Wednesday, December 28, 2011

On Legalizing Drugs

Part I: The Idea

Before we start, I feel I should point out that I'm not a user; I don't even drink alcohol. I say this only anticipate the unhelpful reaction of "Oh, here's another junkie calling for a free ticket to get high", and hope to trigger some interest in what my reasons might be for proposing legalization of all drugs when I don't have any stake in that game. My motivation is, once more, common sense. The advantages of legalization are so obvious to me that I fail to understand why there is a controversy in the first place, and I hope for some enlightening reactions to this.

It's quite obvious that there is no winning the „war on drugs“. You simply cannot control all the borders, all the traffic and all the streets – Trying that is a pathetically doomed enterprise right from the start. Also, it is simply not necessary, since the problem of illegal drug-trafficking can be quite simply and elegantly solved by making it legal.

Here is what I propose: States ought to buy drugs right from the producers: Buy Iran's opium, Bolivia's cocaine, Brazil's pot and so on – then sell it legally either in pharmacies or special shops designed for the purpose. Keep strict control over who buys what and when – sell drugs pretty much the same way guns are sold now. Purchase would require identification, and some sort of maximum limit per person per week or month would probably be advisable. We also ought to use that opportunity to make sure users are accurately informed about the dangers of the substances they're buying. Perhaps introduce a „User's License“ akin to a driver's license – a certificate for which they would have to prove a decent knowledge of the dangers involved in the consumption of controlled substances.
That would be about the size of it. Doubtlessly there are still flaws, but there are enough people available qualified to come up with a working system. It's not that different from selling prescription medicines or guns, it would just be a different scale. Anyhow, the details aren't worth bothering with in order to get the general idea across. A legalized system to sell drugs, within sensible limits, to anybody of legal age. I propose an age higher than that required to buy alcohol and cigarettes: Perhaps 25 or so. Again, this is a detail which could be agreed upon later on. Whatever the system may eventually look like in detail, there are a number of indisputable advantages it would entail in any case. Here are some of them:

Safety & Health
Legalizing drugs would actually reduce the danger involved in their consumption, by enabling the government to ensure buyers are accurately informed about the dangers of the substances prior to use. There are various ways to go about this; for example one could introduce the already mentioned „User's License“ requiring the attendance of some lessons and a test, or introduce laws that require the user to be lectured in the shop upon purchase. I'm sure there are other workable solutions. More importantly, perhaps, it would make drugs clean. Purchasers would actually know what they bought, instead of buying mystic powder that might actually be what the dealer says it is, or might aswell contain all sorts of unknowable rubbish. Also, there would be a known concentration, reducing the risk of overdoses. Users would actually know how much they take and how strong it is, rather than having to estimate by belly feeling and rule of thumb.
At the same time, this would permit an accurate assessment of the size of a population's drug habits, rather than the pathetic estimates of just how huge the black market really is.

Economy & Humanitarianism
Third world farmers who provide the substances in the first place would likely prefer legal buyers to the crime mobs they have to deal with now. It'd make business a lot less dangerous for them. Also, it would provide a more consistent income, since unlike the illegal trade, the business would not anymore be subject to unforeseeable fluctuations whenever the borders security measures are upgraded or another drug-lord is imprisoned. Legalization would provide a considerable boost to a great many of third world economies.

Organized Crime
During the prohibition, illegal alcohol trade was huge. The moment the trade was legalized again, the black market for alcohol simply vanished. Organized crime is not able to compete with a legal market. At the moment, drug-traffickers are forced to take huge risks to get drugs across borders, around existing controls and onto the streets, but it still pays off for them because they have a monopoly and can charge correspondingly high prices. Legalizing the farming and selling of drugs would decriminalize farmers and enable them to call for the state's protection against the cartels, thus rob the drug-lords of their providers. Because the state is able to run the trade more effectively (larger and more direct shipments, not having to bother with cleverly hiding tiny amounts) and with a much smaller span of profit, legal traders would be able to pay the farmers higher prices and still sell the product to the end-user for much less than the current street-price, simply because legal trade takes the risk-factor out of the equation.

Let's not forget the point that ought to make this option incredibly interesting to governments around the world: Legalizing drugs would generate an enormous amount of tax-revenue. Just have a look at how high the alcohol- and tobaco-taxes rank among the income of most western states, and then think about what being able to tax the rest would imply. Most drugs are actually quite cheap – what makes them so expensive isn't the production, but the risks involved in the illegal trafficking. Not only would first world governments be able to make a decent profit taking over the trade and selling the drugs in the first place, but they would also be able to make huge money by taxing the whole business. Considering the low cost of production and of hypothetical legal transport, there would be the possibility to levy huge taxes without the end-product getting any more expensive than the black market price already is. At the same time, third world countries would profit from the boost to their economies, and also be able to levy taxes.

That about sums up the most important points. As I said, I'm not a user. I don't have a personal stake in this. But still the matter bothers me greatly. It's just so mindboggingly stupid that this controversy exists at all. Legalizing drugs would boost the income of all nations concerned, significantly raise the life-standard in the provider nations, lower crime rates both in provider- and western nations, make drugs more secure to use and less dangerous to get, (probably cheaper, too) allow for some amount of government-control (certainly more than now) and provide us with definite statistics on consumer habits.
Yes, it probably means many kids will try some, but if they want to, prohibition is unlikely to keep them from it. Legalization on the other hand means that it will be an informed choice, that they'll have less risk of taking stuff that was mixed into the cocktail without their intention or knowledge, that the habit will be registered and help will be advised and available if consumption becomes a habit, that they won't have to mix with the wrong kind of people just to find out how it feels to get high, and that they won't wreck their careers by getting a criminal record for being young and reckless. You won't keep them from taking drugs anyway, but this way you can at least keep them from getting in touch with organized crime.
All in all, it's a win-win situation only opposed by people in blatant denial of reality. Legalizing drugs will mean they are slightly (And let's face it: only slightly) more available, but the benefits outweigh that handicap by orders of magnitude.

Part II: Reality

For a long time I simply assumed that drugs are illegal everywhere. It was only when doing research while writing this that I noticed how mistaken I was. It seems that more than just a few people have noticed the possible benefits. While ligalization is still a long way off, decriminalization is under way in many countries around the world. The bright star leading this movement of preferring common sense over outraged and outdated notions of morality is the small European nation of Portugal.

Portugal has reformed its drug laws in 2001, removing penalties for drug possession and consumption, while the consequences of dealing and trafficking remain unchanged. This is an approach apparently called "decriminalization" and not quite the same as legalization, but driven by the same essential idea: That focusing on prevention and treatment is more effective than punishment. Since 2001, Portugal recognized drug consumption as a public health issue rather than an act of crime, and changed its law accordingly.

Portugal is not the only country to take this approach, though it notably differs from other countries in the extent to which this policy is applied. Portugal is also the most notably successful model - I quote here from an article published by the Scientific American, which in turn cites a 2009 report by the Cato Institute that reviewed the success of Portugal's new policy after five years:

Five years later, the number of deaths from street drug overdoses dropped from around 400 to 290 annually, and the number of new HIV cases caused by using dirty needles to inject heroin, cocaine and other illegal substances plummeted from nearly 1,400 in 2000 to about 400 in 2006, according to a report released recently by the Cato Institute, a Washington, D.C, libertarian think tank.

"Now instead of being put into prison, addicts are going to treatment centers and they're learning how to control their drug usage or getting off drugs entirely," report author Glenn Greenwald, a former New York State constitutional litigator, said during a press briefing at Cato last week.

Other countries are already considering to copy the successful model:
Last year, Denmark discussed implementing the Portuguese system. The Czech Republic already changed its laws, allowing the possession of up to 15 grams of Marijuana and 1,5 grams of Heroin for personal use. Mexico decriminalized a range of drugs for personal use, including some synthetic drugs, while establishing a very low threshold and a very strict definition of personal dosage. In 2009, the Argentinean supreme court ruled the prosecution of citizens for the possession of drugs for personal consumption to be unconstitutional, citing that:
the second paragraph of Article 14 of Law NÂș 23.737 should be invalidated, since it violates Article 19 of the National Constitution, in the sense that it invades the sphere of personal liberty, which is excluded from the authority of state organs. [...] [The law] incriminates the possession of drugs for personal use under circumstances that do not bring any concrete danger or harm to the rights and welfare of others.
     - Supreme Court Judge Elena Highton de Nolasco