Formerly Timid Statesmen Recommend Broad Drug Legalization


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In a report published today, the self-appointed Global Commission on Drug Policy, which includes statesmen such as former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, former U.S. Secretary of State George Schultz, and the former presidents of several Latin American countries, gets quite a bit braver than it has been in the past, recommending "diverse experiments in legally regulating markets in currently illicit drugs" as well as decriminalization of possession for personal use. Notably, the experiments envisioned by the commission would go far beyond marijuana, which already has been legalized in Colorado, Washington, and Uruguay.

Citing "the horrific unintended consequences of punitive and prohibitionist laws and policies," Annan et al. argue that "harsh measures grounded in repressive ideologies must be replaced by more humane and effective policies shaped by scientific evidence, public health principles and human rights standards." In contrast with the Obama administration's idea of drug policy reform, the commission says force is not an appropriate response to drug use: Governments not only should stop arresting and jailing people who consume psychoactive substances that politicians do not like; they should "stop imposing 'compulsory treatment' on people whose only offense is drug use or possession."

The commissioners also recommend alternatives to incarceration for low-level, nonviolent drug offenders such as farmers, mules, and street dealers, urging law enforcement agencies to "target the most violent and disruptive criminal groups" instead. But they add that "the most effective way to reduce the extensive harms of the global drug prohibition regime and advance the goals of public health and safety is to get drugs under control through responsible legal regulation." Here is their rationale:

Without legal regulation, control, and enforcement, the drug trade will remain in the hands of organized criminals. Ultimately this is a choice between control in the hands of governments or gangsters; there is no third option in which drug markets can be made to disappear. 

There is a public health imperative to legally regulate drugs not because they are safe, but precisely because they can be dangerous and pose serious risks. However dangerous a particular drug may be on its own, its risks increase, sometimes dramatically, when it is produced, sold and consumed in an unregulated criminal environment. Drugs of unknown strength are sold with no quality controls, often cut with adulterants, bulking agents or other drugs, and lack information about contents, risks or safety guidance. Putting accountable governments and regulatory bodies in control of this market can significantly reduce these risks.

Annan et al. exaggerate the role of regulation, as opposed to legal, competitive markets, in making drugs safer. Regulation is not the main reason you can assume a bottle of vodka really is 80 proof and does not contain methanol or other unexpected toxins. The main reason is that producers and retailers live and die by their reputations, which depend on their ability to please customers. Although law is necessary as a backstop, the profit motive, properly constrained by rules against force and fraud, benefits consumers more than the commissioners seem ready to concede.

What might "responsible legal regulation" look like? The report mentions various approaches, ranging from a "medical prescription model" for "the riskiest drugs, such as injectable heroin," to an "unlicensed retail model" for "drugs of sufficiently low risk, such as coffee or coca tea." The report says governments should seek the sweet spot between the "unregulated criminal market" and the "unregulated legal market": the point where "social and health harms" are minimized.

That aspiration, which does not seem to take into account the pleasure that people get from drugs, is apt to encourage much heavier regulation than libertarians would like. The commissioners take for granted "the need to better regulate alcohol and tobacco," and they call for "maintaining prohibitions on the most potent and risky drugs or drug preparations" (which will mean different things to different legislators), forgetting their own point that drugs should be legal "precisely because they can be dangerous and pose serious risks." Still, Annan et al.'s "responsible legal regulation" beats the violent crusade for an unattainable (and undesirable) "drug-free society" by a mile.

The report makes an important point regarding the consequences of legalization:

If use does increase with moves toward regulation—and the possibility cannot be discounted—it is worth recalling that the totality of associated social and health problems is still likely to decrease. The use of legally produced products in regulated environments will be intrinsically safer, the harm linked to both the illegal trade and punitive enforcement will be reduced, and obstacles to more effective health and social interventions removed. 

I would go further. An increase in drug use should be counted as a benefit of legalization, because it reflects greater consumer satisfaction. The concern should not be drug use per se but drug-related harm. Speaking of which:

It is also important to acknowledge the limits of what regulation can achieve—it is not a panacea. Just as prohibition will never produce a drug-free world, regulatory models cannot be expected to create a risk free world. Regulating markets within a responsible legal framework can nevertheless dramatically reduce the harms associated with the illegal trade, and in the longer term, create a far better environment to address problematic drug use and other social ills. The benefits of regulation can be significant, but these will emerge gradually as the reform process unfolds at different speeds with different drugs, in different places. 

Unlike the Obama administration, Annan et al. understand that a drug policy can be an improvement even if it isn't a panacea.

Reason TV interviews critics of the global war on drugs: