Drug Policy

Do You Like Coke and Smack? Would You, Could You, in a Legal Market?

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I ran into Dave Borden of the Drug Reform Coordination Network at last week's Drug Policy Alliance conference, and he mentioned a Zogby poll question DRCNet had commissioned, asking people whether they'd be likely to use "hard drugs such as heroin or cocaine" if those substances were legal. The results:

Ninety-ninety percent of respondents answered, "No." Only 0.6 percent said "Yes." The remaining 0.4 percent weren't sure.

Borden sees this finding as undermining the arguments against repealing prohibition, and to some extent he's right. Many people who are confident of their own ability to resist the lure of legalized drugs no doubt are less sanguine about their neighbors' strength of will, and they may find evidence like this reassuring. Then again, people don't always tell the truth in surveys, especially on touchy subjects such as drug use.

There's reason to believe at least some of the people in this Zogby survey were being less than completely honest, since some of them are already using "hard drugs such heroin or cocaine." In the 2006 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), 2.5 percent of the respondents admitted using cocaine in the previous year, and 0.2 percent admitted using heroin. Even allowing for some overlap between those two groups, that's several times the percentage of the Zogby poll respondents who said they'd be inclined to use "hard drugs" if they were legal, and that's without considering methamphetamine, psychedelics (which most people probably consider "hard drugs"), etc. Maybe the current cocaine and heroin users are attracted only by these drugs' illicit status, and maybe they have the self-insight to recognize that they're suckers for the forbidden-fruit effect. Or maybe a bunch of them lied.

To reconcile its results with the NSDUH data, DRCNet notes that the Zogby poll, unlike the NSDUH, did not include anyone younger than 18. But the rates of heroin and cocaine use among 18-to-25-year-olds in the NSDUH were higher than the rates among 12-to-17-year-olds; in the over-25 group, cocaine use also was higher, while heroin use was the same. DRCNet suggests another explanation that carries more weight: The Zogby poll had "a statistical margin of error of 3.1 percentage points" (whereas the NSDUH survey is big enough that differences of less than one percentage point are statistically significant). It's striking that total cocaine and heroin use in the U.S. (at least insofar as it's accurately measured by surveys) is small enough to be swallowed by the margin of error in your average political poll.

Another difficulty with the Zogby drug question is that people do not always accurately predict their own behavior. Even if all the respondents were candid in denying any intention of trying currently illicit drugs once they were legal, their attitudes might change once these substances were available from reputable, regulated companies at reasonable prices in a wide variety of quality-controlled forms, free of the hazards associated with the black market. Denying that possibility (and I'm not saying that DRCNet is denying it) may be expedient, but it's not honest or credible. Better to acknowledge that use of illegal drugs would go up if prohibition were repealed while emphasizing that the important question (from a strictly utilitarian perspective) is the extent to which problematic use would rise, and how the costs associated with it would compare to the costs imposed by the war on drugs.

NEXT: Dept. of Rounding Errors

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  1. Also many people may answer in a poll that they wouldn’t take illegal drugs when they are of sound mind, but say something bad happens to them (like getting fired, significant other dumps them, kids fucking up) they may seek the support of recreational drugs to help with their problems.

  2. Would you, could you, in a box?
    Would you, could you, with a fox?

    I do, I like this coke and smack!
    I really like them, Sam I…


    [long silence]

    ack.

  3. As long as they keep marijuana (the gateway drug) illegal, then legalizing crack and heroin shouldn’t be a big problem. How many people go from teetotaler to hard-core needle drugs in one direct step? There is always an affair with Mary Jane first.

  4. In fact, were these substances not legal in the 19th century? Opium and cocaine are not recent discoveries.
    Is there information on the harm they caused then?
    The 19th century literature that attempts to portrait quotidian life has lots of references to drunkness, but I don’t recall much talk about dope in Dickens, Dostoevsky, or Zola.

  5. Better to acknowledge that use of illegal drugs would go up if prohibition were repealed while emphasizing that the important question (from a strictly utilitarian perspective) is the extent to which problematic use would rise, and how the costs associated with it would compare to the costs imposed by the war on drugs.

    Exactly so. Also factor in how much problematic use now occurring would diminish if social institutions became available to those who wanted them. Keeping drugs illegal keeps drug users outside of decent society. A person can drink every night in his own home and still hold down a job. A person that pops positive for illegal drugs, no matter when or how infrequently used, is unemployable.

  6. Jacob, how dare you discuss this openly and honestly! Don’t you realize that you’re supposed to gloss over the data that doesn’t fit your point of view and never point out inconsistencies that aren’t convenient!

    In other words, nice work, as usual. Thanks.

  7. Slugger,
    Well there’s Arthur Conan Doyle. But you make a good point. At the turn of the 20th century, alcohol and opium were staples of any medicine cabinet in any respectable christian home.

  8. Chuck wins the thread.

  9. I do I like this smack and coke,
    I really like them Sam I Toke,

    I have my syringe ready for the day meth is legal. Good thing the DEA keeps it out of my hands. Imagine if some evil corporation tried to make money selling…..am, uh , wait..pheta… amphetamines. Sorry,it’s hard to focus without my Adderrall.

  10. “Also many people may answer in a poll that they wouldn’t take illegal drugs when they are of sound mind, but say something bad happens to them (like getting fired, significant other dumps them, kids fucking up) they may seek the support of recreational drugs to help with their problems.”

    Yeah and what is your point? Do you know how awful it is to go through life sober?

    I think a lot people wouldn’t do drugs even if they were legal because their jobs have drug testing. Contrary to popular belief not everyone who tries drugs turns into a degenerate drug addict. Further, not everyone has any interest in trying drugs. Most people are too busy working and trying to get through life to bother with them. Further, there is significant social pressure. You wouldn’t know it by reading the Hit and Run threads but in most of America taking a two joint coffee break is pretty verboten. If they legalized drugs tomorrow, life would change very little for 95+% of America.

  11. I think a lot people wouldn’t do drugs even if they were legal because their jobs have drug testing.

    Well there’s a big difference between testing if you’re intoxicated, and pre-employment tests that check your hair for what you’ve been doing the past month.

    If drugs were legal I highly doubt anyone would be able to maintain a policy of firing you for snorting a line last weekend. Most companies do drug testing to make the government happy.

    I’ve never heard of a company having problems getting rid of people who show up to work stoned. Indeed most of the drug testing problems I’ve heard of are about a zero tolerance policy that requires them to fire people they want to keep.

  12. In fact, were these substances not legal in the 19th century? Opium and cocaine are not recent discoveries.
    Is there information on the harm they caused then?

    For 19th century “proof” of the harm caused by opium, check West Coast newspapers from the era for the headline “OPIUM-CRAZED CHINAMAN RAPES WHITE WOMAN AND MURDERS POLICE OFFICER.”

    For 19th century “proof” of the harm caused by cocaine, check Southern newspapers from the era for the headline “COCAINE-CRAZED NEGRO RAPES WHITE WOMAN AND MURDERS POLICE OFFICER.”

  13. My point is just that its not an accurate measure of the potential increase in drug use from legalization. Not that it’s then morally justified to protect people from their own bad decisions in moments of weakness.

  14. One question I have is whether people thought they were answering whether they would be more likely to try drugs if they were legal, and not just likely.

    These are dramatically different questions and would account for the statistical discrepancies referenced here. Because after all, if you ask a current drug user, “Would legalization make you more likely to try drugs?” the answer actually is No.

  15. Do You Like Coke and Smack?

    Occasionally, sure. But what does that have to do with whether they are legal?

    I gave a mouse crap about regime edicts?

    When
    I need drugs
    , I need drugs…and that’s all.

    Same goes for when I want to be sober. These days that’s most of the time.

  16. If they legalized drugs tomorrow, life would change very little for 95+% of America.

    I must be in the 5% then. If they were legal tomorrow, I’d quit my job and open the fucking coolest hash bar/music venue/daytime coffee house in the U.S.

    Free nuggets for Reasonoids!

  17. “If they legalized drugs tomorrow, life would change very little for 95+% of America.

    I must be in the 5% then. If they were legal tomorrow, I’d quit my job and open the fucking coolest hash bar/music venue/daytime coffee house in the U.S.

    Free nuggets for Reasonoids!”

    I didn’t say I wasn’t in the 5%. IF they legalized drugs tomorow, life would be a hell of a lot easier to face.

  18. Then again, people don’t always tell the truth in surveys, especially on touchy subjects such as drug use.

    I have had ample opportunities to use coke and have declined each time…I am not special, people do this every day.

    I call bullshit.

  19. the important question (from a strictly utilitarian perspective) is the extent to which problematic use would rise

    Addictive personalities that will fuck up their lives via substance abuse will do so regardless of legality.

  20. RC Dean,

    Addictive personalities that will fuck up their lives via substance abuse will do so regardless of legality.

    True, to an extent.
    But not exhaustively.
    My grandpa was an alcoholic that stopped drinking for the length of prohibition, because he was very law abiding. As soon as repeal day hit, he was back on the sauce.

  21. “Better to acknowledge that use of illegal drugs would go up if prohibition were repealed…”

    And you know this … how?

    What, did you take a survey?

    Seems to me you’re making the same error you accuse the guys touting this poll of, only with a lot less backup.

    It’s *best*, perhaps, to actually acknowledge that we don’t *know* if use would rise, fall, or stay the same if prohibition were repealed.

  22. Neu,

    Not to intrude on family business or anything, but that doesn’t sound like alcoholism to me.

    An alcoholic would not have been able to turn it on and off like a faucet.

    Not every drinker is an alcoholic.

  23. in most of America taking a two joint coffee break is pretty verboten.

    What do you mean? Here in the Pacific Northwest we have rolling paper right next to the little packets of Splenda in the break room.

    And you know this … how?

    Susan, it’s the most fundamental economics – if price goes down consumption goes up. The end of drug prohibition would lead to a dramatic and drastic fall in price (the price being not only the actual money paid for that 8-ball, but also the elimination of the risk that you’ll end up in jail for it). But this, just like other price drops, is a good thing for consumers.

  24. This poll is worthless, but it’s safe to say this would happen:
    Everyone would BEGIN to educate themselves on what might be available and what sort of “cocktail” might suit them to a “t.”
    Reputable producers would be more than happy to assist in the education process.
    Then it would still be very difficult to measure whether the use of drugs now illegal would become greater than use of ones now legal.

  25. The number of people who would try/ start regularly using drugs if they became legal is probably pretty small.

    Most people who want to use seem to have no problem getting what they want in a reasonable time frame.

    Even if a significant number of people started using drugs just because they were legal, it’s still well worth it to legalize ALL of them.

    We have the infrastructure in place right now to deal with people who use drugs and commit crimes under the influence, and the various rehabilitation facilities to handle addictions at varying degrees.

    Instead of spending billions annually on the war on drugs, take up to 25% of the WOD budget and use it to expand the existing rehabilitation facilities to accomodate any increased “demand”.

    With legalization, our only real problem (if it is a problem at all) is a small potential increase in users-casual,regular,excessive and any misuse related behavior.

    With prohibition, we get a (possibly) slightly (,at best) smaller amount of the above, PLUS we get:
    Police corruption and civil liberties abuses:
    -police officers stealing drugs from
    users/dealers and using or redistributing
    them
    -planted drugs on innocent people (many times
    from the above)
    -police officers working for drug dealers
    shaking down competition, acting as security,
    etc.

    -no knock raids which sometimes result in
    death/injury and nearly always property
    damage
    -for trivial amounts
    -at wrong addresses
    -using bad information
    -with little or no judicial oversight (rubber
    stamped warrants)

    Gang Wars and violent crime
    -Wars a every level regarding competition
    -Dealers hurting/killing non/short-paying
    customers
    -People who steal and rob to support their
    habit

    Gee, given the choice it seems like a treating currently illegal drugs the way we do legal ons like alcohol and cigarettes would be a wonderful way to improve our society in a short period of time.

  26. “Better to acknowledge that use of illegal drugs would go up if prohibition were repealed…”.

    I believe this ignores the evidence from countries where prohibition has been repealed only to see use rates go down. Economics is not the only issue here: for example, adolescents often do things out of rebellion, and if grandma is toking up because of her chronic pain, the thrill of doing that to be “bad” is gone.

  27. “Borden sees this finding as undermining the arguments against repealing prohibition…”

    Please don’t use quadruple negatives. It hurts my brain (or maybe that’s the drugs).

  28. Polling is a strange way of deciding policy. The issue of drug use could be thought about in a lot of ways. For example, one could study what actually happened when these drugs were legal as I suggested in my first post on this thread. Instead, we increasingly see polling substituted for thinking.
    The weekly newsmagazine do a lot of this. War in Iraq…here’s what the polls tell us. Three-strike laws, DUI laws, etc.
    I don’t mind if they poll to decide the sexiest man in America, but should not public policy be done more judiciously?

  29. One of the problems with getting accurate results in a survey like this is that you’re only going to get answers from people who aren’t too wasted to answer the phone.

  30. I have no doubt that the decriminalization of any given drug will result in increased use of that drug, in both depth and breadth, as that is exactly what happened at the end of alcohol prohibition.

    I just think, “so what?”

  31. I’m starting to think we may never get drugs decriminalized. …but I still want people to feel bad about that.

  32. Many people who are confident of their own ability to resist the lure of legalized drugs no doubt are less sanguine about their neighbors’ strength of will, and they may find evidence like this reassuring.

    I’m not obese, my neighbor is. That’s why we ban trans-fats.

  33. I’m starting to think we may never get drugs decriminalized. …but I still want people to feel bad about that.

    Only starting, huh?

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