A Don't Ask, Don't Tell Policy for Opium Dens


In a report released today, the U.K.-based Transform Drug Policy Foundation asks us to imagine a world in which you can run an opium den but you can't tell people about it. After the War on Drugs: Blueprint for Regulation seeks to "replace moral absolutism with an ethics of effectiveness," steering a middle course between "two extreme management approaches": prohibition and "free market legalisation." The approach advocated by the report, which is heavy on taxes and regulation, would be far more rational, tolerant, and humane than the current regime, which uses violence and imprisonment to deter production, possession, sale, and consumption of certain arbitrarily selected psychoative substances. But the report's authors put too much faith in the ability of bureaucrats to centrally manage drug consumption and too little faith in the ability of individuals to make their own choices and run their own lives.

The 215-page report proposes different distribution models for different drugs: Injectable opiates, for example, would be available only by prescription, while snortable cocaine, some amphetamines, and MDMA would be available over the counter at pharmacies to individuals who obtain licenses after undergoing education and training. Psychedelics and opium would be available at clubs for members to use in a supervised setting and possibly for private use by licensed individuals. Marijuana could be consumed at clubs or purchased for private consumption. The authors deserve credit for laying out a regulatory plan, thereby refuting the notion that talk of legalization is utterly unrealistic while at the same time inviting criticism of the details.

Speaking of which, several proposals in the report strike me as unwise, unfair, or both. I'm skeptical, to say the least, of the notion that regulators will be able to set prices for each drug better than the market can—high enough to prevent shortages and discourage excess (however that is defined) yet not so high that black markets reappear or heavy consumers steal to support their habits. Properly speaking, of course, the price also should reflect the subjective value that consumers attach to each drug, something that is beyond the capabilities of central planners. I am also put off by the report's blithe recommendation that all advertising and promotion be prohibited (for alcohol and tobacco as well as the currently illegal intoxicants). In practical terms, advertising facilitates competition, which is good for consumers. It gives them more value for their money and promotes innovation—not just in terms of variations on existing drugs (such as different strains of cannabis or different preparations of coca or opium) but in terms of new products with fewer hazards and/or more predictable, more specific, longer-lasting, or shorter-lasting effects.

The advertising ban proposal reflects a general blindness to the ways in which open, honest competition can improve drugs, making them safer, more effective, and more affordable than they are under prohibition. The authors seem to credit regulation for such improvements. But regulation is not the main reason you can be confident that a bottle of vodka you buy at a liquor store a) does not contain dangerous additives such as methanol and b) does contain the advertised percentage of ethanol. Nor is the threat of litigation the main reason distillers try not to poison or defraud their customers. The main reason is their desire to make money, which in a competitive market requires attracting and keeping customers, which requires maintaining a good reputation. If the report's authors understood this dynamic, they would not suggest that a free market "is potentially an even worse scenario than unregulated criminal control of drug markets," since "legal commercial actors—whose primary concern is profit maximisation—would be free to aggressively promote consumption through marketing and advertising."

Utilitarian concerns aside, what about freedom of speech? Evidently no one outside the United States cares about that. "The default position of any licensing regime should be a complete ban on all advertising, promotion or marketing of all drugs," the report says, although it concedes that some exceptions may have to be made in light of peculiar local concerns. "For example, in the US, a free speech argument can be made against such a ban." But nowhere else? If the speech of drug producers and sellers should be censored because it encourages excessive consumption, prohibitionists can argue with equal force that the speech of drug policy reformers—such as the authors of this report—should be censored because it may lead to increases in drug use by fostering a more permissive legal regime.

Having said all that, I understand that ending the war on drugs will require an alliance between people whose main concern is individual freedom and people whose main concern is promoting "public health." Although both groups of antiprohibitionists recognize the terrible toll wrought by the vain crusade for a drug-free society, the public-health types are bound to have more say about the details of the system that replaces prohibition, which is likely to have many features that offend libertarians. That prospect should not deter us from thinking about what the world will look like after the war on drugs, and this report is good way to start that debate.

The executive summary is here (PDF); the full report is here (PDF).

NEXT: The Ambassador from Indecision

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  1. Ironic, since the public health people played such a large part in the criminalization of opium dens in Britain in the early 20th century.

  2. Are there still any states that ban the outdoor display of alcoholic beverage ads? I remember some states did that (Steak & Ale had to use a different name). This sounds just as stupid.

    Actually, other than the legalization part I am not seeing anything that I agree with.

  3. Anon bot will take a hit in celebration

  4. I thought the headline said Opus Dei.

  5. “Properly speaking, of course, the price also should reflect the subjective value that consumers attach to each drug”

    $500/oz sounds fair to me.

  6. hmm $5 an ounce (of coke no less)sounds better to me.

  7. Although the advertising clause may be less than perfect, it shouldn’t be an issue unless it will cause the scheme to fail, which I don’t believe should be the case.
    A possible compromise would be to prohibit public advertising, while allowing advertising within privately owned stores. If things go so well, then that aspect can perhaps be changed later.
    Overall, this seems consistent with my own compromise solution for mixed means access; not a first choice but much better than we can probably hope.

  8. I have a problem with this particular notion, “replace moral absolutism with an ethics of effectiveness”. I don’t really have a problem with moral absolutism as long as the only moral is, “no initiation of violence.” However the “ethics of effectiveness” is more of the same “ends justify the means” bullshit. Of course that is probably a good way to approach consequentialists.

  9. I have a problem with this particular notion, “replace moral absolutism with an ethics of effectiveness”

    This whole thing strikes me as the morals of absolutism wearing a green eyeshade.

    The underlying reason for the whole bureacratic system (which will be enforced by force, as they all are, at the end of the day) has to be the moral absolutism that doing what you want with your mind and body cannot be tolerated. Otherwise, what’s the justification?

  10. The advertising ban proposal reflects a general blindness to the ways in which open, honest competition can improve drugs, making them safer, more effective, and more affordable than they are under prohibition.

    It also exhibits a monumentally blind approach to limiting access to drugs. The black market is prohibited from “advertising” in any legal way. Does that keep anyone from finding a dealer?

    I’m skeptical, to say the least, of the notion that regulators will be able to set prices for each drug better than the market can?high enough to prevent shortages and discourage excess (however that is defined) yet not so high that black markets reappear or heavy consumers steal to support their habits.

    The good news is that regulators will have lots of guidelines to setting prices and policies. The bad news is that the process will be governed by rampant legal and illegal bribery. The chances of corruption in such a system approach 100%.

  11. The report is less absolute than this review and comments suggest.

    It aims to demonstrate the range of regulatory tools that are at the disposal of government, without necessarily advocating them all.

    It also stresses the precautionary principle, pointing out that stringent regulations can be rolled back once their ability to control markets has been tested.

    If we wish to take practical steps to dismantle prohibition, rather than simply assert our ideological purity, this is the level on which the debate will need to engage.

  12. It also stresses the precautionary principle,

    Jeebus H. That friend of nannies, regulators, and state control freaks everywhere.

    pointing out that stringent regulations can be rolled back once their ability to control markets has been tested.

    Can be, sure. Will be, unlikely.

  13. According to Drug War Heresies, the limited cannabis legalization that Holland did didn’t increase use, but allowing the coffeeshops to advertise on the streets certainly did. Libertarians have no qualms with allowing a large increase in drug usage (and of course use would be safer under legalization), but to get the general public on board, Transform’s suggestion is probably a practical measure.

  14. A bar is an alcohol consumer’s version of an opium den. Prohibition is a violation of God’s will for people to live in freedom with liberty as acknowledged and cited in the Constitution of the United States. When there is no harm to another there is no victim, and therefore no crime. When there is a willing seller and a willing buyer, there will be a business transaction. Prohibition did not work the first time is was tried in the Garden of Eden, and it has not worked once, anywhere, since. How hard is this to figure out, really?

  15. Glad to see the UK is at least starting to think about this rationally, and that some major noise is being made in the headlines. I do agree there are some problems with what’s being proposed but hey, who says this draft can’t be revised, right?

    One major problem I have with this idea is the notion that psychedelics should be done in some sort of club or social environment. Being experienced in psychedelics myself, I can’t stress enough how important it is to trip ALONE (or with a trusted tripsitter) the first few times until you get a feel for it. Adding the complexities of social dynamics to a psychedelic trip, especially if it’s among complete strangers, isn’t for everyone and may freak some people out.

    Also, to The Widow White: $500/oz for weed? Hahaha, yeah, maybe if you’re in some bumfuck state along the East coast and don’t know any better. I paid $200 for the ounce of White Widow I’m smoking right now! Hooray Toronto!

  16. With advertising, there would be the safer product more and more. Since for the dangerous product, it might be prohibited to advertise.

  17. Matt didn’t even show up in person? No chance he’s going to get hit in the face with a chair. What a gyp.

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