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Drug Decriminalization: A Solution for the Future

It is becoming obvious to many people that the war on drugs is a losing battle. We spend over $40 billion per year in the battle and still drugs are freely available. In this document, I explain through free market theory and historical facts that the criminalization of drugs is a losing proposition and a better solution can be had through decriminalization and careful regulation. The moral question of drug use is not debated. Suffice to say, in my opinion and the opinion of the medical establishment, long term drug use is not in the best health interests of the individual.

 

The Problem

President Richard Nixon was the first president to treat the drug problem as a criminal act. Before his administration, drugs were dealt with as a public health issue. During this period, the impact of drugs on society could be compared the modern day situation with cigarettes, a serious health problem, but one that was manageable with the proper application of money and education.

Then came the 1960's. Drug use became more open in society, being used by more and more people in the middle class. Once drugs had penetrated the mainstream, they showed up on the radar of groups that felt that the best solution to the problem was to criminalize the act. By applying sufficient political pressure, the groups pressured the Nixon administration to create the first laws that set up the current situation that we are in. By doing so, an entire system has been created to deal with the repercussions of that fateful decision.

The problem is money. The United States is a wealthy, capitalist society that forms market efficiently. We have had years of practice at it. By criminalizing the use of drugs, we have created an incredibly profitable black market for a product that is in high demand. It is a market so profitable that a loss of the 90% of the product in shipping is acceptable. A market so profitable that foreign criminal organizations wield enough power to overwhelm their respective governments. A market so profitable that people literally kill to secure their distribution rights.

Unfortunately, this is an expected consequence and can be explained through free market theory. First, through criminalization, we attempt to reduce supply for a product that is in high demand. The reduction in supply is accomplished through law enforcement efforts. Reducing supply without a corresponding decrease in demand results in a shortage of product. A product shortage works in the long run to increase the price of the product.

In most cases of increasing prices, demand decreases because individual are less inclined to buy at a higher price. However, drugs, in particular narcotics, are relatively price inelastic. That is to say demand changes very little in relation to supply. This is the market economics of addiction and key reason that the war on drugs is failing.

Assuming costs and demand stay the same, the increase in price resulting in very high profits. High profits mean more suppliers, i.e. drug dealers and suppliers. People who would not ordinarily be involved in criminal activity will sell drugs because of their financial situation. It's hard to convince a disadvantaged 16 year old that they need to get a job at McDonald's when they can make over $100,000 selling crack.

Increased law enforcement efforts will drive up prices and reduce supply somewhat. However, with the large effort expended in drug interdiction already, the effect to the supply with be minimal. We've already expended so much effort in the war that it takes a considerable capital investment to make a marginal decrease in supply.

More expensive drugs have another effect. Traditionally, drug users are in lower income brackets. High prices mean more crime as these individuals must steal to support their habit. Remember that drugs are price inelastic, therefore an increase in price just means that demand doesn't decrease. The user must come up with more cash to feed their addiction. If the cost of their habit was $10,000 past year and $15,000 this year, that simply means that they must commit $5,000 worth of additional crime to meet their needs.

It is estimated that 30% of our prison population is incarcerated for drug related offences. A common statement is that many of these drug offenders were actually guilty of greater crimes, but were only arrested for drugs. There may be some truth to that statement, however, in the light of prison overcrowding, it makes more sense to incarcerate a known murder rather than a possible one that is a drug user.

 

Historical Precedence

Is alcohol any different than the drugs currently outlawed in the U.S.? Some say yes. But consider this. Both alcohol and narcotics are psychotropic drugs, i.e. mood altering. Both are regularly used in doses that incapacitate the user. Both are capable of killing in large doses. Both have physically addictive qualities that prevent the user from easily quitting.

Marijuana is an even more interesting case. Its status as a schedule I controlled substance is perplexing. First, it doesn't posses any physically addictive characteristics. Second, there has never be a documented case of a marijuana overdose. Finally, it has proven medical value for nausea relief and as an appetite suppressant. Which begs the question: Why was it included with LSD and heroin?

The answer is due to a belief that marijuana is a "Gateway Drug", that is to say that it tends to be a stepping stone for people before they begin to use harder narcotics. This may have some truth, however, it must be pointed out that many studies have show that tobacco is used even before marijuana in the same individuals. Tobacco is currently legal and regulated.

In reality, the only really difference between alcohol and illegal drugs is the method of delivery. We have become socialized to believe that alcohol is less dangerous because it is drank rather that snorted or smoked. Drinking is a common occurrence of daily life and substituting an alcoholic beverage is really imperceptible to others until it is taken to an excess. Thus, it becomes less evil because it is similar to our daily routine. Imagine an individual that would inject alcohol to get their fix. This action would appear to be far more insidious, but the same result would occur.

Given this, the inescapable conclusion is that the current laws are designed to enforce a code of social behavior and moral decency. The individuals in power at the time deemed Drug A to be acceptable and Drug B to be reprehensible. This is the root of the problem. Strict social controls do not work in an open society such as we have in America.

In the 1919, congress passed an amendment to the constitution prohibiting the sell of alcohol. In this period of time, known as Prohibition, the law was widely flaunted and an underground network of illegal bars, known as speakeasies, sprang up to meet the demand for spirits. With the profits being made from this thriving business, the criminal organizations that supplied the alcohol became more powerful and more violent. Crime skyrocketed due the warring factions fighting for control of the alcohol trade.

Sound familiar?

Eventually, the powers that be came to the conclusion that this type of social control would not work. Prohibition was abolished in 1933. The immediate result was legal competition for the distribution of alcohol. Criminal organizations, begin highly inefficient in this area since they were geared toward protecting their territory, lost power and eventually faded away.

It is inevitable that in the future, the government will come to the same conclusion that was reached back in 1933. The process will require a change in attitude in mainstream society and an understanding that the current drug laws do more harm than good. However, there needs to be an infrastructure in place to regulate the drug trade. The simple controls that exist for alcohol and cigarettes are completely unacceptable for the the substances in question.

 

Solution

Some organizations talk about a complete legalization of drugs. While there is some merit to the complete free trade of drugs on the open market, certain problems arise because of the special nature of these items. Of particular note is the addictive nature of narcotics which makes demand for them stable regardless of price fluctuations. Additionally, this solution would be completely unacceptable for the majority of individuals that are comfortable with the status quo. What is presented below is a compromise that takes into account these two viewpoints and strives to build a solution that would be everyone's best interest. The key to this solution is to return to the days before the Nixon administration when drug use was a simple public health issue. A) Remove the criminal element. B) Educate the public.

First you begin by repealing existing drug laws allowing for their manufacture. Drugs must be produced in the United States by domestic companies. This will cut the ties with the foreign cartels that have caused so much destruction in the past. It will allow us to be able to directly control the supply and cost. They would be produced through licenses granted by the government. The likely candidates would be the major drug manufacturers. It should be a requirement that the organization under contract would be under certain obligations, such as a prohibition against advertising for the products in any media. They simply would provide a manufacturing function, nothing more.

Second, create a new classification for these substances, that of a Potentially Lethal Controlled Substance. This classification would be necessary for legal reasons. Drugs can be harmful, at the minimum they are as lethal as cigarettes. In the worst case, they can be instantly lethal. The government is not a "Pusher". They would rather you ate a Big Mac. But, if you are going to get high, you need to assume the risks and be aware.

This would be a key point that would be emphasized in the accompanying educational campaign. Decriminalization is not "Doper Heaven". There are specific rules to follow in the procurement and use of drugs. It should be a hassle to start, with the paperwork and such. Individuals wanting to purchase PLCS need a prescription, a "PLCS Card" if you will. It could be issued after either a medical exam or an education course. They must know exactly what they are getting in for. Most people would say, "well yea, they are going to play GameBoy during the lecture". Perhaps. But, some might listen and change their minds. It would be more than they receive currently.

The PLCS card grants the holder the right to purchase drugs at the market price, posses and consume them in the privacy of their own home. In exchange for this right, the user surrenders a certain level of anonymity. For example, PLCS holders should be barred from public office, operation of public transportation systems and infrastructure, healthcare, etc. They also should also be required to attend regular education classes concerning the use of drugs, etc. All associated educational costs could be financed by the sale and taxation of drugs.

Once an individual has a PLCS card, the process to procure drugs should be quick and easy. Any bar to the access of drugs will create a black market. The exceptions to this are that the possession of the PLCS without a card is a serious federal offense. Also, minors cannot get a PLCS card. Giving a minor a PLCS should be reserved as the most serious of offenses. Distribution to the public would be through a government controlled network of outlets similar to the alcoholic beverage control systems in place in many states. Distribution by commercial establishments would present the image that drugs are harmless and as such would be generally unacceptable to the effort. It is important that the purchase of drugs not be trivialized.

 

Effects

The effects of this policy should be quick and far reaching. First, criminal enterprises that are supported by the drug trade will lose their financing. In a highly competitive environment, there simply would not be enough profit for them to exist. If an organization would survive, providing a secondary distribution channel, the government could simply lower the price of drugs through subsidies for a short period of time until the organization went bankrupt. With no money to be made, the criminal organization will leave the market, eliminating the turf wars and other criminal acts required to distribute their products.

Second, the price of drugs will fall drastically. Addicts will be able to get a fix at a much lower price, meaning that it is less likely that they will turn to crime. Simple crimes such as muggings, and burglary should show an immediate decrease. Over the long term, other crimes, such as prostitution, should show a decrease as well.

Third, the load on law enforcement and the judicial system should be drastically reduced. Police would be able to focus on the important violent offences that have a direct impact on our lives. The result would be an effective increase in the police force without an increase in cost. An additional increase would be seen in the capacity of the judicial system. Courts will no longer have to process the multitude of drug related offences that it currently deals with. Further down the line, individuals in prison for drug related offences will be drastically reduced, freeing up space for far more serious criminals. States that have implemented early parole systems to reduce overcrowding would no longer have to decide who is the least dangerous to society.

Overdoses should be reduced. The reasoning behind this is twofold. First, with manufacturers producing consistent quality products, users will know what they are getting. Dosages will be known and guidelines could be set to let people know about the possibility of overdose. Second, the current drug producers have been know to put tainted products on the market. If a batch was produced that might have fatal results, it would still be distributed since there is no incentive in the current system to provide a quality product. The reduction in drug related health incidents would have a net positive societal effect as the users would require less medical intervention. Since users are traditionally without financial means, medical care is usually provided at the cost of the state.

40 billion dollars per year will be freed up for use in other important programs. Part of this money would be required to bolster the health sector to offset the effects of the drug policy. A large percentage of the rest should be channeled to research into chemical dependency. Once medical science finds a way to block addiction, then the drug problem will truly become a thing of the past.

 

Drawbacks

In any public policy scenario, there will always be a negative effect. To fully explore any solution the drawbacks of a policy initiative must also be examined. Here I present some of the foreseeable effects of a national drug decriminalization effort.

First, drug use will increase at least in the short term. Drugs will be cheaper and easier to procure. Long term usage will be related to the success of the educational campaign. However, this solution should have a minimal impact on the number of new users. Currently, anyone with the desire to begin using drugs can find them. Decriminalization will have little effect on this group.

There will also be a corresponding increase increase in DWI, impairment related traffic accidents and other related public intoxication issues. This will be the most serious effect of the plan. It strives to shift the problem from the judicial system to the public health sector which is far better suited to dealing with the problem. However, this should be more than offset by the reduction in drug related crime, such as robbery, burglary, mugging and homicides.

A black market for drugs will still exist, although in a much smaller form. It will be created because of the limited restrictions on obtaining a PLCS card. This market will cater to the individuals that one reason of another do not have a PLCS card and for selling to minors. This would be similar to the black market for cigarettes that exist to avoid high state taxes. Fortunately, it should require a vastly reduced law enforcement effort to keep these enterprises under control.

 

Conclusion

What I have presented is an balanced, rational, examination of a solution to the current drug problem. Our current drug laws are based on the belief that anything considered to be immoral should be illegal. However, what is one person's wrong is another's right. Given this, it is sometimes is in the best interests of society to look past what we have been taught. Hopefully, this paper provided the insight that will allow you to make that leap.

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