More Legalization

John Quiggan asks a sensible question: If there’s a good case for prohibiting cocaine, why not alcohol? He concludes that consistency would call for banning neither, or both:

In summary, Prohibition produced greater benefits than the War on Drugs, at a lower cost in terms of crime and social dislocation. The idea that it is impossible to change the status of currently legal drugs does not stand up to an examination of the evidence.

The real reason we will not even attempt to make society drug-free is that we do not want to. I don’t want to give up my evening gin-and-tonic, even if it does me more harm than good. Similarly, despite the appeal of ‘Just Say No’ and the priority placed on abstinence rather than risk reduction in other contexts, no-one seems to be suggesting the promotion of even voluntary abstinence from alcohol.

We are then, left with a paradox. Through the governments we elect, we are willing to turn our homes into fortresses and our streets into battlefields in order to maintain the illegal status of drugs that have been widely used for decades. But the same governments are unwilling to take even modest steps against drugs whose only distinguishing characteristics are a longer history of use and abuse, and the existence of influential producer and consumer lobbies.

I do not know whether our social acceptance of established drugs is a good thing. But until we are prepared to take a consistent position one way or the other, we should stop talking about sending messages. The only message our current policies send is that we are a bunch of hypocrites.

First things first. I think alcohol does more harm than good in the world, but I doubt that Quiggin’s gin-and-tonic does him (or anyone else) more harm than good. If he’s a typical drinker, it gives him some amount of pleasure, doesn’t harm his health or cause him to act foolishly, and doesn’t cause him to harm others. His drinking is therefore beneficial. But the minority of alcoholics and mean drunks suffer, and inflict, such huge amounts of damage that the world would probably be a better place if the ethanol molecule weren’t psychoactive.

There’s no reason to think that a given drug is, on balance, either net helpful or net harmful to all consumers, and in fact all the drugs in current use have some consumers who benefit from them (at least in the form of harmless pleasure) and others who are damaged by them. Typically, the beneficiaries are the larger group, but the damage per victim is larger than the gain per beneficiary.

Quiggin is surely right that, if the line between legal and illegal drugs needs to track some imagined line between “good drugs” and “bad drugs,” drug policy is profoundly incoherent. But there’s no need for such a link. There are, among intoxicants, no “good” or “bad” drugs. Both alcohol and cocaine are consumers’ goods with a peculiar mix of risks, including both the risks due to intoxication (loss of self-command over behavior in the short run) and addiction (chronic loss of self-command with respect to consuming the drug itself).

The question, drug-by-drug and comprehensively, is what mix of policies would minimize aggregate damage, net of benefit. (This elides the distinction between harm to self and harm to others, which strikes me as a reasonable thing to do in the face of an activity where individuals can’t be assumed to be good stewards of their own well-being.) In some cases that least-cost solution will look like prohibition; in others it will look like regulation and taxation. It’s a practical problem, to be handled by practical means-ends reasoning, not by the enunciation of profound truths about human nature or the role of the state.

Even believing that alcohol, on balance, creates a net social deficit, I don’t actually believe that alcohol should be prohibited. Given the enormous user base for alcohol, its prohibition would be operationally nightmarish as well as politically infeasible. Instead, why not ban its sale to those previously convicted of alcohol-induced violence or repeated drunken driving? That ban wouldn’t be perfectly obeyed, but it would have some good effect nonetheless, and wouldn’t create another huge illicit market.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: