Monday, March 21, 2005

Becker and Posner Weigh in on the Drug War 

Talk about some heavyweights spouting off in favor of legalization. Both Becker and Posner take some shots at the War on Drugs on their blog.

As more a harm reductionist than an economic libertarian, I don't agree with all of their reasoning - we agree on the negative effects and untenability of the current "war" but not on the best fix to the problem.

As with most scholarly writing on drug policy, both posts suffer from some apparent ignorance of the actual psychotropic effects of drugs and how those effects impact on patterns of both responsible use and outright abuse - and anywhere on the spectrum between those two endpoints. The most egregious example of this is Posner's paragraph on drug substitution:
The political source of the war on drugs is mysterious if, as I am inclined to believe, there is a legal substitute for every one of the illegal drugs: selective serotonin uptake reinhibitors (e.g., Prozac, Paxil, Zoloft) and other antidepressive drugs for cocaine, liquor and tranquillizers for heroin, cigarettes for marijuana, caffeine and steroids for “uppers.” Obviously these are not perfect substitutes; and some of the illegal drugs may be more potent or addictive or physically or psychologically injurious than the legal ones. But it is apparent that our society has no general policy against the consumption of mind-altering substances, and there seems to be a certain arbitrariness in the choice of the subset to prohibit. If these drugs were regulated instead of being prohibited, their content could be made less potent and addictive and consumers could be warned more systematically about their dangers, as they are about the dangers of cigarettes and prescription drugs.
Putting aside laughable "substitutes" like cigarettes for marijuana, the conclusion he draws from the obviously uninformed assumption is also flawed. His assertion that "our society has no general policy against the consumption of mind-altering substances, and there seems to be a certain arbitrariness in the choice of the subset to prohibit" is confused. Surely a man of such renowned economic acumen can pick out some patterns in which drugs are prohibited and which are regulated or outright legal. And if you're looking for the "political source" I would start with the mother's movement of the 1970s and end with big pharma and the cartels themselves.

Furthermore, even as they both assume de facto "legalize and tax" position on reform, they do not address the issue of advertising. If we allow private entities to sell addictive, psychoactive substances, they will insist on advertising - which our experience with tobacco has proven to be a bit of a problem in terms of limiting use by younger folk (Joe Camel and all that).

Without sending my libertarian allies on this issue running for the woods, I'd like to propose government control over distribution. And to perhaps appease those libertarian allies to some extent, I would use as a model New Hampshire's (that libertarian paradise) alcohol distribution system.

I can't write everything I'd like to on this now for lack of time, but I think it's great that more respected academics and public figures are willing to throw their weight behind drug policy reform of any stripe. The first step to trying a different approach is to shake the hold of the current one. In that spirit, I embrace the Becker-Posner position - at least until that glorious day when we, as a society, accept the fact that the war on drugs has failed and that there are better ways of reducing demand and the negative effects of drug abuse without limiting people's liberty or throwing away upwards of $100 billion/year.


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