Drugs – Ending Prohibition

Drugs such as cocaine, heroin and speed may be extremely harmful to those who take them, often leading to addiction and various health problems. There may also be negative spillover effects on those who come into contact with drug users. Accordingly, there are strong grounds for believing that drug taking under many circumstances constitutes an immoral act, particularly when considered from the perspectives of traditional moral codes.

It does not follow, however, that because drug taking may be harmful and may be considered immoral it should be illegal. This essay summarises the arguments against the state prohibition of recreational drugs.

The principle of self-ownership provides one philosophical objection to current laws. If individuals own their own bodies they must be free to harm themselves. Nevertheless, proponents of criminalising drugs would point to the ‘external’ effects of drug taking, in other words the negative impacts on other people. Addicts may rob and steal to fund their habit; they may be unable to work and rely on welfare handouts; they may place burdens on health systems; their anti-social behaviour may disturb neighbours and devalue local property; and so on.

Yet there are strong reasons to believe that prohibition is likely to worsen these negative effects. The ‘war on drugs’ means suppliers risk long prison sentences.Production will have to take place in secret, denying growers and manufacturers the economies of scale and long-term investment available in the formal economy. Low-cost bulk transportation is also out of the question. Instead, drugs must be smuggled across borders via a series of middlemen, each taking their cut. Such factors increase prices. Heroin and crack addicts in the West may require large sums of money to feed their habits – way beyond the amounts they can obtain from welfare benefits or low-paid work. Prohibition is therefore partly responsible for the crime epidemic that has plagued Western countries in recent decades. Although estimates vary, it seems likely that drug addicts are responsible for the majority of property crimes, while a significant proportion of homicides are related to disputes among drug dealers.

Prohibition is also responsible for many of the health problems experienced by users. The absence of brand names and reliable quality control makes it far more likely that supplies are tainted with dangerous substances. At the same time, illegality disrupts the normal market processes by which the safety and quality of products is improved. The health-cost argument is also contingent on the existence of state-subsidised healthcare systems. In a free market there would not necessarily be any obligation for healthcare providers to treat addicts, although voluntary charities could step in. The act of drug taking therefore does not in itself harm others by imposing healthcare costs on them. In state-funded healthcare systems it is the government that violates individual rights by using the threat of violent aggression to obtain the required tax funding.

Similarly, addicts’ dependence on government handouts is an argument against the welfare state rather than against legalisation. It is not clear that legalisation would lead to higher levels of addiction in any case.

The problem of drug users’ ‘anti-social’ behaviour is also a poor argument for prohibition. The existence of welfare benefits and social housing may in effect subsidise such bad behaviour by mitigating its consequences. Moreover, public ownership of the streets and the erosion of private property rights have severely limited freedom of association. In most instances, groups of individuals are not free to exclude undesirables (subjectively defined) from their local areas. State controls prevent this. Conflicts between groups that behave differently may be seen as contingent on the de facto prohibition of freedom of association beyond certain limited private spheres.

Finally, it is worth mentioning three further arguments in favour of legalising recreational drugs. Firstly, many sufferers from painful diseases would benefit from free access to effective painkillers such as opium and cannabis. (To digress, there is also a strong case for liberalising controls on the supply of ‘prescription’ drugs to give people the option of self-treatment.) Secondly, legalisation would enable recreational drugs to be taxed, allowing tax rates on other products and services to be reduced. Having said this, the kind of high, discriminatory taxes imposed on tobacco would risk encouraging black markets. Thirdly, the fact that many individuals obtain pleasure from taking recreational drugs should not be neglected. Indeed, their behaviour is fundamentally no different to many other perfectly legal activities with significant health risks and spillover effects. Thus the current prohibition laws are inconsistent as well as indefensible.

This feature provided by:
Richard Wellings
Deputy Editorial Director
Institute of Economic Affairs and Editor of the IEA 


IEA blog: http://blog.iea.org.uk

%d bloggers like this: