The war on drugs

To The Economist

27 July 2001


You are right to make the point that even if legalising drugs leads to higher consumption then the case for legalisation is still strong, not least because in a legal market higher consumption might still involve lower health risks.

You may, however, be wrong to concede that legalisation will inevitably mean higher consumption. There are both theoretical and empirical reasons for doubting this.

Most drug users finance their habit illegally. One popular route for this is to become a dealer. To finance the monster cost of a heroin habit all you need to do is get 12 of your mates hooked. Drugs are sold by network marketing reinforced by the physical need of chemical addiction. Criminal sanction also means we deny to addicts the support they need to break their habit. Prohibition means that more consumers are entering the market and fewer are leaving it than would otherwise be so.

The empirical reason for doubting that prohibition works is simply its demonstrable failure to curb consumption. Heroin was legal in the UK in the 1950s. It was only when we decided to criminalise people's health problems that we began the descent from successful public policy to the morass of today. Politicians ask us to consider prohibition a "war" on drugs. Our generals have lost territory to the enemy every year for more than four decades, yet they still ask us to consider their strategy a success.

Yours truly,

Quentin Langley

Copyright Quentin Langley 27 July 2001

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