in the operating theatres. Imagine the factory workers peering owlishly at their machines and fumbling to assemble the technological marvels of our consumer age. Imagine . . . but enough! The image is already too horrific.
Could civilisation survive? I doubt it.
Of course, this is fantasy; it could never happen. Long before we came to such a pass, the deadly experiment would have been aborted or redirected. The tax on alcohol would have been hastily reinstated. Or private communities in which alcohol was banned would have cut themselves off from the collapsing society outside. Or else vigilantes would have taken it upon themselves to roam the streets bombing off-licenses and shooting drunks, thus driving the full cost of alcohol consumption back up to sustainable levels. Or something.
Later on we shall examine ways in which taxes on alcohol might be abolished without disaster. But for now, other things being equal, we are forced to conclude that if alcohol weren't taxed the results would be catastrophic.
Chapter 22. What Would Happen If Drugs Were Legal
At last we come to the key question: what would happen if drugs were made legal? That is, what would happen under a regime of full legalisation, where all drugs, recreational or medicinal, were available to all purchasers in unlimited quantities at the free-market price? We assume for the time being that the political, economic and jurisprudential circumstances remain otherwise unaltered.
Since the anti-drug laws would have been abolished, offences against them would no longer exist. There would no longer be any black market, and thus there would no longer be any motive for drug dealing criminals to continue their operations. Nor would there be any further necessity for drug users to fund their habits through crime since, as we shall see, prices would fall drastically. The whole problem of drug-related crime — with the exception of crimes committed under the influence of drugs — would evaporate.
This is the good news. More good news is that the lives of drug users and addicts would be immeasurably improved. They would no longer live in fear of the law, or of the brutality of dealers, or of being unpredictably unable to secure their next fix; rather, they would be confident in their ability to purchase a reliable and uncontaminated product from a legitimate pharmacist or tobacconist. The direct monetary cost of drug addiction would then be small — typically one percent or less of the average income.
These benefits hinge on the major reductions in the price of drugs that would almost certainly follow in the wake of legalisation. The stated price of heroin for medicinal purposes, for example, is around 400 times lower than the illicit street price; on an open market the price would inevitably be discounted even further. Much the same could be said for cocaine. Indeed, compared with present-day black-market prices, the basic production costs of most of the major recreational drugs can only be considered minuscule. Hemp, from which we obtain cannabis and marijuana, is not for nothing known as a weed; it can be grown even more cheaply than tobacco.
Alcohol, by contrast, should be considered expensive, because the intoxicating dose is measured in tens of grams, not tens of milligrams. Even those drugs that are currently the cheapest and most available (such as barbiturates and other prescription drugs) should fall in price by at least a factor of ten, and most others (such as marijuana) by a factor of a hundred or more. Expensive hard drugs like heroin and cocaine may fall in price by a factor of a thousand. There seems no reason why, in the absence of taxation, doped cigarettes should cost much more than a penny each.
This good news is also the source of the bad news. As we have already seen in the case of alcohol and alcoholism, reduced prices mean higher demand and a bigger problem. Drug abuse and drug addiction follow much the same rules. Indeed, as street prices have fallen over the years, and as illicit drugs have become gradually more affordable, so the drug problem has expanded accordingly. We should appreciate that the elasticity of demand for drugs is not a mere hypothesis; it is demonstrated by decades of experience in many countries.
How many addicts?
In the case of heroin, a market elasticity of 1¼ and a user elasticity of ¼ implies an elasticity in the number of users of 1. Thus a hundred-fold fall in price would yield an equivalent increase in the number of users. The typical user would then consume about three times as much as at present and (by analogy with the incidence of alcoholism as a function of average consumption) would be ten times more likely to become an addict. In practical terms, this means that almost all heroin users would then be full-blown addicts. If the total number of heroin users in the UK is currently on the order of 200,000 (including occasional users), legalisation would boost that to at least 20 million, or half the adult population.
In the case of marijuana, a hundred-fold fall in price would turn half a million moderate users into fifty million hardened addicts, given a market elasticity of 1½ and a user elasticity of ½ .
Since the price of heroin and other hard drugs is likely to fall even further than this conservative estimate, it is apparent that, if this analysis is even approximately correct, legalisation would result in an epidemic of drug abuse beyond anything we have yet experienced.
Again, as with alcohol, we needn't take the precise numbers too seriously. Actual addiction rates will be limited by market saturation. The crucial point to note is that legalisation will bring prices low enough that saturation will certainly occur, if not immediately then assuredly within a few years. The question then becomes: how many addicts can we expect at saturation?
The simple answer is that we don't know. But we have no reason to suppose that the figure will be small, and every reason to suppose that it may be large. The examples we have already noted — alcohol and tobacco, tranquillisers, gambling — as well as the sorry cases of doctors and dentists, suggest that on the order of half the population is likely to prove susceptible to addiction to each of the major drugs, once these are cheaply and legally available.
This conclusion is far from certain — but the opposite claim, that legalisation would lead to at most a modest increase in addiction, flies in the face of all we know of economics generally and the historical pattern of drug abuse in particular. Certainly the saturation level of addiction will not be small. Ideally, saturation levels could be empirically determined by means of a controlled experiment on some isolated island. Failing that, and bearing in mind the potentially catastrophic consequences of error, we may conclude that it is better to play it safe, and attach considerable weight to the more pessimistic (or possibly the more realistic) of the prospective scenarios.
Addiction to the various drug groups
The next question is this: if half the population could be expected to become addicted to each drug considered separately, how many will be addicted to all of them together? And since half the population is already addicted to tobacco, will it make any difference?
For simplicity, let us assume that the diverse preparations on the market can be divided into drug groups, within which drugs are deemed to be essentially interchangeable (heroin for morphine for methadone, for instance). This is not a strictly accurate classification, but it will help us to avoid getting bogged down in unnecessary detail. These groups can be defined as: the tobacco group; alcohol; the narcotics (or opiates); the sedatives (or tranquillisers); the stimulants (which we should perhaps subdivide into cocaine and amphetamine groups); the hallucinogens; the cannabis group; and a catch-all group including PCP, Ecstasy, steroids and glue sniffing. This makes nine drug groups in all.
There are several extreme possibilities. First, exactly the same set of people is susceptible to each drug group, so the total number of addicts remains about fifty percent of the population. Second, a completely different set of people is susceptible to each drug group, bringing the number of addicts to an absurd four-and-a-half times the total population! Third, susceptibility to each drug group is statistically independent, so the number of people escaping addiction is only 1 in 29 (that is, about 1 in 500). Omitting the physically nonsensical second hypothesis, we can see that the truth must lie somewhere between possibilities one and three.
To the best of my knowledge, no direct evidence concerning the statistical correlation of susceptibility to addiction to different drug groups is yet available. We do know that people can be addicted to more than one drug, or to more than one drug group, although most users tend to restrict themselves to just one. Multiple addiction would appear to be present in around 20% of cases. Serial addiction is also known, and has sometimes been encouraged as a means of weaning addicts away from a particularly dangerous addiction towards one believed, perhaps wrongly, to be less dangerous (thus, cocaine has in the past been used as a cure for heroin addiction, and more recently LSD as a panacea against everything from insanity to the common cold). Obviously, people who smoke doped cigarettes are likely to become addicted to tobacco as well as to the dope in question; conversely, the doped cigarette will provide an easy route whereby the tobacco smoker may readily become addicted to other drugs too.
What will happen is this: many tobacco smokers, seeing the doped cigarettes offered for sale, will be tempted to try them out, even though in the ordinary way they mightn't ever consider using heroin or cocaine; other smokers will find themselves offered doped cigarettes by friends, acquaintances and colleagues — or even by strangers, especially as a means of breaking the ice at social gatherings. Often, they won't be sure what sort of cigarette they've been given. At the same time, other people, who in the ordinary way would not be tempted by tobacco, may find a joint of marijuana or a pipe of opium irresistible — or may simply try doped cigarettes for kicks. My point here is that the greater the variety of products available, the greater the fraction of people who will sample at least one of them, and the greater the range of social settings in which they will be consumed; every additional offering brings a few more virgin customers, and binds the rest more tightly.
Partial correlation of addictions
Indirect evidence from other fields suggests that susceptibility to diverse addictions is almost certain to be highly but not perfectly correlated, probably obeying a hyperbolic scaling law such that the fraction of the population free of addiction to the first n drug groups is approximated by a function of the form 1/(1+n). For nine groups this would leave just 10% unaddicted. That is to say, something like 90% of the population would be addicted, many of them to several drug groups at once (though a fair number, perhaps a quarter of the adult population, would only be addicted to tobacco).
This is actually a rather conservative estimate of the addiction rate, in that it is unlikely that the susceptibility would be significantly more highly correlated than this; quite possibly it would be less (a Cauchy distribution, of the form 1/(1+n2), would leave only 1% unaddicted). Even if the typical saturation level for individual drugs turns out to be less than fifty percent, this may provide little comfort, since the correlation would then be expected to be correspondingly lower. Given what we already know about alcohol and tobacco, it is hard to see how the total addiction rate could end up less than say 80%.
I have a problem here. These predictions are bound to seem alarmist, though I have if anything tried to play them down. Even those who have previously accepted all my arguments may emotionally reject them. To some extent, this is a reaction I share: I simply don't believe things could ever be as bad as that. And in a way I think this disbelief is sound: in practice, the sort of simplistic legalisation I'm analysing here just isn't going to happen. One way or another, we're never going to let things get that out of hand (I hope). All the same, I must ask the reader (and myself) to suspend disbelief. What we're asking here is what would happen if the kind of legalisation that naively optimistic libertarians commonly propose were implemented without additional safeguards; then perhaps there will be some point in considering what sort of safeguards (such as taxes to raise prices and reduce demand) might be effective.
The effect on society
So: eighty or ninety percent of the population is addicted to drugs. What happens next? Well, it's the problem of rampant alcoholism all over again, greatly magnified. If it were only tobacco addiction, there would be no particular difficulty; it would shorten smokers' lives, but otherwise, in the absence of major social or behavioural implications, it would not be too worrying. But the replacement or partial replacement of tobacco by psychoactive drugs like heroin, marijuana, or even alcohol, would be a serious matter.
Imagine the roads, thronged with upwards of ten million drivers high on drugs; stupefied by sedatives, doped with marijuana, half-blind from the tunnel vision of narcotics, paranoid and psychotic from the overuse of amphetamines or cocaine, or hallucinating under the influence of LSD or magic mushrooms — not to mention the humble drunk driver! We've got to be talking a million or more road deaths a year. Now imagine the crime wave. Imagine the public nuisances committed by cannabis users, the violence and volatility of amphetamine and cocaine freaks, the random irrationality of the psychedelic on a trip — not to mention the numerous offences committed by the good old-fashioned drunk. Drug psychosis comes in many forms. Imagine the doctors and surgeons, blasted out of their minds — but no, it doesn't bear thinking about. Imagine the factories, struggling to operate in a haze of tobacco smoke and cannabis and opium . . . .
Imagine trying to adapt, not merely to one irrational behaviour pattern, but to numerous incompatible ones. No doubt there are many jobs in which particular forms of addiction would not be a major drawback; but with so many addicts, could we really find suitable positions for them all? And, more importantly, could we ever find enough people to do the jobs for which sobriety is an absolute requirement? It is hard to see any form of society being able to survive under such conditions: a minority of non-addicts trying vainly to keep things going for the rest.
There is evidence — inconclusive to be sure — that the civilisation of the Incas may have met its end primarily through drug addiction. When the Spaniards arrived, they found a society on the verge of collapse. The communistic political order had broken down; the agrarian economy was tottering, the peasants stupefied with the coca leaves they chewed constantly to ward off the pangs of hunger, the nobles by turns cruel, paranoid and indifferent. The conquistadors did not destroy the ancient empire of the Incas; they merely gave it the final push.
Modern civilisation might not go the way of the Incas, but it would be foolish to ignore the lesson of their fall. Catastrophe is possible. All too often the proponents of legalisation seem to believe that people who are treated as responsible adults will always behave accordingly, so that drug addiction will never reach such devastating proportions, or that society will always be able to cope. They may be right. But they may be wrong.
— ANSWERS —
Chapter 23. Rationing Alcohol Consumption By Means Of Auctioned Licences
We have looked in some detail at the drug problem and its complexities. Now it is time to give some answers. We begin with the easiest one: controlling, or at any rate keeping within bounds, the excessive consumption of alcohol. Ideally, of course, we should like to be able to leave this to the application of individual responsibility and the normal operation of the common law. Unfortunately, as we have seen, simple abolition of the long-standing taxes on intoxicating liquors would lead to widespread abuse and unacceptable levels of alcoholism. Yet simply to maintain those taxes in place is to perpetuate a system of dubious morality (one based upon coercion and the violation of individual rights), blocking any route to a more ethical and more rational market-based solution.
First let us note, in favour of the present system, that it does work. By setting the tax or duty at an appropriate level we are able to ensure that across society as a whole the consumption of alcohol is not excessive; with care we can approximate an economically efficient outcome. Surprisingly perhaps, in view of government's incompetence in most other areas, there is reason to believe that excise duty on alcohol in the UK is currently set at about the right level; that is to say, alcohol consumption is currently not too far from the economically efficient level.
Let me attempt to clarify that point. If alcohol consumption goes up a little, two things happen. One is that people gain more satisfaction by drinking more of what they like. The other is that more people suffer from the effects of excessive drinking. The gains have to be offset against the losses. Conversely, if consumption goes down, people lose some of the pleasure of drinking, but gain from better health. The optimal consumption is that which obtains when a marginal shift in consumption (up or down) yields no net benefit (because the gains and losses balance out); this is the point at which the total satisfaction or utility is at a maximum.
Ignoring production costs, the marginal gain from drinking equals the market price. The marginal loss is roughly equal to the additional number of lives lost multiplied by the average monetary value of a life. These will cancel each other out when the total amount spent on alcohol is equal to the total loss times the elasticity of alcoholism as a function of demand. This elasticity, you may remember, is approximately 2. If we set the value of a life at £1 million, the current spend of £32 billion would be optimal if the death rate from alcohol consumption were about 16,000 — which is of the right order.
For those who revel in gory detail, we observe that, allowing for a demand elasticity of 1½, if the death rate is actually as high as 20,000 the price should be increased by around 10% and demand reduced by 13%, bringing the total spend down to £30.6 billion; whereas if the death rate is only 10,000 the price should be reduced 20% and consumption increased 33%, for a spend of £35 billion. Note that the optimum is not very sensitive to variations in the estimate of the total loss; which is just as well, since this is highly uncertain.
Economists might like to take the analysis further, to include production and distribution costs, or the net additional loss from crime, but for present purposes we have gone far enough. It is apparent that existing tax rates now yield something close to an economically efficient outcome, but that unlike market processes they will not automatically adjust themselves towards the new optimum as circumstances change.
Rather than attempt to control the price, and thus the demand, by setting a specific rate of tax, I now propose restricting consumption more directly, rationing total sales by means of auctioned licences.
At present, alcohol consumption in the UK evidently averages about.20 grams of alcohol per adult per day, or 9 litre per year (this figure is based on sales and excise data, household surveys reporting only half as much). I propose setting that figure as the nation's ration. This is how it works. Every day some 400 million grams worth of alcohol licences, in units of say 1,000 grams, will be issued by the government and auctioned off to the highest bidders. Anyone wishing to offer alcoholic beverages for sale must purchase as many licences as are necessary to cover every unit of alcohol to be sold. The government sets no minimum price or reserve, but typically licences can be expected to go for around 5 pence a gram. Any left unsold at the end of the daily auction — an unlikely eventuality — will lapse.
The purchaser of a licence will then be permitted to vend the quantity of liquor that contains that quantity of alcohol. However, it is not necessary to use the licence the same day, and unused licences can be freely sold and resold. Normally, the purchaser of a licence at auction will be an original producer or importer, who will stamp his product with an identifying seal before delivering it to his wholesalers or retailers. Alternatively, the producer or importer could sell unlicensed alcohol in bond and leave the trader to purchase and apply the appropriate vending licenses. Ownership of the vending licence is automatically conveyed along with the licensed alcohol; thus licensed alcohol can be freely sold and resold; only when the alcohol is finally consumed does the licence cease to exist, and neither the government nor the original purchaser needs to know when this occurs.
In this scheme there is no limit on the amount of alcohol purchased by individual consumers; only on the gross consumption of the country as a whole. Nor is there any longer any need to licence vendors; it is the alcohol itself that carries the licence. The licence seal, applied by the original licence holder, precludes the bootlegging of unlicensed liquor. Home brews and home-made wines for personal consumption could if desired be exempted from licensing — although I do not recommend it. Products containing less than perhaps half a percent of alcohol by weight should be exempt. So should industrial alcohol, but medicinal spirits and tinctures probably should not.
The advantage of auctioned licences is that the auction price automatically sets itself at that level such that the market price will produce the necessary demand to clear the full ration, neither more nor less. As such it automatically takes account of varying conditions, such as inflation, growth or recession, wage increases or unemployment, and shifts in the demand curve due to social change.
Several objections spring to mind. What if a producer puts in too low a bid and therefore fails to obtain sufficient licences to cover his production? Simple: either he puts in a higher bid the next day, holding his excess production off the market until he has obtained the necessary licences; or, if he has an obligation to fulfil an existing contract, he purchases additional licences at a premium on the secondary market.
But what if there is general overproduction? Then there is no way that everyone can buy sufficient licences. That's what rationing means. The auction price will rise until the marginal producers, those who can no longer make a profit, cut back their excess production. In the meantime, much of the excess could perhaps be exported.
And what if there is general underproduction? The auction price will then fall strongly, theoretically to zero, greatly improving the profitability of the industry and thus encouraging additional production.
What if the brewers and distillers get together to form a cartel and drive down the auction price by underbidding? No problem. At worst, the cartel makes a bigger profit, and the government loses out. This won't hurt the economy — it might even help! Please bear in mind that the purpose of the alcohol licence is not to collect revenue, but rather to act as a defence against over-consumption and the threat of alcoholism. Furthermore, the under-pricing of licences will encourage the entry of other participants into the market, either as importers or as new producers; even the smallest of enterprises could easily gain a foothold. This will break the cartel and push the price back up.
The sale of auctioned licences is ethically superior to taxation, which in some ways it resembles, in that it functions within the market and adjusts itself towards economic efficiency without arbitrary intervention. There remains only a minimum of necessary coercion. This coercion exists only as a result of the loss of freedom already occasioned by the fact of alcohol addiction.
Now a libertarian may well challenge my assertion that this coercion is "necessary". The free market, he may argue, is quite capable of finding solutions to any such problem. If the market price falls so low that elasticity of demand generates an economically inefficient level of alcohol abuse, then mechanisms will evolve to increase the full cost or otherwise reduce demand. He may have some suggestions as to what these mechanisms may be (later on I shall make some such suggestions myself). He may be right.
Let us suppose that he is right, at least to some degree. Education, let us say, leads consumers to make more responsible decisions and reduces the demand for alcohol at a given price by 15%. The same level of consumption can now be maintained at a 10% lower price; the auction price falls by this amount. Coercion has been automatically reduced by a tenth.
Now suppose that insurance companies start demanding far higher premiums for drivers who drink and force drunks to pay substantial damages if they are involved in an accident. Demand for alcohol will fall further, and the auction price will fall with it. Government coercion has been reduced again.
And now suppose the common-law courts determine that certain drunks and alcoholics are entitled to damages against the publicans or manufacturers who were at least partially responsible for their condition. Since there is no way the market price can be raised without hitting sales, there is that much less money to spend on licences; the auction price must fall accordingly. Coercion is pruned back still further.
In the limit, if the free market and common law proves capable of handling the whole of the problem, the consumption of alcohol will dip below the ten grams a day mark, the full ration will no longer be taken up, and the price of licences at auction will fall all the way to zero. At this point there is no longer any interference with the market, and little or no residual government coercion. Once the situation proves sufficiently stable, the auction could be abandoned without effect. It is for this reason that I chose a ration slightly above both present and optimum consumption.
However, if the libertarian should prove wrong — or not entirely right — the auction will continue to function at just such a level as may be required to maintain consumption in the vicinity of the optimum. To whatever extent the market can handle the problem it will be free to do so, leaving the licence system to take up the slack. We might still wish to consider the licence system an evil — but surely in this case a necessary one, since without it things would be considerably worse.
Chapter 24. Rationing Tobacco Consumption By Means Of Auctioned Licences
Demand too strong
The rationing of tobacco consumption differs from the case of alcohol in several important respects. First, the demand for tobacco is currently far above the economically efficient level. Second, tobacco's low elasticity of demand makes it difficult to reduce consumption by raising the price. Third, the ubiquity of addiction among tobacco smokers creates a powerful and destabilising hysteresis in the demand curve.
In the UK the spend on tobacco is around £10 billion, whereas the total loss is in excess of £100 billion. Clearly, demand is well above the efficient level. Even if we forget about the complexities of addiction and saturation, while setting the market elasticity to 1/5, the implied optimum has a unit price 10 times higher, a demand lower by 37% and a total spend of £63 billion.
But the elasticity is this low largely because of market saturation, due to the relatively low current price of tobacco. To use it to extrapolate across a tenfold price range is absurd. The long-term market elasticity will naturally rise with the price, eventually approaching a figure of approximately 2. The analysis would then yield a demand reduction of 99% and a spend of only £1 billion; the total loss, which for tobacco is believed to be directly proportional to consumption, would also equal £1 billion.
In reality, the demand reduction could be expected to lie somewhere between these extremes, but probably rather closer to the latter. It all depends on how far into saturation we are at present. But there's another complexity we need to allow for first.
Since smokers are addicts, the marginal loss at higher prices may include an additional non-linear component, as smokers are forced to engage in economically inefficient activities like crime. Such economically irrational behaviour, incompatible with a genuinely free market, will result from the loss of free choice consequent upon addiction. It means that the optimum may not be reached until the price is boosted further and demand reduced still more. This is not a problem with alcohol rationing because alcoholics generate very little of the total demand.
Hundred fold cut in consumption required
The efficient rate of use of tobacco would thus seem to be on the order of a hundred times smaller than at present. The market price would have to be set at ten or twenty times the present value; and the total loss would then be cut to around a thousand deaths or £1 billion a year. However, in the short term such a price rise would only induce existing addicts to cut consumption by about a third; they would therefore end up spending some £65 - £130 billion to support their habits. This is on the edge of what is possible without widespread resort to crime.
To control or ration tobacco consumption we might turn to licensing, in the manner previously discussed in respect of alcohol. A difficulty here lies in finding a suitable objective measure. Since not all tobacco is of equal quality, the weight of tobacco sold will not do. We might attempt to use the weight of a standard grade of tobacco, with the figures for other grades and varieties normalised according to their respective market prices; but this would be messy and prone to irregular fluctuations in relative price as producers attempted to take advantage of the grade currently offering the best value; the instabilities might even be strong enough to make the method unworkable. A better solution might be to sell two sets of licence; one measured in grams of nicotine, the other in equivalent tar content. However, this would have the disadvantage that the average nicotine to tar ratio would not be allowed to vary; it would have to be fixed at a value expected to provide satisfactory products at the least risk.
Before attempting to ration tobacco consumption by means of auctioned licences, we also need to decide by how much consumption ought to be reduced. This is not entirely clear-cut. It is easier to see that the price should be raised by a factor of ten or twenty than to determine the optimum level of consumption from the currently available data. But this is only the start of our difficulties. Suppose we set the ration at one hundredth of present consumption. The inelasticity of the demand of existing addicts will rapidly drive the market and auction prices to staggering values, hundreds and thousands of times higher than they are today. A cataclysm of violent crime and an unstoppable wave of smuggling would seem the inevitable outcome.
If society survives the disaster, demand will eventually fall. But even then our troubles will not be over. When there are too many addicts, but sales are rationed, the market price is pushed up far too high. This powerfully discourages new users from entering the market. As addicts die off or drop out, they are not replaced. When their number falls below the optimum, and demand falls below the ration, the auction price crashes. This powerfully encourages new users. The number of users starts rising steeply. It overshoots the optimum. The new addicts can no longer pull out. The price soars again.
The hysteresis of addiction has transformed the negative feedback that would normally stabilise consumption close to the optimum into a destabilising menace. The rationing of consumption by means of auctioned licences has become an engine of chaos, an unstable oscillator. Prices, demand, addiction rates, all swing wildly, uncontrollably, unpredictably. The mechanism that seemed so promising in the case of alcohol, with its high elasticity of demand and minimal hysteresis, proves unable to cope with the powerful addictiveness of tobacco.
A system of auctioned tobacco licences might be of use in the short term, as a means of allowing the price to rise the desired ten or twenty fold without the political fallout of direct taxation, and as a means of testing the relevant elasticities of demand. In such a scheme we might set the ration equal to present consumption initially, decreasing thereafter by perhaps 0.1% per day. But as a long-term solution it appears unworkable, catastrophic in its effects, yet making barely a dent in the smoking rate.
Chapter 25. Controlling Tobacco Consumption By Means Of Harmfulness Taxes
Cost of addiction known
Given that we have a better idea of the cost of tobacco addiction than the optimum demand, a different approach might be in order. With alcohol, the harm caused is not directly proportional to demand — in fact, it goes more like demand squared. By contrast, the harmfulness of a unit of tobacco is roughly constant. This allows us to introduce a harmfulness tax without having to know the expected level of consumption.
The purpose of such a tax is to increase the market price to a level corresponding to the full cost of addiction. Any costs not already in the price are included in the tax. This means that purchasers will only buy when the marginal benefit to them is high enough to cover the full marginal cost. Thus if the tax has been correctly calculated the outcome is economically efficient.
The disadvantage of such a scheme, apart from the difficulty of accurately measuring the total harm or cost, is that it includes no incentive for the market to internalise the costs, and no mechanism whereby the level of coercion can be minimised. However, periodic or continual re-evaluation of the tax level by a just and honest government (pigs might fly!) could serve as a clumsier version of the automatic adjustments of the auctioned licence system. Thus, for example, if heightened insurance premiums for smokers were to increase the effective cost to purchasers, the harmfulness tax could be reduced by a corresponding amount.
Leaving aside the possibly insoluble question of finding impartial adjudicators, there is a difficulty in deciding what to include and what not to include in the tax. The effective cost of tobacco is not easy to measure. By effective cost, I mean the cost that effectively dictates the behaviour of purchasers, which in general is equal neither to the full cost of use nor to the market price. If people were wholly rational, it would equal the full cost, and a harmfulness tax would be unnecessary. In practice, though, especially for addictive substances, it seldom seems to reach much above the market price — even when the full cost is vastly higher. Thus the demand for cigarettes is clearly fed by the low market price, not by the horrendously high full cost of addiction.
It is therefore questionable how much of a heightened insurance premium would actually feed into the effective cost, and thus by how much the harmfulness tax ought to be reduced. Careful monitoring of demand could in principle provide an answer, but it would not be easy. An alternative procedure might be to provide the extra premium directly out of the sales price, that is, as a hypothecated portion of the harmfulness tax; this has the significant advantage that payments are directly related to individual consumption. Although collected by government edict, these premiums could be set on the market as insurance companies bid daily at auction to carry the risk. This is like the auctioning of licences, except that the lowest bid wins. It is conceivable that other portions of the tax could be hypothecated similarly.
Ethically, the harmfulness tax is clearly inferior to the system of auctioned licences: it is a tax. Furthermore, there is no automatic procedure for minimising it; we will have to rely upon the wisdom and integrity of those administering it, even where the incentives are weak or perverse. Except for those portions hypothecated for insurance purposes, the benefits must accrue to government, rather than to those upon whom the costs of smoking rest; it is hard to find ways of returning benefits to the smokers without moral hazard, that is, without destroying its effectiveness. This is certainly unjust; but if the tax is effective, at least the level of injustice may be small, and smaller than it would have been in the absence of the tax. We're back in "lesser of two evils" territory.
Magnitude of harmfulness tax
How high would the harmfulness tax have to be set? About £1 a cigarette, depending on the tar and nicotine content. At this price, as noted above, short-term demand would probably fall by around 37% for a total spend of £63 billion. In the longer term, demand might be expected to fall by perhaps a factor of a hundred. This would of course take many years. However, because of the way that cigarette consumption is driven by peer pressure, it is far from clear that demand would ever fall all the way to an economically efficient level. Still, most of today's £100 billion loss from tobacco addiction would be eliminated.
An obvious drawback to the introduction of a harmfulness tax is that the resulting high price of tobacco would inevitably encourage smuggling and the emergence of a black market, with its attendant violence and criminality. Putting tobacco on a similar footing to other drugs would greatly magnify the problem of drug-related crime. We might question whether the benefits are worth the cost, for smoking, unlike some other addictions, poses no real threat to society as a whole. But what of the 100,000 lives blighted and destroyed each year? I do not see how it can be morally acceptable to ignore them; such is not the description of a just society; it is certainly not the description of an efficient one.
As tobacco-related crime increases the full cost of tobacco consumption to society, the harmfulness tax must be increased accordingly. This will not be hard to calculate. However, if such crime is fully penalised it will not be common, and the increase in the tax will not be great. By fully penalised I mean that criminals must make full restitution according to the principles of common law, or otherwise be punished to a like degree. We must make the purveyors of black market cigarettes pay the harmfulness tax they have evaded multiplied by the improbability of their capture and conviction. That way they cannot expect to make a profit; and crime does not pay.
An advantage of the harmfulness tax is that it can easily be configured to take account of differing risks. High tar brands will attract a higher tax, filter tips a lower tax. Nicotine can be taxed at a different rate from tar, according to medical evidence on the respective dangers; and tobacco companies will be free to vary the nicotine and tax content of their cigarettes to obtain the most satisfying product for the price. Other risk factors can be taxed as and when they are identified; safer cigarettes will attract a tax reduction. Even though the harmfulness tax is far from an ideal solution, it is apparent that in this case manufacturers have strong incentives to improve efficiency and reduce harm.
Chapter 26. Rationing Drug Use By Means Of Auctioned Licences
If the consumption of alcohol can be controlled with minimal coercion through the medium of auctioned licences, can the same technique be applied to recreational drugs in general? We have already seen certain difficulties associated with the case of tobacco, so the universal application of the technique would appear infeasible. However, I now wish to explore some rather different aspects of the problem.
There are basically two approaches to rationing a diverse range of drugs: either we ration each drug separately; or we attempt to ration total consumption. Both approaches have their merits and their drawbacks.
A ration for every drug
If we ration total consumption only, we need a measure for comparing disparate drugs — how much alcohol equals how much cannabis equals how much cocaine. But if we ration each drug separately we must make an arbitrary decision of how much of each is to be allowed; or if the decision is not to be arbitrary, we still need a measure for comparison. Normally we could use the market price for this job; but here the market price is a dependent variable. The argument becomes circular. Economic efficiency will not be so easy to achieve.
Let's look at this a little more closely. Suppose we decide to stabilise consumption at the existing levels. We can easily make an estimate of the appropriate rations. This is fine for alcohol, for which demand is already near the efficient level; but for other drugs it would only serve to perpetuate the current unsatisfactory situation. Yet even if rations were economically efficient at present, there is no reason to suppose that they would remain so. Fashions change. New products appear. New modes of use develop. Consumption migrates. So long as prices reflect costs, whether we take our intoxicants in the form of alcohol or cannabis is arbitrary; a matter of personal choice. No one can justly or efficiently make that decision for us.
Imagine if the government were to ration not just the total consumption of alcohol but also the specific amounts of beer, and wine, and spirits sold. It would be absurd. There is, and can be, no rational basis for attempting to control demand in such detail; as economists have proved at length, and as the collapse of central planning around the globe has confirmed, such intervention inescapably interferes with the proper functioning of the market and drives the goal of economic efficiency out of reach, through its inability to cope with natural change.
Rationing the total alcohol equivalent
So if the idea of rationing each drug separately turns out to be inappropriate, we must instead consider rationing the total consumption of intoxicants. We already know what the gross ration should be: namely, 20 grams of alcohol-equivalent per adult per day. Almost all of this is currently consumed in the form of alcohol (ignoring the hundred-fold overuse of tobacco). All we need now is a way of converting each of the other drugs into their alcohol-equivalents. Then the purchaser of a licence would be free to apply it either to the sale of alcohol, as previously, or to the equivalent quantity of any other conforming drug.
However, determining the alcohol-equivalents is less than straightforward. It is doubtful whether the necessary information yet exists. At the same time we need not produce entirely accurate figures in order for the scheme to be useful; initial estimates could be corrected later. In essence, we want to determine the quantity of each drug that gives the same value of the product of marginal social loss and its elasticity with respect to consumption, within the range of expected demand.
In other words, if a typical 0.4 gram joint of marijuana is about as harmful as two ordinary cigarettes or forty grams of alcohol we could either set a harmfulness tax of £5 a gram or define an alcohol-equivalence of 100 grams per gram of marijuana, with the licence costing typically £5 at auction. This assumes that the elasticity of harm for marijuana is the same as for alcohol — about 2. If, as seems more likely, it is lower, with the harm directly proportional to consumption, the alcohol-equivalence will have to be decreased accordingly to 50 grams per gram. Since a joint of marijuana is thought to be about as intoxicating as 50 grams of alcohol, this implies that marijuana might actually be less harmful than alcohol, and that an increase in marijuana consumption, coupled with a corresponding decrease in alcohol consumption, might be desirable. However, these figures are by no means unchallengeable, and detailed calculations become messy very quickly. For example, we should probably do better to have two alcohol-equivalents for marijuana; one for the harm directly related to smoking and proportional to consumption; and one for the intoxicating effect based on the active ingredient THC, perhaps with an elasticity of about two. Other forms of cannabis will have their own equivalents.
Still, let us assume that the experts can put together a table of alcohol-equivalents which is sufficiently accurate for practical purposes. Use of these equivalents for auctioned licences is then straightforward. Manufacturers will not have to understand the details; they will simply be guided by the prices they are able to obtain for their products, and the prices they have to pay for the necessary licences; market discipline takes over. Innovation is not impeded, since new drugs and new products can be included in the scheme as soon as they can be assigned equivalents. Coercion is at a minimum, and is automatically reduced as and when market mechanisms under the common law prove able to take over the burden of restraint.
Unfortunately, we're not out of the woods yet. As we have seen, alcohol has high user and market elasticities and little hysteresis in the demand curves. Most of the other drugs will not be so accommodating. Not only will many of them display the low elasticities and strong hysteresis that led to difficulties with the idea of licences for tobacco; but they also have demand curves that differ markedly among themselves. A whole new set of chaotic instabilities may result, with demand swinging uncontrollably from drug to drug.
Imagine a fad for some addictive but relatively harmless drug. Users flock to the fashionable drug, forsaking their usual alcoholic comforts. No problem yet — until they become addicted and increasingly tolerant. Demand for the drug rises, a demand that can only be filled by poaching the alcohol rations of non-users. Consumption of alcohol is coercively reduced. Ordinary drinkers are made to suffer.
In reality, there is no equivalence between hard and soft drugs — and it is only with sufficiently soft drugs that a system of auctioned licences can be expected to work, and then only if the demand curves are sufficiently similar.
Chapter 27. Controlling Drug Use By A Combination Of Taxes And Licences
Harmfulness taxes for stability
The method of rationing drug use by means of auctioned licences has been shown to be prone to destructive instabilities. But all is not lost. A combination of harmfulness taxes for the harder drugs and auctioned licences for the softer drugs may yet be effective.
The advantage of harmfulness taxes is the absence of any tendency to instability. Each drug, and indeed each risk factor, may carry its own harmfulness tax, calculated according to the best evidence available. The harmfulness tax on any product is then simply the sum of the harmfulness taxes attaching to its ingredients separately. Increased sales of one drug will not affect the taxes levied on any other drug. Changes in demand will cause only modest variation in the market prices, since those prices will usually be dominated by the invariant harmfulness tax.
It does not even matter if the taxes are set at the wrong level; the resulting distribution of demand will not be optimal; we will not achieve the best economic efficiency; but the pattern of use will be stable and total consumption will be under control.
When I say that drug use will be stable I don't mean that it will be unchanging. There will certainly be fads and epidemics as there are today; that is intrinsic to the nature of addiction and the hysteresis naturally present in the demand curves. But, by contrast with the method of rationing with auctioned licences, there is no direct feedback from demand into the harmfulness tax that could generate the chaotic fluctuations previously discussed.
However, the harmfulness tax is only well-suited to risk factors that are directly proportional to consumption, at least within the range of likely demand. Thus, we saw tobacco as an ideal candidate, because we were able to determine just how much harm is caused by each cigarette. In general, hard drugs will display a similar proportionality. This is at least in part because the consumption of such drugs tends not to vary enormously from user to user; either you're an addict, or you're not. There is much more variability in the consumption of weakly addictive substances like alcohol; there, the measure of harm is based more on the varying fraction of users that are likely to become addicted at a given average consumption; and we know that that elasticity tends to be high.
Even where strict proportionality does not obtain, once we have a ballpark figure for the expected long-term demand we can define a harmfulness value adequate within that range. Marginal changes in demand will affect the harmfulness value only to second order. However, the harmfulness tax should then be set to the marginal harm, which is equal to the harm caused by each additional unit of the drug multiplied by the elasticity of harm, paralleling the treatment of alcohol-equivalence in the case of licensing.
The reader need not worry too much about the technical details. Nor need manufacturers or consumers — they can simply pay the tax and have done. Calculating the tax, or determining which drugs are to be taxed and which licensed, may be performed by any reasonably impartial panel of economists and experts; open publication and peer review of their deliberations and findings should suffice to keep them adequately accurate and honest.
Full restitution of evaded tax
Whether we wish to apply the full harmfulness tax may depend on whether this drives the price so high that an illicit market reappears, and whether our legal system is adequate to cope with this threat. Where we have a common law regime of full restitution we should apply the full harmfulness tax, including any additional social harm that drug-related crime and the illicit market may inflict. As we remarked in considering the harmfulness tax for tobacco, if such crime is fully penalised it will not be common; the purveyors of black market drugs will be forced to pay the full harmfulness tax they have evaded multiplied by the improbability of their capture and conviction. Under such a regime, illicit supply is not profitable.
However, if, as is the case at present, the legal system does not fully penalise the transgressor, or require him to make full restitution, then the full harmfulness tax should be imposed only when the product would still be cheap enough that there would be little black market demand. The existing level of tax on cigarettes is not a problem; doubling it would probably be safe; but it is doubtful whether a tenfold increase to the full harmfulness tax would be immediately practicable without major improvements in the law-and-order department. Much the same would presumably be true for taxes on other drugs. All the same, this is less an objection to the principle of the harmfulness tax than an indictment of the inadequacies of law enforcement under the present regime.
Combinations can be changed
An initial combination of taxes and licences should not be considered permanent. The disadvantage of the auctioned licence lies in its susceptibility to instabilities; only a limited number of soft drugs, with sufficiently similar demand curves, could be included in the scheme at any one time. Indeed, to start with, we might have to restrict it to alcohol alone. On the other hand, the practical and ethical advantage of the auctioned licence lies in its automatic response to market forces, in particular the internalisation of the disutilities of drug use. In the long run, we might hope that the auction price would fall to zero. Once this has happened in the case of alcohol, say, it may be feasible to transfer the softest of the taxed drugs over to the licence scheme; this procedure may be repeated until, ideally, all bids have fallen to zero and no taxes remain.
Chapter 28. A Cure For Addiction?
Is there a cure?
It is the fact of addiction that makes the drug problem so intractable. It is addiction that leads to the irrational and self-destructive behaviour of the regular drug user. If addiction could be cured, as we cure an infection, or if we could immunise against it, as we immunise against a virus, the disease of drug abuse would no longer be so devastating and the threat to society could be overcome.
History of addiction cures
Is there anything we can do along these lines? Perhaps. There is a long history of addiction cures, stretching back to antiquity, but they have seldom proved of much use. Their heyday was the late nineteenth century, when nostrums and panaceas and patent medicines of all kinds were doing the rounds. Many were sold as cures for opium addiction, a shameful condition then reaching worrying, even epidemic, proportions. This was an iatrogenic epidemic, that is to say, one created largely by the physicians' own thoughtless prodigality with morphine and by the unrestricted sale of opium-based nostrums like paregoric and laudanum; morphine, and later cocaine, were considered wonder-drugs long before that term was applied to twentieth-century products like aspirin. Unfortunately, most of these "addiction cures" were themselves based on opium or morphine; they made the patients feel better all right, but only by feeding the addiction!
When cocaine was discovered it too was seized upon as a cure for opium addiction. Later, when cocaine addiction was discovered, opium was used as a cure for that! The twentieth century has reprised the story by attempting to use various drugs as a cure for alcoholism, and drugs such as LSD as a cure for opiate and cocaine addiction. Few if any of these attempts have proved successful over the long-run, however promising they might have appeared at first. Moreover, in many cases, the cure seems worse than the disease. We should thus always be highly sceptical of the claims for the latest panacea; at the moment it's a craze for the hallucinogens, which when prescribed in a single massive dose are alleged to cure depression, addiction and a host of other psychological disorders, or which when taken regularly by American Indians in a religious setting are held to prevent these problems ever arising.
Classification of treatments
Let's get back to basics. We may classify treatment as preventative, palliative or curative; and further as either medical or psychological. Most treatments for drug addiction fall into the palliative category, and are mainly psychological. The first step, after the addict has been persuaded to seek help, is usually detoxification. This may be gradual or abrupt. Weaning addicts off a drug by degrees is commonly considered more humane, but there is little reason to believe that it is any more successful than cold turkey, in which the addict is dumped straight into withdrawal. Cold turkey is undoubtedly unpleasant — but that very unpleasantness may make the remedy more likely to stick.
It is an unfortunate fact that even though the physical dependence may have been broken by detoxification, the psychological dependence that is the essence of addiction has usually not been cured or overcome. The detoxified addict will, more often than not, return to his addiction. Treatment then consists in diverse attempts to persuade the addict that it is not in his interest to use the drug in question, to warn him against the temptations he will surely face, and to bolster his psychological defences against surrender to the residual craving for the drug. It must be clearly understood, though, that such treatment does not constitute a cure. A reformed addict is still an addict. Just as an alcoholic is an alcoholic for life.
Medical treatment has generally been restricted to maintenance, perhaps with a view to gradual detoxification, as in the provision of methadone for heroin addiction, or nicotine tabs for tobacco addiction. But in the case of alcoholism, a further wrinkle has been added; making the consumption of alcohol unpleasant by means of substances like antabuse. Opiate addiction is sometimes treated in a similar way. Although such procedures have their successes, they cannot provide a genuine cure; they merely increase the immediate cost of addiction, rather like a tax on drugs.
Palliatives are unsatisfactory. A utopian beginning demands perfect prevention. A fairy tale ending demands a total cure. To understand how we might hope to achieve either objective we need first to understand what addiction is. This is difficult. Medical science has at present no answer. Indeed, it is arguable that, in a sense, medical science will never have an answer, because addiction is fundamentally of the mind; it does not require physical dependence. Yet in another sense addiction is fundamentally of the body, because a disembodied spirit could never be addicted — or so we assume.
Addiction is economic myopia
How can we square this circle? Perhaps by treating addiction as an economic phenomenon. Addiction is economic short-sightedness. It is a tendency to promote immediate pleasure over long-term health and prosperity. A rational person plans for the future as well as the present; he does not waste his substance in riotous living, but makes provision for the morrow. Because the future is always uncertain, a rational person will always discount future satisfactions to some degree ("a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush"). However, in most circumstances the future discount rate should be no more than perhaps 5% per annum.
A rational society would invest heavily in its future; a profligate society or individual does not invest. It is in this respect, by the way, that political society is most often at fault, myopically destroying all incentives for rational and prudent behaviour. We are, if you like, addicted to the welfare state. An addiction which does vastly more harm than all the drug addictions ever invented.
A trade union activist goes on strike to get a higher wage now. He doesn't care that he's damaging the company he works for. He doesn't care that he's damaging his own future. He doesn't care that within two or three years, even if the union wins, he'll be poorer as a result. He can't see that far ahead — his time frame is little more than a year. He's not rational. He's stupid. He is, if you like, addicted to trades unionism.
The hardened drug addict is even more short-sighted. His horizon may be no further than the next fix. If he could look as little as a few days into the future, past the immediate symptoms of withdrawal, he would realise that it would be to his own benefit never to take the next dose, that his greater satisfaction lies in giving up the drug. He can't do that. In so far as the drug is concerned, his future discount rate is enormous — perhaps more like 5% an hour than a rational 5% a year. In effect, the addict is mentally disconnected from his future self.
Not all drug addiction is so extreme; but the general principle applies; the addict suffers from short-term-ism; his future discount rate is far too high. Given that discount rate, however, his behaviour is not unrational. The pleasure or satisfaction the addict finds from his drug is real. The euphoria is genuine. The high is so wonderful that it is worth almost any price — right now. The low of withdrawal is so awful that it is worth almost any price to escape it. This is true even in those addictions that are not directly pleasurable; the future risk of lung cancer weighs little compared to the immense relief of a cigarette this instant. It's like a medicine; there may be side-effects tomorrow, but we need the benefits today. Indeed, to an addict, and within his restricted time frame, the drug is a medicine.
Now we can see a resolution to the paradox of mind or body. Addiction is of the mind, because it results from an erroneous mental picture in which the future is a fog, a false belief that the future matters much less than the present. And addiction is of the body, because the satisfactions and pleasures that are craved, and the dissatisfactions and pains that are abhorred, are by and large physical in nature and derive from the reaction of a physical substance upon a physical body.
Promoting rational perception
The key to both the general prevention and cure of addiction would appear to lie in somehow promoting our rational perception of the future, since eliminating all the euphoric physical effects of drugs seems impracticable. Perhaps we could find substances to act as a cure or vaccine for particular addictions — if opiates neither give pleasure nor dull pain it is hard to see many people becoming or remaining addicted to them. But addiction to drugs that act by potentiating the natural mechanisms of the body, say by releasing endogenous morphines into the brain, probably could not be cured without interfering with those natural mechanisms, to the serious detriment of the patient.
Perhaps we could think of addiction as evolution in action; if it goes on long enough, the survivors will be immune — and rational. If we don't end up extinct first! It is most probable that there exist genes and gene combinations that grant immunity to addiction, or at least some measure of resistance, perhaps linked to the ability to reason; certainly drug addiction is negatively correlated with IQ. Thus genetic engineering and gene therapy might make important contributions in this field in the future. But this is speculation.
On the psychological side, it is not easy to see how to proceed. We know that we want to encourage foresight and rationality. But how do we do that? Education has been tried, without conspicuous success. Membership of a church can prove helpful — but even church members have been known to turn to drugs. Self-help may be of benefit; as may a wide range of other social and psychological devices. A belief in the importance of human life and the value of individual freedom would be good. An understanding of free-market economics and the principles of common law would be even better. And a positive attitude to life may be the best defence of all.
Failure so far
Yet none of this is new. It has all been tried — and found wanting. Drug addiction can break down all such barriers. However, to the best of my knowledge, none of these systems has addressed itself specifically to the crucial issue: the future discount rate. What we need is a training procedure or method of conditioning which can be demonstrated substantially to increase the weighting of future satisfactions and dissatisfactions in personal decision-making.
We do not have such a programme now. Perhaps one can be developed in the future. Perhaps too medical science will eventually be able to provide cures for most of the harmful side-effects of drug abuse. It is very likely, though science will no doubt also create new drugs with even deadlier side-effects. Harmfulness taxes and licences also have their place here; they bring forward in time some of the future ill effects of drug abuse, forcing the user to face up to costs he would otherwise discount; yet the addict's time horizon may be too short even to see the forgone satisfactions the money represents. One day we may be able to put together a scheme that will enable even the hardened addict to perceive his folly and abort his self-destructive actions even at the point of use. For the time being, though, we have to admit that we do not know any cure for addiction.
Chapter 29. What We Can Do Now
The art of the possible
We have looked at the drug problem as it was in the past and as it is now. We have looked at the ways governments have tried to deal with it, and the various remedies that have been proposed. We have examined the complexities that surround the issue and the difficulties that attend so many simplistic solutions. We have considered a number of possible answers of our own.
Now it is time to address the question: what can we do in the world of today, at the start of the new millennium? Given the exigencies of politics. Given the mood of the people. Given the faults of our legal system: — What can we do?
Not: — What ought we to do? But what can we actually expect to be able to do under the regrettable present circumstances? This is an exercise in real politik. There are things which are politically possible — and things which for the time being are not.
For example, consider the welfare state: a hydra-headed menace that ought to be abolished; it is grossly unjust and dishonest: it is wrecking the economy, driving rich and poor into bankruptcy, and putting the country on the road to ruin. We'd be far better off without it. Even the Labour Party is occasionally willing to admit as much. And yet . . . does anyone imagine that there is even the slightest possibility of the government's dismantling it? Not in thirty years, with the economy in collapse, but in the immediate future? There are just too many vested interests. To propose the abolition of the welfare state today would be utopian. It would be a foolhardy politician who even cast doubt on the future of the NHS. Any movement away from the welfare state will almost certainly have to be gradual — or in response to a crisis still to come. Indeed, at the present time, and despite recent shifts in rhetoric, movement in the so-called liberal democracies is still in the direction of ever greater state control.
This is not intended as a political treatise — my subject is the drug problem — so it is not necessary that the reader agree with my rejection of the principle and practice of socialism, whether in the egalitarian form of the welfare state or the authoritarian forms of fascism or communism; the key point is that, right or wrong, at a given moment in time only a limited range of policies are practical politics.
Thus, nothing would currently be served by campaigning for the introduction of the death penalty for drug trafficking. In the present political climate it is most unlikely that any such policy could win acceptance. And even if such a measure were to be passed — perhaps on the back of a nation-wide hysteria following an unusually tragic drugs-related incident — it is even less likely that the statute would be enforced with anything like the necessary rigour. The death penalty could work — it could solve the drug problem — but not in the United Kingdom of today.
In the same way, the legalisation of the production, distribution and sale of currently scheduled drugs, with the possible exception of marijuana, is surely a political non-starter. The idea is too unpopular. If anything, public opinion is moving the other way — towards tighter control and harsher penalties. This at least seems to be the message of the ongoing clamp-down on the tobacco companies. And if any such measure were to be passed, it would all too probably be a half-hearted and muddled partial legalisation that would leave things in an even worse mess than before.
Moving in the right direction
What then can we do? We cannot expect to solve the entire drug problem right now. That is to say, we cannot expect a complete solution to be put into operation immediately. However, there are improvements we can reasonably hope to make; ways in which the problem could at least be alleviated, and which in time might lead to further gains and an ultimate victory.
So what are these improvements? The most pressing need would seem to be for a more equitable approach across the board. For too long this whole affair has been dealt with in a hopelessly inconsistent and piecemeal fashion. We cannot expect much respect for the law if on the one hand free drugs are dished out to heroin addicts on the NHS, while on the other hand an occasional pot smoker could be held in custody for up to a year without trial on a charge of possession of a few ounces of cannabis.
Let us consider the adoption of a uniform schedule of penalties for drug offences and a policy that all offences shall be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law — in other words, a "zero-tolerance" approach to policing the drug problem. Such an approach is in line with current thinking. It is important to reject decriminalisation, the easy and ignoble option of leaving enforcement open to discretion, but since mandatory sentencing is in favour in other areas at the moment this renunciation should not prove politically infeasible.
This is not to say that we should treat drug users more harshly. On the contrary, I would suggest that the abolition of custodial sentences for simple possession is long overdue; these are already rare in the UK. At the same time, drug offences should be excluded from the confusing rigmarole of binding over, suspended sentences, care orders and probation. I would prefer to eliminate these altogether, for they serve little or no useful purpose, but the political lobby of the social workers and probation officers may prove too powerful for that.
For simple possession, a summary offence handled in the magistrates' court, a fixed-rate fine (so many £'s a gram of such-and-such a scheduled drug) would be easy to introduce. This fine should be set high enough that the expected cost to the illicit user is considerably in excess of the street price, after allowance for arrest and conviction rates. Devising a suitable schedule is then a technical and administrative function which should not prove politically troublesome; and if we err on the side of excessive stringency, why that's just more revenue for the treasury!
Drug dealers and smugglers could expect to face a similar fine; indeed, we might as well use the same schedule, with the proviso that those who distribute illicit drugs could be charged on two counts (buying and selling) thus doubling the fine. This would be harder to sell to the general public. Drug traffickers are businessmen in the way of a profit, but that's not how they're normally perceived; public opinion won't look favourably upon letting off the evil drug-pushing scum with no more than a fiddling little fine. Okay. Let's fine them, then give them a proportional prison sentence as well (so many years per kilogram of such-and-such a drug: say one year per £20,000). Better make that a mandatory sentence without possibility of parole; and we can seize their assets where necessary to meet the fine. This should satisfy everybody — except the drug dealers!
All drugs available on the NHS
This is only part of the general overhaul. The system of registering addicts, currently limited to opiate and cocaine addiction, should be extended to cover all scheduled drugs. All such addicts should be offered detoxification, but should not be required to accept; they may be required to visit their doctor at regular intervals to renew their prescriptions. NHS general practitioners should be obliged to prescribe maintenance to all such registered addicts. Standard prescription charges would initially apply, but it would probably be better if the addict were required to purchase the drug at a price inclusive of a harmfulness tax.
As things stand, this is about as far as we can expect to go for now. A limited harmfulness tax on tobacco, perhaps. Auctioned licences for alcohol. These are also on the cards — there are no powerful constituencies that would seriously object. It would also make sense to include tobacco with the other addictive drugs; but this may be too radical for the time being, especially in the absence of a truly satisfactory alternative to the existing excise duty — or its harmfulness tax replacement. While the sale of tobacco remains fully legal, any crackdown on tobacco advertising and sponsorship must surely be judged an unjust imposition; but even where such crackdowns are undertaken, I can't believe it will have any significant impact on cigarette consumption, or indeed on the tobacco companies' profits. As for the problem of juveniles, I have argued that it would be beneficial to have the same drug laws for persons of all ages; but sentiment today is tending the other way, with proposals to restrict further the purchase of drink and tobacco by minors.
Only a stopgap
Clearly, we cannot expect to solve the whole problem this way. Drug-related crime will be reduced. But the inadequacies of the courts will still be apparent. Drug users will be considerably better off. But addiction will not be eradicated. Indeed, drug abuse will probably continue to grow. Children will not be immune. And things will get worse before they get better.
Chapter 30. What We Can Do When The Roof Falls In
The coming crisis
The drug problem is bad and getting worse. What happens if it keeps on getting worse? What happens if the controls we have just been discussing are not implemented or if they fail to be effective? What can we do when the roof falls in?
Previous chapters have brought out the evil effects of rampant drug abuse. There are the effects intrinsic to the drugs themselves, which would concern us even if drugs were legalised; the harm caused by doped and drunken drivers, doctors, dentists, factory workers; the spread of illness; the breakdown of social norms. If current trends continue, some twenty years from now may see us in the middle of a crisis.
Then there is the crime associated with the black market in drugs; the robberies and burglaries committed by addicts; the gang warfare; the consequent harm to drug users themselves. This too might reach unsustainable levels within twenty years or so. The economy isn't in good shape even today; it is questionable whether it could cope with a further tenfold increase in crime.
Finally — and perhaps most worrying — there is the damage to the basic fabric of society and its orderly governance; the corruption of the courts, the police, the legislature and the people; the destruction of the rule of law; the hegemony of force, blackmail and intimidation. Twenty more years could eat the heart out of our nation; the corrosion of a thousand years of liberty could become irreparable. Am I exaggerating? Perhaps. Perhaps not. The deadly process is already under way — this is undeniable — and there is surely a limit to how much we can take.
So when do people say — enough? When are we going to call a halt? Human nature being what it is, possibly not until we are peering into the abyss, until catastrophe is staring us in the face and doom is imminent. Then it will be too late for half-measures. It will be too late for registering addicts on the NHS. There will be no NHS. It will be too late for fines. The currency will be in a tailspin. It will be too late to call on the police and the courts to get tough. The police and courts will be in the drug lords' pockets. It will be too late. Woe! Woe! Woe unto ye that live in that day!
Isn't this fun? You can see why the old testament prophets were so keen on their job, and what motivates much of today's environmentalist doom mongering. There's something so entertaining about disaster. All right. Let's tone it down a bit. Leaving aside the melodrama, it is clear that if things ever reach this stage, drastic steps will have to be taken.
A Final Solution
It is hard to see more than one way out; and a desperate people will welcome any government with the guts to grasp the nettle, any leader who can persuade them of his ability to carry forward this draconian course of action. The Final Solution. Exterminate the drug dealers. (By the way, to be fair to Hitler, and contrary to popular belief, his solution did not necessarily involve bumping off all the Jews; sterilising them, or simply tossing them out of the Third Reich, would have done just as well; unfortunately, stopping drug dealers breeding is not our goal! We have to stop them dealing, and for that we'll have to kill them.)
As we have seen previously, the mere introduction of the death penalty for drugs offences without simultaneous reform of the judicial system would prove inadequate to deal with the problem even today, let alone in the unfortunate situation we are now considering. So we must first assume a declaration of a state of emergency and the introduction of martial law. It's either that or a rather unbritish military coup.
Let's keep it constitutional. Let's assume the passage of an Act of Parliament, the Death to Drug Dealers Act of 2023.
Death to Drug Dealers
What form should this act take? It should decree a mandatory death penalty for all drug offences, including simple possession. Only one escape from the death penalty should be permitted: if the offender can successfully shop his supplier, the sentence may be commuted at the discretion of the court. Mere co-operation with the authorities isn't good enough; someone higher up the chain must be brought to justice, whether through evidence provided by the offender or as a result of his assistance in baiting a trap; for every drug offence, somebody must die.
Does an addict deserve death? Probably not. But unless he is terminally stupid he will make certain he knows the identity of his supplier. Does a street-level pusher deserve death? Perhaps. Perhaps not. But unless he is terminally stupid he will make certain he knows the identity of his supplier too — even though that supplier will wish to make certain that the pusher does not know his identity. The pusher himself will do his best to make certain that his own customers do not know his identity. Already we can see a fundamental conflict of interest within the drug trafficking business.
Now the street-level pusher has to advertise. However despicable his business may be, it is a business. His customers, and his prospective customers, have to know where to find him. This is hardly compatible with his safety. The authorities will have no difficulty pulling him in and convicting him of a capital offence. They don't even have to show him distributing the stuff — that he is knowingly in possession of a controlled substance will be quite sufficient to attract the death penalty.
This is almost too easy. Naturally, the upper echelons of the criminal organisations running the drug racket will fight back. They will try employing cut-outs and anonymous drops — all the tricks of covert operations. They may be able to protect themselves. But they will soon run out of mugs to do their dirty work. The operation will grind to a halt.
They will try violence. But who are they to bomb or shoot? Under martial law there will be no high-profile judges; killing random politicians will have little or no effect; and the generals in charge of the campaign will mostly be too well protected to attack. The pushers may shoot back at the soldiers attempting to arrest them — no doubt many of them will — but there is no way they can prevail against an army.
Remember, this is a crisis situation. Things have got really bad. People are fed up with shilly-shallying. They fully support the suppression of the illicit drug trade. They want the drug problem ended. Once and for all.
The army won't have to pull any punches. Resistance will be met with overwhelming force. No one will be interested any more in media types whining about civilian casualties or collateral damage; by then the country will be all too used to the daily knowledge of scores of innocent bystanders slaughtered in the endless battles between rival gangs of dope dealers. Better to pay the price, win the war, and have done.
Give it a few weeks and it will all be over.
We could do as much today, if we had the courage. We do not have to wait for disaster to strike. But I'm not holding my breath. As I've said before: it will have to get worse before it gets better.
Order comes first
Many readers won't like the implication that mass violence can be a solution to the drug problem. I should like to remind them of an often forgotten and uncomfortable fact. Without order there can be no law. Without law there can be no justice. Without justice there can be no righteousness. Good may be the end. But order must come first.
Anarcho-capitalists may dispute this. They like to believe that liberty can best be attained without the state; and that just law may be bought on the free market. They might even be correct in their belief. Yet even under anarcho-capitalism, an orderly society is the prerequisite for justice.
By setting up an admittedly extreme scenario, in which society is brought to the verge of collapse, I hope to have persuaded most readers of the merits of this draconian solution, at least in the context of so grave an emergency. However, I would contend that it also has merit in less catastrophic circumstances.
We have assumed a continuance of present trends in drug abuse; but we have perhaps taken insufficient account of other parallel trends, such as the trend towards authoritarianism, of which the war on drugs is a part. Much recent legislation can be viewed as the early stages of a movement towards a bureaucratic police state, or at least as providing the foundation for an increasingly authoritarian or communitarian regime. I don't want to get into politics here; I simply wish to point out that the growth of the drug problem is likely to be matched by a gradually escalating government response. The time may come when Death to Drug Dealers becomes politically acceptable, even without the impetus of an imminent slide into chaos.
Many readers, I am sure, will object to such an act on principle; and it is certainly not a happy solution. Yet it is more morally defensible than might appear on the surface. Indeed, for several years I considered this the best available option, the only answer to the drug problem that gave any assurance of success. The middle-of-the-road policies of the recent past were clearly futile; despite the best efforts of numerous dedicated persons, drug abuse was continuing its historic climb; there was no end in sight. Half-hearted compromises were doomed to failure. Full legalisation would lead to an explosion of demand, with potentially catastrophic results. Only a mandatory death penalty could be guaranteed to work.
I am no longer of the opinion that this is the only viable option. Although pragmatically I found no fault with it; ethically it seemed less than wholly satisfactory. My moral queasiness with this solution drove me to search for other possibilities — and eventually to find them. But it also led me to rehearse the moral case for the defence. So here goes.
In defence of Death to Drug Dealers
Few people will worry about the severity of the penalty for today's drug traffickers. It is clear that they are among the most vicious of criminals, who richly deserve a horrible death. I will not apologise for wishing a barbaric end on them; they are barbarous themselves. Let them be hanged. But the drug users? They are the victims. How can we treat them the same way?
Well, first, if we do not act, we condemn far more victims to die from this time forth; better a few hundred or a few thousand now than many millions in the future. Second, so long as addicts are willing to assist in bringing down the dealers, they will seldom need to be sentenced to death; courts will be as lenient to addicts as the law allows. Third, soldiers will be tasked against the dealers; they will pick up users only when they are required as bait or as a source of intelligence. Fourth, this is a one-off operation; once the drug distribution network has been crushed, further illicit drug use, other than of a very occasional nature, is unlikely. And fifth, the threat of execution has much the same effect as a harmfulness tax; it rubs the would-be user's face in the costs of drug taking, and thereby saves lives.
On balance, this measure would do far more good than harm, even for existing drug users; although it cannot be said to be entirely clear of the charge of injustice, there is reason to suppose that it would produce far less injustice than most of the alternatives (including that of doing nothing). At least as a means of bringing the drug problem initially under control, it is surely not morally unacceptable.
In the longer term, there are difficulties. Given that a drug pusher violates the rights of his foolish client, a penalty of death for dealing a few joints of marijuana still seems excessive. It is not proportional justice. However, when we realise that the drug pusher is not only harming one particular user, but is engaging in an activity that undermines the common law, the magnitude of the punishment begins to seem less extreme.
More problematic is the question of whether we have the right to stop people taking drugs at all. If drug use were solely a matter of free choice and did not harm other people then clearly we would not. But neither proposition is actually true. Nonetheless, it is clear that in banning drug use we are to some degree interfering with the liberty of the individual.
However, it is better to look at this from another direction. The magnitude and nature of the penalty is not really the issue. The intent of this law is to ban illicit drug use altogether, not merely to restrict it to an economically efficient level; in this it differs from proportional common law; but since the economically efficient level is here very low, the difference is in practice not great.
The question is: what loss are we inflicting on people by denying them their freedom to take drugs. The loss is not zero. But it is small. Almost always, taking drugs is a bad idea. Since a rational individual would very seldom choose to use these drugs, there is very little loss to him in taking away that choice. At the same time we protect the irrational from an unfree and self-destructive pseudo-choice. The overall effect is a net gain in freedom to most individuals.
We should not forget that sometimes individual freedom of choice can be enhanced overall by measures that appear to restrict choice in certain instances. Dogmatic assertions to the contrary are not helpful. It may seem highly principled to insist that everybody should be given the freedom to drive unwittingly over the edge of a cliff — but really this is nonsense. The loss of freedom involved in forcibly stopping them is trivial compared to that associated with impacting a rocky beach at eighty feet per second.
Tobacco and medicines
One awkward point is that if we hold to the death penalty for drug dealers on moral as well as pragmatic grounds, it is hard to see how we can avoid including tobacco in the ban. since it is at least as subject to these arguments as any other recreational drug. Another problem is the status of medicinal use; it would be necessary to evolve quite complex procedures for prescribing controlled substances, perhaps involving several registered practitioners to sign a certificate stating the exact medical reason for the specific medication and the precise nature and duration of the course of treatment. Messy. In these circumstances many patients who would otherwise benefit would no doubt be denied ready access to these drugs; in the long run this might turn out to be the most serious hardship resulting from this measure, rather than the hypothetical loss of recreational freedoms that only extremists are likely to miss.
A definite solution
Even so, we have at last a definite solution to the drug problem; one that will work; and if it is not totally satisfactory, it is nevertheless ethically sounder than one might initially imagine. If we cannot find a better answer, we can always fall back on this one: death to drug dealers! It is radical enough that it will not prove easy to introduce, short of a major crisis or a deepened frustration with the ineffectiveness of other measures, yet it does not seem fundamentally at odds with public sentiment. It would cost us a little freedom, but it would defend some of the most important freedoms of all: not least the freedom to live and bring up our children in an orderly society without the fear of drug addiction and rampant crime.
Chapter 31. What We Can Hope To Do In The Future
An ideal world
In an ideal world the drug problem would be handled on the free market; all drugs would legal, all offences associated with them would be brought under common law, and all damages would be borne by those individuals responsible for them. Drug consumption would be at the economically efficient rate, in general far lower than at present (for example, as we have previously observed, cigarette consumption would fall at least a hundred fold, though demand for alcohol might remain at about the current level). Such arbitrary statutes as the mandatory death penalty for all drug offences would then be unnecessary, and would indeed be considered both undesirable and unjust.
Drugs still violate rights
However, we must not imagine that legalisation alone would suffice to bring this about. The problem is more complex. Drugs do violate rights — and those violations need to be paid for or punished. The legal system needs to understand those violations and be geared up to deal with them. The underlying principle of justice is that whoever is responsible for harming another, in any way that violates his property or person, must make restitution to his victim in the full amount of the harm. Aggression is not wished out of existence, and the initiation of force is not excluded; but all losses resulting from such coercion must be made good.
Ordinary crimes punished by fines
Ordinary crimes like burglary or robbery, committed by addicts or rent-seeking dealers, can of course be dealt with in the usual manner; whoever commits them is a simple criminal and must pay accordingly (ideally, punishment is in the economically efficient form of a fine, rather than the economically wasteful form of imprisonment). Since the free-market price of drugs would be very low, such crimes should be rare, except perhaps for those committed under the influence of drugs or drink. Civil nuisances, such as rowdiness, can be dealt with in a similar fashion (indeed, an ideal common-law regime draws no distinction between civil and criminal offences).
Drug users bear own costs
Since in a free market patients must pay for their own medical treatment, either directly or through some form of insurance, drug users will themselves have to bear the burden of the medical costs attending their drug habits. Insurance companies will follow actuarial advice in demanding higher premiums from users than from abstainers, for both medical and liability insurance (this is already starting to happen with medical provision for smokers and motor car insurance for drinkers).
There is no necessity for specific laws against, say, driving under the influence of drugs (and existing drink-driving laws can be scrapped); for under common law anyone who causes an accident is liable; and driving without insurance adequate to meet one's potential liability is therefore an offence. Insurers will protect themselves by means of their own policy conditions, for example by setting correspondingly higher premiums unless one agrees to the installation of a coded keypad device demanding a certain degree of hand-eye coordination, memory and concentration, instead of or in addition to conventional ignition keys, thereby denying the use of the vehicle to incapacitated drivers.
It is true that the existence of drug addicts in a population will increase the risk of disease for everyone, but assuming that the economically efficient level of drug addiction is sufficiently low, this effect will be negligibly small and furthermore offset by similarly small positive externalities (if the free market cannot keep drug addiction at a low level then the negative externalities of drug abuse can be expected to become serious, perhaps even catastrophic).
However, there is another set of harms we must address if drug addiction is not to reach socially unacceptable levels, and if the umbrella of justice is to protect addicts and potential addicts too — the harm done to addicts by the availability of drugs.
Common law justice
The prototype of common law justice is this: let A wrong B; then the offender A must make restitution to the victim B. It is a matter of complete indifference who A and B may be; rich or poor, man or woman, black or white; for each and every A and B the law is the same (this is what is frequently, but somewhat inaccurately, referred to as "equality under the law").
Now here comes the corker: let A equal B. Logically, this makes no difference. If A wrongs himself it is still a wrong, and in justice he must still make restitution to B, which is to say, to himself! Legally, though, prosecution of the offence is unnecessary, since all that happens is that A is obliged to pay damages to himself, a singularly pointless exercise. Thus we might argue that whilst suicide is a crime (or at the very least, a sin), there's not a lot we can do about it in law, so we might as well forget it. Pretty clearly, getting drunk, or taking a dangerous drug, is a wrong of this type.
The liability of accomplices
Now consider a more complicated scenario: let A wrong B, assisted by C; then A and C must jointly make restitution to B. The accomplice, accessory or conspirator C does not escape punishment; he shares responsibility with A and must make restitution in proportion to that responsibility. Again, the law is indifferent; it is the same for each and every A, B and C. So again we say: let A equal B. But now C shares responsibility for the wrong A does himself and must make partial restitution for that wrong, even to the person who as A also shares responsibility. The drug dealer who introduces A to drugs clearly shares responsibility with A for the evils attendant upon A's subsequent addiction as person B; if we ignore this offence we make a major error in justice.
How in practice does C's liability work out? We have to be careful not to spread the net too wide. Suppose a shopkeeper sells a piece of string, which A later uses in a strangling. Do we want the shopkeeper to be held liable? Surely not. The simplest way out of this dilemma is to assume that in purchasing the string A indemnified the vendor against liability for A's subsequent acts (a just but messy alternative would be for C to increase the price of his goods to pay for his taking out liability insurance on their subsequent use). In effect, A enters into a side transaction with C to accept any responsibility (which in common law is equivalent to a debt) that C may have incurred. This works fine, so long as A is competent to enter into such an arrangement, and can afford to service the full liability. C cannot normally expect to be indemnified if he pushes a gun into the hands of a raving lunatic, nor even if he knowingly sells one to a rational but poverty-stricken and dying man who means to murder the millionaire he mistakenly blames for his condition. It is widely accepted that an innkeeper must not sell alcohol to a man already drunk (or that if he does he must be willing to accept responsibility for any wrong that results).
Can we expect drug users to indemnify dealers in this way? Or should we rule them incompetent to do so? The latter course, though perhaps not unreasonable in itself, is fraught with difficulties both practical and moral; it is not equivalent to the notions of "diminished responsibility" and "not guilty by reason of insanity" that so corrupt the legal system today, but the differences are subtle, and we should be wary of any procedure that appears to make lack of legal competence an excuse for wrongdoing. Even the innkeeper example above may not have been decided entirely correctly — for although the drunk is clearly not in a responsible condition now, he is the one responsible for his becoming drunk in the first place.
Let us assume then that for the most part (though not invariably) drug purchasers are held to indemnify vendors against liability for any harm, subject of course to the ordinary rules of honest trade (that goods are as advertised and sold at an agreed price, etc.). The simple sale of drugs to a user (or a doctor's prescription for the same) is not a violation of that person's rights; it merely fills an existing need or desire; and there should be no doubt that this need or desire is real. Does that let the drug dealers completely off the hook? I think not. The wrong subsists in encouraging a person to take drugs in the first place, or to continue taking them thereafter.
Responsibility for addiction
In the simplest case, consider a perfectly addictive substance (tobacco comes close) such that the user elasticity of demand is zero and the addiction is incurable. Responsibility for all subsequent harm clearly rests at the point of initial use, the point of addiction. Assume further that the novice did not realise what taking the substance would mean; he took it because a deceitful "friend" told him to ("Ye shall not surely die", as the serpent said to Eve). It is clear that the "friend" is wholly liable for all the resulting evil. Assuming that the effect of the addiction is to reduce life expectancy by say a third, we might attempt to compensate the addict by boosting his annual income by 50%; the expected punishment of the "friend" will then typically amount to half of his annual income for as long as the addict is expected to live; and if the conviction rate is around 50%, the actual punishment may amount to essentially the whole of his surplus earning capacity for the rest of his life. Indeed, in many cases we might find the fine too large ever to collect and might then be obliged to impose the death penalty instead. It is evident that under such a common law regime the penalty for wrongfully inducing addiction could be very high indeed — more than enough to deter the vast majority of potential offenders.
At the other extreme, suppose that the supplier can prove that the prospective user was competent to make long-term life-and-death decisions, was warned of the nature of the drug and the horrendous price of addiction in advance, and moreover understood those warnings; then the supplier would be indemnified; the user would have to accept full responsibility and would receive no compensation. Since it is hard to see any rational person wishing to undertake drug use in such circumstances it is apparent that the burden of proof must be on the supplier.
More generally, both user and supplier share responsibility for the addiction. In dividing up that responsibility we might assume, in the absence of specific information to the contrary, that each party has equal responsibility; thus we impose half the burden on each. This has the merit of avoiding problems of "moral hazard", since both parties are given an incentive to act responsibly.
Since real substances are less than perfectly addictive (their user elasticity of demand is greater than zero) users must share some fraction of the responsibility for continuing to use them, even if the initial addiction was not their fault. It is not entirely clear what their responsibility amounts to quantitatively, but if for the time being we set the fraction equal to the user elasticity we will not go too far wrong.
Addictiveness defined by user elasticity of demand
We can define as non-addictive (user fully responsible for continuing use) any substance with user elasticity greater than or equal to one. Perfectly addictive substances (user not now responsible for continuing use) would have user elasticities of zero. A typical hard drug, with a user elasticity of 0.2, leaves the user carrying 20% of the responsibility for continuing use; whereas a very soft drug, with a user elasticity of 0.8, would allow only 20% of the responsibility for continuing use to be put down to the fact of addiction. These elasticities are a matter for empirical measurement.
The wrong of addiction
However, we should note that whereas first use is the only point of responsibility for perfectly addictive substances, so that subsequent sale would be completely indemnified, this is not the case with real substances; to the extent that a non-zero user elasticity of demand exists, a pusher can wrong the user further by increasing the probability of continued addiction, or encouraging increased consumption of the drug. Because it takes time for us to change our habits, elasticities are always lower in the short term than the long term; the rising curve of user elasticity that obtains should provide the necessary data to calculate the appropriate division of responsibility (and thus the appropriate penalty). Roughly speaking, it tells us how long an addict can be expected to remain enslaved to a drug without a new act of enslavement, and thus the severity of any such act of (partial) enslavement by a pusher.
Formally, the wrong of addiction is the integral of the expected loss of utility over time; the future wrong justly borne by the user is the integral of the product of the expected loss and the user elasticity, from the present onward; the future wrong justly borne by the pusher is the integral of the product of the expected loss and one minus the user elasticity, calculated on the basis of no further acts of pushing; the wrong justly attributed to such a further act is then the surplus of the future wrong calculated after the act over that calculated before it.
If at this point the reader is getting confused, I don't blame him. I'm none too clear on it yet myself. But it's not hard to grasp the basic idea: if you encourage someone to take drugs, you pay the price for the wrong you do him — a price proportional to the damage that you are responsible for. The devil, as they say, is in the detail: this is one reason why it seems unlikely that such a solution could be successfully applied under the present regime, or introduced overnight as part of a radical libertarian reform; it is subtle enough that before we can make it work we probably need to have eliminated the bulk of the drug problem — or at any rate the criminal element — and to have a fully functioning common-law system already in place.
Since justice must not only be done but also be seen to be done, this subtlety might seem a serious drawback. But before we get too bogged down, let's step back a pace — it's not as bad as it seems. So long as we keep a firm grip on common sense, the fact of liability will usually be easy enough to judge. The amount of liability is a technical matter which we can leave the courts to calculate. In an ultraminimal common-law regime, with court procedures transparently open to rational criticism and challenge, the public should be able to trust in the just and economically efficient handling of these and other technicalities.
To proceed: what are the behavioural incentives under such a liability law, and what forms of behaviour can therefore be expected? What is the effective and actual price of drugs? And does economically efficient drug use obtain?
No profit for pushers
First consider the professional drug pusher: can he make a profit? If he can't, he surely won't stay in the business. We have already seen that the expected loss to the pusher through punishment is high. Can he obtain a sufficiently high return from subsequent sales to the addict to turn that loss into a net profit? After all, once addicted, the user will if necessary be prepared to pay a very high price for his drug.
In fact, the pusher cannot make a profit, on balance. There are two reasons: first, the price the user has to pay is itself part of the cost of addiction, so the pusher must expect to pay back a large percentage of his receipts in additional penalties (only where the use of the drug is economically efficient — that is, beneficial — will he be able to extract a net profit); second, the user is not restricted to purchasing his supply from the original pusher, but can instead go to a cheaper source (one that does not have the pusher's liabilities).
Honest dealers not penalised
Can honest dealers, such as doctors or pharmacists, sell drugs (at a modest profit) for medicinal purposes? Yes, they can. So long as they behave responsibly, prescribing a medicine only when the expected benefits outweigh the costs (so that there is no net harm) or when their customers (fully informed as to the risks) indemnify them against loss, they will have no need to fear the law. Can they also supply existing addicts? Yes, they can. So long as they provide drugs for maintenance only, not pushing further consumption but rather encouraging the addict to seek medical aid for his addiction, they do no harm and will thus not be held liable before the law. Since they face no penalties, their prices will not be inflated by liabilities and they will be able to undercut the wrongful pusher by a huge margin. Thus the true free-market price will hold.
Nowadays most young people who take up smoking do so at the instigation of the "in-crowd" — young people older, cooler, flashier, more popular, more enviable than themselves. Advertising and sponsorship by the tobacco companies is not a major factor. Much the same is probably true for most other recreational drugs. How does such informal pushing fare under our regime? Badly. The penalty for tempting a previously unaddicted school mate with a cigarette (or other drug) will typically be the equivalent of many years' indentured servitude — not the few hours' detention or counselling that's about the maximum one could expect today.
Users do not escape responsibility
One source of harm remains: the user himself. Does the provision of monetary compensation for drug addiction provide a perverse incentive for abuse? The possibility cannot be excluded. However, we should note these mitigating factors: first, except in the unrealistic case of perfectly addicting substances, some of the responsibility is always held to lie with the user and so compensation is never total (addiction always means a net loss); second, since compensation is due only where somebody else wrongfully incites the addiction, claiming compensation when one has deliberately addicted oneself is an offence bearing an expected penalty of the same magnitude (a false claim carries an expected loss equal to the incidental costs — this on top of the loss caused by the addiction itself).
In simple terms, if you act like a pusher, even to yourself, the law will treat you as one; and we have already seen that pushing is not a profitable business.
Economically efficient use
We can now return to the question posed earlier; will drug use be economically efficient? The answer is a cautious yes. The effective cost of drug abuse is high, even though the market price of the drugs is very low. Users and pushers end up paying the real price for what they do. Consequently, provided that their behaviour is not too irrational, the result will approximate economically efficient use.
Idea good but untested
What this means in practice is this: in spite of the low street-price, there will be no explosion of drug abuse and very few addicts; such addicts as remain will be very much better off than now, and treatment for those addicted will be readily available; interference with individual freedom of choice will be minimised, but those who deliberately, wantonly or negligently cause harm will be punished.
And sweethearts will never grow old and rivers will run uphill.
Well, maybe. Actually, that's not as daft or utopian as it sounds. Still, the system I've described is unproven. We need to be cautious. Whether a free-market solution along these lines would really work is far from clear; and it would be unwise to promote it too uncritically as yet. A free society seeking to introduce such a scheme would be well-advised to go slowly, perhaps dismantling legal controls one drug at a time, starting with tobacco then moving on via marijuana to heroin and the rest. At every stage, rational forward-looking behaviour on the part of both consumer and entrepreneur must be encouraged.
The benefits of the free-market solution are obvious. It is doctrinally sound. It is ethically pure. It is economically efficient. And if it works it will solve the drug problem once and for all.
Chapter 32. What We Can Do Now Revisited
Policies without politics
Now that we have taken a peek into both an ideal and a not-so-ideal future, it may be worth returning to the question of what we might be able to do today and in the near term. However, whereas previously I was careful to consider only what was likely to prove politically feasible in the immediate future, here I shall discuss policies on a broader basis. I shall assume that if my arguments are sound and my suggestions valuable, there will be no political difficulty in implementing them. I shall optimistically assume a wise and rational society.
So what can we do? First, we can make our laws and policies more consistent. The point has been made often enough before. Let's make it one more time. Every one of our laws should be enforced rigorously or else abolished. Every unnecessary, redundant or contradictory law should be scrapped. Every law should implement the principles of common law, that all wrongs should be put right — and if that ideal cannot yet be achieved, the extent of arbitrary law should be minimised. Discretionary law should be permitted only where there is no alternative (it seems to be a matter of logic that discretion in judgement at least can never be totally eliminated, though it may be limited to the highest court or to the sovereign). To clarify: restitution is common law; the death penalty is arbitrary law; decriminalisation is discretionary law.
Schedule of harmfulness
Let us begin by defining a schedule of the harmfulness of each item on the register of controlled substances, to the best of the available information; we can update the list as new evidence comes to light or new drugs are added. Where the data are uncertain, we should err on the safe side, not risk understating the dangers. Where practicable, it will also be advantageous to break down the measure into different classes of harm. The schedule can then be used to define harmfulness taxes, economically efficient rations, and criminal penalties for users and dealers.
Initially, let us suppose that the illicit possession, distribution and use of controlled substances remains a crime. Prison sentences are not imposed. Instead, punishment consists of a fine, proportional to the quantity and scheduled harmfulness of the substance concerned. The idea is to make the revenue from these fines equal to the total harmfulness of all illicit drugs consumed; the expected capture and conviction rate must accordingly be factored into the tariff. Again, as we gain experience, our original estimates can be upgraded. Note that the police and court costs must be included in the total harm.
For now we can apply the same tariff to each stage of distribution and use. Purchase, possession or smuggling constitutes a single count; sale or delivery is another; those who both buy and sell thus face a doubled fine. We need not yet attempt to apportion responsibility more fairly than this. On average, therefore, users will pay the equivalent of a full harmfulness tax, partly in direct fines and partly in the street price, which reflects the fines levied upon dealers.
Common-law offences, such as robbery or theft, should be punished according to their severity, whether or not they are drug related. Just why a crime is committed is properly irrelevant to the sentence imposed. Punishment is more cost-efficient if it is inflicted in the form of a fine rather than a term of imprisonment; moreover, fines can be used to fund restitution for the victims. Since penal reform is a little outside the topic of this essay, I will not go further into this matter, except to note that persistent and deliberate non-payment of a fine is an offence in itself, which if necessary can be addressed by means of a costly punishment like flogging or imprisonment. Flogging is better because it is cheaper, and can be repeated until the debtor pays up (or has been flogged to death). Incidentally, it is not necessary to pay a fine all at once; it is sufficient if the offender can service the debt. It is absurd to treat offenders as "judgement proof" simply because they don't have enough ready cash or money in the bank; on the contrary, we should insist that they be willing to work (and if need be work very hard) to earn the money to pay for their wrongful acts.
Harmfulness taxes imposed and drugs legalised
But hold on a tick! Now we're collecting fines instead of imposing prison sentences, why should we bother to consider the distribution of drugs a crime at all? Why not simply impose a full harmfulness tax on the sale of controlled substances, using the very same schedule? By legalising all drugs, subject to an appropriate harmfulness tax, we eliminate much of the criminality currently associated with drug trafficking and the expense associated with unnecessary criminal trials. Smuggling drugs, that is, attempting to evade the payment of the harmfulness tax, naturally will remain an offence, for which the penalty must be equal to the amount of tax evaded multiplied by the improbability of capture and conviction plus costs; smuggling is thereby made unprofitable.
Optional registration of addicts
The registration of addicts can now be extended to cover all scheduled drugs (and all ages). Upon certification by a specialist, each addict will receive a personalised swipe-card permitting him to purchase designated drugs up to a prescribed dose from any licensed pharmacy. All registered addicts should be offered detoxification, but acceptance will not be obligatory; the cost of detoxification programmes will be met out of the revenue from fines or harmfulness taxes. Alcohol will not be a scheduled drug, since it can be controlled by means of auctioned licences, and alcoholics will therefore not need to be registered.
How much will the registered addicts pay for their purchases? They will have to pay a harmfulness tax, but not as much as the full schedule, because that schedule is intended to include the particular harm of wrongful addiction. The corresponding schedule for registered addicts should include only the harm of continued maintenance, and should be approximately equal to the full tax multiplied by the user elasticity of demand. Purchases in excess of the prescribed dose will attract the full rate of tax. Resale to unregistered users will be permissible only upon payment of the balance of the full tax. Drug addicts will not be forced to register, but if they choose not to do so they will naturally have to pay considerably more to maintain their habits.
Hypothecation of harmfulness tax
The harmfulness taxes on drugs will be hypothecated; some will go towards making good the losses that users inflict on other people and on society at large; but much will fund the extra health care that drug users demand. Ideally, additional premiums, proportional to consumption, will be transferred automatically with each purchase to the purchaser's insurers. If companies are permitted to compete on these medical premiums (which may be extended to cover the drug-dependent components of third-party liability insurance) at least some of the harmfulness tax will be brought onto the free market.
A temporary tobacco ban
Tobacco is a problem. It ought to be included in the list of controlled substances and treated accordingly. However, demand is currently so high that circumspection is required. We don't want to have to register all twenty million tobacco addicts. Moreover, the full harmfulness tax would be over ten times the current rate of duty. To make the transition feasible, therefore, it may be necessary to impose an outright ban on tobacco for a period of a year or so, after which it can reclassified as a scheduled drug under the same rules as all the rest. A year without tobacco should enable most current smokers to free themselves of the addiction; relatively few could be expected subsequently to revert to their former vice, given the heavy harmfulness tax and the necessity openly to declare themselves addicted.
A total ban on tobacco without time limit would of course encourage massive black market activity; but with only a year's grace organised crime will hardly have time to get going, especially if police and customs then direct most of their anti-drugs effort against tobacco smuggling, and the courts punish violations of the ban ruthlessly. Once the tobacco problem has been cut down to size, significantly improving the health prospects of the nation, penalties can be brought in line with those for other drugs.
Chapter 33. What We Should Do Now
In previous chapters I have discussed a wide range of options and possibilities. But what are the policies I personally advocate? What do I believe we ought actually to do? In this penultimate chapter I attempt to piece our earlier results together into a concrete scenario. I assume that we have a clear majority in parliament responsive to our designs or that the necessary political authority has been secured some other way. I do not ask whether this is probable.
Dismantle the welfare state
Let's start with the dismantling of the welfare state. Yes, I know this is politics, but hear me out — it's relevant. We need to do it in order to reform the courts and replace arbitrary statute law with common law — which in turn is necessary for the complete solution of the drug problem.
Get out of Europe
The first thing we must do is to get out of the European Union, nullify all its impositions and regain our sovereignty. Then we can get on with the job without interference from Brussels. There is no solution within the constraints of the European treaties, or under the heel of the European Commission or the European Courts.
Reform tax system
Having repatriated authority over government spending, we move immediately to simplify the whole tax and benefit system. All existing benefits and allowances are abolished, including the state pension. Instead, every resident citizen receives a fixed subsistence allowance irrespective of status or income. Everybody gets exactly the same amount. Means-testing is abolished, which should please socialist and capitalist alike. The allowance is not index-linked, but defined by statute as a set cash sum of say £10 per person per day (this is important, since index-linking would destroy a vitally necessary macro-economic degree of freedom).
To pay for this allowance we introduce a flat rate income tax. All other revenue taxes are scrapped, including graduated income tax, national insurance contributions, value added tax, council tax, corporation tax, capital gains tax, capital transfer tax, and a host of other taxes too varied to list; only harmfulness taxes remain, though excise duty on motor fuel is retained for a limited period (vehicle excise duty, which is not strictly speaking a tax at all, is also retained); duty on alcohol is replaced by a system of auctioned licences. The same rate of tax will apply to all personal income from whatever source; but companies and investments will not be taxed, nor will legitimate business expenses. The level of tax will come as a shock: fifty pence in the pound for starters; and even that doesn't quite cover current government spending. We don't let it stay that high; instead we guarantee that the tax rate will be reduced by five pence in the pound every six months until it reaches zero. At the same time government debt is paid off. Rapid economic growth will help here, with inflation to fill the cracks.
Sorry I can't justify all this in more detail, but it's incidental to our main thesis and we must get on. Just note that because there is no minimum wage and because no one will lose out by taking a job, there is no longer a poverty trap. Unemployment will rapidly become a thing of the past; anyone who sincerely wants a job will be able to get one, though perhaps not as well-paid as they'd like! Nor will anyone be so poor that they cannot service a substantial fine; this is the key point for our purpose; along with the fact that individuals will now pay what they owe for what they receive, it makes restitutional justice possible.
Reform judicial system
Let's fill in a little more background. The reform of the judicial system means the progressive replacement of arbitrary statute law by common law. Now the essence of common law is that there is a victim who complains and an offender who must set things right. We therefore introduce a rule that the courts compensate all plaintiffs for the harm they have suffered, subsequently recovering the amount from convicted defendants. We also require the courts to be self-financing. It is not necessary that every criminal be caught, convicted and convinced to pay up; penalties are inflated by the overall improbability of payment. In effect the courts operate an insurance scheme; they are able to pay off all claims, even though not every case can be brought to a successful conclusion.
Civil cases will be handled the same way, with restitution for every complaint, but judgement only against those proved liable beyond reasonable doubt. Indeed the distinction between civil and criminal cases will disappear; the same court procedures will be used, the same juries and the same system of appeals. The more important distinction will be that between cases under common law and cases under arbitrary law, notably offences under the new Controlled Substances Act.
Introduce harmfulness taxes
As previously described, we introduce a schedule of harmfulness taxes for each item on the register of controlled substances. Subject to payment of the full harmfulness tax, sales are unrestricted. Registered addicts may also purchase prescribed amounts at a reduced rate. Age restrictions are abolished, both for controlled substances and alcohol; we make the law the same for everyone. Alcohol will not be a scheduled drug, since the auction price of the vending licences will adjust automatically to changing circumstances.
Privatise health and education
Government spending is slashed by privatising health and education. All state schools and colleges are turned into independent trusts competing on a level playing field with the private sector. They receive no further government funding. Local education authorities, the national curriculum, and compulsory schooling are all abolished, but the universal subsistence allowance means that no one will be unable to afford an education.
Similarly, all NHS hospitals, clinics and other services are turned into independent trusts competing on a level playing field with the private sector. They receive no further government funding. As an interim measure, the government sets up a medical insurance policy for each person, the basic premium being payable from the subsistence allowance; there is a choice of insurance provider and extent of cover. This introduces market discipline without abandoning universal medical care.
Abolish medical monopoly
The question of the medical monopoly also needs to be addressed here, since we are relying upon licensed medical practitioners and pharmacists to certify addicts and supply their drugs; ordinary patients should also be able to obtain controlled substances on a doctor's prescription. In the first stage of reform the licensing body will be required to register any candidate who passes their examinations, whether or not they have attended a recognised medical school; and no one may subsequently be struck off the register; malfeasance by doctors will be dealt with in the courts, under the same laws that apply to everybody else. Subsequently, the licensing body will lose its special status, and anyone will be free to practise the healing arts or dispense medicines; but displaying fake qualifications will constitute fraud. Persons wishing to register addicts or dispense controlled substances will need a special licence, for which they may have to post a bond. The unlawful issuance of prescriptions, addict registration cards or controlled substances by doctors or pharmacists will be prosecuted; the penalty will be based on the net harmfulness tax evaded.
Impose two year ban on tobacco
Tobacco is the difficult one. In the first budget we impose a partial harmfulness tax, at about twice the present rate of excise duty. After six months we double it, then again six months after that, by when the cost is high enough that smokers are having extreme difficulty servicing their habits. This gives us vital information on the elasticities of demand. If the user elasticity proves high enough to bring down demand towards economically efficient levels on a time scale less than perhaps five years, then the full harmfulness tax can be introduced and the law rationalised; that is, tobacco can then be treated the same as other scheduled drugs. But if, as seems more likely, the addiction to tobacco proves too strong, then a total ban can be introduced; the industry can be given six months' grace to wind up production and get rid of their stocks; then smokers can be given another six months in which to use up their own supplies; thereafter, under emergency regulations, violations of the ban are punishable by a mandatory death penalty (it's probably best to be drastic, since it's vital to nip organised smuggling in the bud). After a year — or two to be on the safe side — we lift the ban, add tobacco to the ordinary controlled substances schedule and implement the full harmfulness tax. With a bit of luck, demand remains low and registered tobacco addicts few in number.
Abolish income tax
At this time too, income tax has reached zero and the economy is growing strongly (we predict). The cost of health services in particular has fallen considerably, while their quality has improved out of all recognition. Law and order is healthy too; crime, especially drug related crime, has all but disappeared; the prisons are now nearly empty, with only a few pre-reform murderers and other long-stay prisoners still behind bars.
Recognise common law offence of wrongful addiction
Be patient, we're nearly there. As the courts and people become re-accustomed to the common law and progressively more practised in judgement, cases of wrongful addiction begin to be brought. Gradually, we advance towards the ideal common-law system previously analysed. As responsibility is apportioned and appropriate restitutional fines begin to be levied, so by degrees the harmfulness tax on controlled substances can be cut back.
Move towards ultraminimal state
Market discipline is introduced to the courts by abolishing their monopoly of justice, a move towards a just ultraminimal state in which private courts compete with the state court and independents may opt out of state protection. In an ultraminimal state parties may choose any court to hear their action, but the state court is the court of last appeal and no citizen can be forced to recognise any other. The state court will enforce its judgements against all other courts; but no other court can enforce its judgements against the state court. The state court will not enforce judgements in favour of independents; it will enforce judgements against independents. A just ultraminimal state is one in which the state court enforces common law. The existence, actual or potential, of competing private courts keeps the state court efficient; the existence of the state court keeps the private courts honest.
Over time the courts thus approach economic efficiency; the negative externalities of drug abuse are gradually internalised or brought under the aegis of common law. Increasing market sophistication and nicety of judgement gradually brings down the auction price for alcohol licences, and allows the harmfulness tax on controlled substances to be progressively reduced — eventually, we hope, to zero.
Abolish arbitrary drug law
Once we are confident that the courts can impose a just common-law punishment on all wrongful acts associated with drug abuse, the arbitrary anti-drug statutes and their mandatory schedule of penalties or taxes can be abolished. The registration of addicts will no longer be necessary, though as their cards are phased out for good, and the controlled substances become uncontrolled, pharmacists must be reminded that henceforth they should dispense dangerous drugs only after customers have given their informed consent and signed an indemnifying contract. Smuggling will cease to be an issue; passport and entry control aside, the Customs and Excise department can be shut down. The use of all drugs will be legalised. Economic efficiency, or an adequate approximation, will be achieved. Wrongful acts will be penalised under the common law. Justice will be done, and be seen to be done.
The drug problem is solved
At last. We've finally accomplished what we set out to do. We've found a solution to the drug problem. And what a wonderful solution it is! Not merely a stopgap, nor yet a utopian impossibility, but a credible proposal leading by degrees towards an ideal common-law state.
The year's at the spring,
And day's at the morn;
Morning's at seven;
The hillside's dew-pearled;
The lark's on the wing;
The snail's on the thorn:
God's in his heaven —
All's right with the world!
(From Browning's "Pippa Passes").
Chapter 34. Conclusions
Here we are at the end of the marathon. If you have stuck with me this far you might appreciate a recapitulation of the analysis. Or not. You're going to get one anyhow.
In (1) The Introduction we remarked on the inadequacy of the dogmatic and overly simplistic approaches to the drug Problem common in the media and the literature, and I cunningly refused to reveal my conclusions.
We then turned to look at (2) The Way We Were, the way the drug problem has developed over time. We saw that there have always been drugs, but never so available, so affordable, so varied and so potent as they are today; there has always been a problem, but never such a serious one. We saw how the earliest rather harmless intoxicants like small beer were supplemented with ever stronger ones; and we saw how economic growth made potent intoxicants available to an ever wider market, contributing to the alarming problem that we face today.
In (3) The Way We Are, we looked at the magnitude of the problem and the disturbing fact that the situation is continuing to deteriorate. We saw the ineffectiveness of diverse attempts to control addiction; many approaches have been tried, but none has succeeded. No end is in sight.
The fact that (4) Alcohol And Tobacco Are Drugs Too was noted. We saw that although alcohol is only weakly addictive its effects, social acceptability and high elasticity of demand may make it uniquely dangerous. We saw that by contrast tobacco is highly addictive and one of the hardest drugs known; it is deadly to the user but has minimal effect on behaviour.
Next we observed that (5) All Drugs Are Dangerous, and not only because of their illegality. We saw that the danger of overdose, though real, is not the greatest risk; the long term damage to health is more important. We saw why such hazards, even for recognised medicines, are biochemically inevitable; and why in practice recreational drugs will tend to be about as dangerous as tobacco, ultimately causing the premature deaths of around a half of all users.
But (6) Drugs Can Harm Other People too. We noted that almost any psychoactive drug will interfere with one's ability to carry out everyday tasks, often to the peril of other people, like drinking and driving; public health can also be adversely affected, and sociopathic psychological problems may arise in a minority of cases.
We discovered that although (7) Passive Smoking Is An Assault, the current scare is over the top; a thousand UK deaths a year was our estimate. We argued that the recognition of private property rights would solve the problem without the necessity for special legislation; the risk to children was seen as an exception, but was not considered serious enough to justify intervention.
The fact that (8) Drugs Cause Crime was seen as particularly important. Drug-related crime was categorised as i) offences against the drug laws themselves, ii) offences committed by drug dealers to secure their spoils, iii) offences committed by drug users to support their drug habits, and iv) offences committed by drug users under the influence of drugs. We noted that legalisation would eliminate or drastically reduce crimes in the first three categories, but not the fourth, which might become a major problem if demand for drugs then mushroomed.
We then argued that in an important technical sense (9) Drug Crimes Are Victimless, because there is seldom any complaining witness. We saw this as incompatible with the ideal of common-law justice and liable to lead to the corruption of both the police and the courts.
In (10) The Corrupting Effect Of Anti-Drug Laws was examined. We saw how because there is no victim to complain, traffickers can easily bribe, blackmail or bludgeon judges, juries, witnesses and the police, who are also tempted into illegal search and seizure, violation of property and personal rights, entrapment and other crimes; official paranoia concerning money-laundering is another result.
As we discovered next in (11) The War On Drugs Isn't a real war at all. If it were, the drug barons would long since have been destroyed, and the street level pushers would be dead. We saw that the apparent failure of the war on drugs is due not to lack of ability, but to lack of political will. We also noted that carrying the war to the producer countries is both unnecessary and unwise; it is at home that the battle must be won.
Having presented the basic Problem, we analysed some of the Complexities in more detail, learning first that (12) Prohibition Can Work. It has worked in Islamic countries; the reason it didn't work in America was that enforcement was half-hearted. We saw how this lack of zeal led to an assortment of evils comparable to those associated with illicit drugs today, including corruption, organised crime, contempt for the law, danger to health and damage to the economy. Prohibition also failed in its primary purpose. But it could have succeeded.
The dilemmas of (13) Medicinal Use Under A Regime Of Prohibition were then addressed. We saw how leakage from the legitimate medical sphere into the illicit recreational sphere is all but inevitable; even defining legitimate medical use is difficult; prohibition places considerable burdens upon practitioners, and may necessitate the retention of a medical monopoly that is otherwise harmful. We noted that, from the purely medical perspective, full legalisation would be ideal.
But (14) Partial Legalisation Is Not Enough to solve the drug problem. We found that decriminalisation corrupts the rule of law; and that partial and particular legalisation only shift the problems of drug-pushing and drug-related crime to whatever is still illegal. If sales to adults are allowed, black-marketeers will turn to the still-banned sales to minors. If sales of marijuana are legalised, criminals will concentrate on heroin and cocaine. Even the system of making drugs legally available only to registered addicts has its pitfalls; of prescribing too liberally on the one hand, or too sparingly on the other.
This led on to (15) The Question Of Minors, where we argued that, although restraints more stringent on minors than on adults can be justified, even on libertarian grounds, and although underage drinking or doping is no doubt to be deprecated, the practical utility of legal age-limits is debatable; all too often they merely encourage youngsters to break the law; better to have the same rules for all.
We then found that (16) Tougher Sentencing Is Not Enough to solve the drug problem either. For most crimes, the greater the penalty the lower the crime rate. But with drugs, increasing the penalty merely increases the costs of doing business, raising street prices accordingly. There may be fewer addicts, but each one will have to commit more crimes. The dealers can still make a profit. The greater the penalty, the greater the rewards. Only the death penalty would be a sufficient deterrent, and that only if it is all but inescapable; a few hangings here and there are not enough.
Next we addressed the question of whether drugs should be legalised as a matter of liberal principle, since every individual has the right to live his life his own way. The surprising answer was no, because (17) Drug Addiction Is Not A Freely Chosen Life Style. Almost nobody sits down and decides to become an addict. They make a mistake. They bow to peer pressure. They get trapped. We don't believe the alcoholic who insists he has no drinking problem, or the smoker who says he can give it up whenever he wants; no more should we believe the protestations of drug users.
The (18) Elasticity Of Demand For Addictive Substances was then explained. We saw that as prices rise, demand falls; how much it falls is its elasticity. The user elasticity defines how existing users alter their consumption in response to price; the market elasticity relates to the total demand. We used this to define addiction; unlike ordinary commodities, for which demand is mostly elastic, addictants have a user elasticity of demand less than unity; hard drugs are highly inelastic; soft drugs less so. We looked at some typical values for the market and user elasticities. We also noted the effects of market saturation, and the universal tendency for elasticities to rise over time.
The basis of demand elasticity being consumer choice, it follows that (19) An Inelastic Choice Is Not A Free Choice. We looked at several ways in which freedom of choice could be constrained, including addiction. The loss of freedom is quantifiable through the elasticity curve. This clarifies the largely irrational behaviour of drug users and potential users; it also explains why there is no universal right of purchase of addictive drugs; the drug user is not a free person.
Unfortunately, (20) Everyone Is A Potential Addict. Drug addiction is not simply something that happens only to other people. Nobody has any reason to think himself safe. Even highly intelligent doctors get addicted to the drugs they can so easily obtain. Very large numbers of people are already addicted to alcohol and tobacco. Very large numbers of people could also become addicted to heroin or cocaine, or any of a host of other drugs, especially if they were legalised.
So (21) What Would Happen If Alcohol Weren't Taxed? The price of alcohol would fall, perhaps tenfold, and demand would skyrocket. We'd become a nation of dipsomaniacs. That's what we calculated, by several routes, using known elasticities and alcoholism rates. It's hard to avoid the conclusion that something like half the population would become an alcoholic. The effect of this upon society would clearly be catastrophic. Ten million drunk drivers would be just the beginning.
In the same way, when we came to consider (22) What Would Happen If Drugs Were Legal, we found little to comfort us. True, the whole problem of drug-related crime, other than crimes committed under the influence, would vanish; and the lives of addicts would be greatly improved. The difficulty is that the price of drugs would plummet, and so the incidence of addiction would explode. Again, calculations based on known elasticities imply that around half the adult population might be addicted to opiates; even more to marijuana. Looking at all the available drug groups we concluded that only a tiny minority might expect to remain free of all addictions, whilst a large proportion of the population might be addicted to several drugs at once. We found it hard to imagine any form of society surviving under such conditions.
Having examined the Complexities of the drug problem in considerable depth, it was time to look for some Answers.
We began with the idea of (23) Rationing Alcohol Consumption By Means Of Auctioned Licences. We saw that alcohol consumption is currently held by excise duty at or about the economically efficient level; that is, the point at which less drinking would reduce pleasure more than it would reduce harm; and more drinking would increase harm more than pleasure. Total consumption could also be fixed at this level by means of a daily auction of licences for the sale of the day's allowance. This would have the advantage of adapting automatically to changes in circumstances. We remarked that the licence system imposes only the necessary minimum of coercion, and that to whatever extent the free market and the common law prove capable of restraining economically excessive demand themselves, the auction price will fall accordingly; ultimately, it may fall to zero.
However, (24) Rationing Tobacco Consumption By Means Of Auctioned Licences turned out to be less feasible. We found that tobacco demand is currently so far above the efficient level that the bid price would go through the roof if we tried to cut back consumption even part of the way. Another difficulty is the likelihood that the demand curve hysteresis caused by smokers' addiction may lead to wild chaotic instabilities in the number of users and the market price.
But if licensing doesn't work, perhaps (25) Controlling Tobacco Consumption By Means Of Harmfulness Taxes will. The purpose of a harmfulness tax is to increase the market price to a level commensurate with the full social costs. We have a good idea of the true cost of smoking; we're less certain of the economically efficient demand. So a harmfulness tax makes sense. It would increase the price of tobacco roughly tenfold. To whatever extent the free market and the common law prove capable of restraining demand themselves, the tax can be reduced accordingly, but this will not happen automatically. An advantage of the tax is that it may help promote the development of safer cigarettes; a disadvantage is that unless criminals are fully penalised it may encourage smuggling and the black market.
Next we considered (26) Rationing Drug Use By Means Of Auctioned Licences. We found that to ration each drug separately would call for an arbitrary decision on the desired level of demand for each product, since all we really know is the optimum overall consumption of intoxicants, measured in alcohol-equivalents; we can set up a working table of approximate equivalents by comparing the harmfulness of the different drugs. A licence could then be used for the sale of the appropriate amount of any intoxicant the licence-holder wished. Unfortunately, differing demand curves are likely to lead to another set of chaotic fluctuations.
An advantage of harmfulness taxes is the absence of any tendency to instability, so we may do better (27) Controlling Drug Use By A Combination Of Taxes And Licences, using taxes for the harder drugs and auctioned licences for the softer ones. We noted that, although we might start off with only alcohol licensed rather than taxed, the initial allocation is not fixed; as disutilities are internalised, bid prices will fall, taxes may be axed, and products can progress from taxed to licensed to freely marketed.
It would be grand if there were (28) A Cure For Addiction. We learned that although many such cures have been promoted over the years, none have stood the test of time. For addiction is of both the body and the mind; the pleasures craved are of the body, but the craving itself is of the mind. Thus there is little expectation of a medical cure, though particular addictions may be open to treatment. However, from an economic point of view, addiction is short-sightedness, choosing immediate gratification over long-term happiness. If there is to be a cure for addiction it may lie in a method of conditioning that increases the weight given to future satisfactions in the addict's mind.
We proceeded to consider (29) What We Can Do Now. Political constraints presently rule out either full legalisation or an effective death penalty for drug dealing; we are left with step-by-step overhaul of the existing system. What is politically possible is this: a zero tolerance approach in which all drug offences are prosecuted under to a uniform schedule of penalties, comprising a fine proportional to the amount of the drug involved and its specific harmfulness; dealers and smugglers might be given a proportional prison sentence as well. The registration of addicts for maintenance on the NHS should be extended to all scheduled drugs. A harmfulness tax on tobacco and auctioned licences for alcohol should also be acceptable.
This is probably not enough. Things will still get worse. So next we looked at (30) What We Can Do When The Roof Falls In. We found the answer in the Death to Drug Dealers Act, decreeing a mandatory death penalty under martial law for all drug offences, except where the offender shops his own supplier. Since pushers must advertise, it will be easy to round them up, and through them to roll up the entire operation. As a solution to the drug problem, it is almost too simple. On moral grounds, it proves more defensible than at first sight; in the long run it will save many lives and much suffering, at a minimal loss in personal freedom. It is a solution that will work, and if it is not perfect, it nevertheless enhances our freedom to live without fear of drug addiction and rampant crime.
But (31) What We Can Hope To Do In The Future is better. We argued that in an ideal world all drugs would be legally available on the free market, all associated offences would be brought under common law, and all damages would be borne by those responsible. Demand would be economically efficient. Yet legalisation alone would not suffice, for those who encourage drug addiction must be made to pay for the rights they violate. Under common law the drug user must bear responsibility for his own actions, but the pusher must also make restitution for the harm he causes; division of responsibility is based on the addictiveness of the drug, on the inelasticity of user demand. We saw that under a system of restitutional justice, pushing addictive drugs is not profitable, yet honest pharmacists can still make a living, and users are able to purchase drugs at the free-market price; economically efficient drug use will obtain.
(32) What We Can Do Now Revisited moves towards this ideal; this time round we paid less attention to immediate political feasibility. Drug offences are penalised according to a uniform schedule of harmfulness fines, as before, except that prison sentences are not imposed and the fines are set high enough to cover the full social loss. On balance, then, illicit users have to pay the equivalent of a full harmfulness tax. Registered addicts, by contrast, can buy their drugs from a pharmacist at a lower price, which nonetheless includes a hypothecated harmfulness tax used to fund health insurance.
In (33) What We Should Do Now we begin a reform of the legal system and the welfare state, eliminating taxes, strengthening the free market and bringing justice through the common law. There are auctioned licences for alcohol, and the sale of scheduled substances is legalised subject to the payment of a harmfulness tax. Registered addicts pay a lower rate. After a two year total ban, tobacco becomes just another scheduled drug. As the courts grow practised in justice, apportioning responsibility for drug-related harms and levying restitutional fines accordingly, jurisprudence evolves towards an ultraminimal state; aided by the free market, the courts approach economic efficiency. Eventually, the anti-drug statutes are repealed and joy reigns.
Finally we examined our (34) Conclusions, looking back over the way we described the basic Problem, considered its Complexities and presented some Answers, before recapitulating our Conclusions, in which we looked back . . .
. . .
Some final words
Throughout this essay I have tried to avoid too much emphasis on ethics. I had my reasons. Start with fundamental and unchangeable principles and it is all too easy to become a dogmatist or ideologue. The drug question is plagued with such, who through their convictions have blinded themselves to both the difficulties and the possibilities. At the same time, an entirely pragmatic approach is bereft of direction. So I have tried first of all to bring out the facts, and then to allow the alternatives to be judged in and through a gradually emerging moral position.
If I have dwelt perhaps too much on practicalities, my proposed solutions to the drug problem are nevertheless based on principle. Not on dogma; but on a definite belief in right and wrong — in personal responsibility and individual freedom. I would not have you remain unclear as to the stance I take in support of natural justice, that which is sometimes called the common law. I count no answer as valid that is not also just. And I count no end as just that does not take account of the rights and property of individuals.
The root of this morality is freedom; the freedom to choose; the freedom to be free to choose. It is good to choose; and choosing is itself the good. To choose is to live, to live life as a moral agent: living is choosing. They are the same; one is not prior to the other. To be an entity without choice is merely to exist. Rocks exist: people live. The greater the entropy of choice, the greater the number and content of the choices we freely make, the greater the good. It is this good, the good of personal preference and free choice, that underlies the fundamentally moral notions of economic efficiency and the utility of the free market, as well as the principles of common law and restitutional justice. Liberals value choice: socialists by and large do not. Egalitarian socialists value equality; totalitarian socialists value unity.
Now a bad choice is one that destroys freedom of choice. That is why drugs are bad. They limit the future freedom of choice of their users. Drugs may also disturb social unity or equality; that is why socialists dislike them too. In dealing with the drug problem we must be careful not to throw out the baby with the bath water; we must seek ever to enhance personal responsibility, not curtail it; we must endeavour always to extend the balance of personal freedom, not diminish it; we must demand that those who do harm to others shall pay the cost and right the wrong, and that those who do harm to themselves shall bear the consequences in their own person.
We cannot expect to achieve perfect justice overnight; to insist upon perfection straightaway is to negate the possibility of any improvement; for the route to justice may lie through much unjust terrain; but if we have a map and we know where we wish to go, we can start the journey in confidence. This essay is the map; freedom of choice is the destination.
There we have it. The morality of freedom speaks the answer. The law of restitution writes the code. The key to the drug problem is honesty; which turns out to be the best policy after all.
We're nearly through. If you will sit still just a little longer, I will preach a short sermon or homily that sums up what I mean.
Obey the commandments: thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour; thou shalt not steal thy neighbour's life, liberty or property. For as thou sowest, so shalt thou reap. Defend the innocent. Make good thy wrongs. And then thou shalt be of good report.
Here endeth the lesson.
© Paul Birch, Christmas Day, 1997.