Meet the New (Drug) Boss, Same as the Old One?

Fellow L.O.G.(ger?) ED’s post on drug legalization is exremely sharp from my vantage point.  He suggests legalizing pot (agreed), generally not taking the approach of viewing users as criminals (agreed again), but questions the legalization of hard drugs.  He leaves us with this question:

This is a major stumbling block in the War to End the War on Drugs, and inevitably circles into the region of pragmatism vs. principle.  Even if we knew, conclusively, that legalizing these substances would end the militarization of our police, destroy the cartels, and free a good number of non-violent offenders, could we reconcile that with consequences of societal acceptance of the sale of these substances?

This is a very thought provoking question as a hypothetical.  I’m not sure it might play out that way (again thinking fairly hypothetically). There is another potential problem with governmental involvement/regulation of hard drug trade.  Namely that the government (or government agents anyway) would become themselves a new cartel.  They could easily become corrupted and seek to use the drug trade for their own financial and political increase. I mentioned the danger here of the militarization of the police, but another (potentially simultaneous) threat is that the police become themselves not that different from the previous cartels.  The militarized police and/or ideological fighters in many countries (particularly but not limited to Latin America) have a tendency to originally oppose drug cartels and then find themselves overtime basically in the same game:  e.g. FARC, Taliban, to name just a few.

In other words, there would be I think a strong potential for the creation of a grey market–of the ability of official cover for some to blur the lines on legal/illegal with regards to drug policy. Even if the market is legalized in one country, the pull might still be there to keep one’s activities in the black market.  It’s interesting in that regard that ED mentions Crystal Meth, since that is one drug that at one point, coordinated multiple government effort could have without too much difficulty it seems essentially eliminated the industry.  Heroin obviously is a whole other ball of junk (as it were).

[As a sidenote: I find it quite humorous that are first three threads are sex, drugs, and foreign policy.  What no rock n’ roll?].

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8 thoughts on “Meet the New (Drug) Boss, Same as the Old One?

  1. I’m not convinced the government or its agents would become a new cartel, because most of these drugs are simple to produce: it’s prohibition that keeps them expensive. A drug like marijuana could support a profitable industry (given the number of potential users) but I don’t see why the government has to be directly involved in producing it. It only needs to tax and regulate.

    I wonder if the use of drugs like meth that are too destructive in themselves to legalize would increase if softer drugs were legalized. I take it as given that the legalization of soft drugs would inevitably increase their use, who knows by how much. Would marijuana still be a gateway drug in this scenario?

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  2. Keith, I think marijuana would no longer be a gateway drug simply due to the elimination of the dealer from the sale. The dealer is often a purveyor of more than merely weed–often offering harder drugs, or knowing of connections to other dealers who might be able to provide those other drugs. This is essentially why alcohol is not really a gateway drug. If it were illegal, however, the booze pusher might very well also push coke, LSD, or worse…

    Chris–excellent post. I hadn’t even considered the rise of a state-cartel, but it’s an interesting notion to be sure…

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  3. Having followed Freddie over here, I’m glad to have discovered the OG’s.

    I think any discussion of drug policy should be focused on harm reduction, which is one reason that I’m glad to see that the legalization (or at least decriminalization) of marijuana seems to be as uncontroversial around here as those of alcohol and nicotine. I agree that the question is much more troubling in the case of hard drugs, but I think that legalization/decriminalization should still win out.

    The harms to be reduced are fourfold:
    1. Organized crime (cartels, gangs)
    2. Distortion of the penal system (brutalized prisoners, overcrowded prisons, corrupted cops)
    3. Drugs’ affects on users. (the slow death of the body, the slow death of the soul)
    4. Users’ disturbance of the peace (all manner of crimes against person and property)

    With alcohol, we have dealt with these more or less as follows:
    1. & 2. Ending Prohibition.
    3. Groups like AA.
    4. Laws against drunk driving, disorderly conduct, and other crimes drunks commit.

    All four harms are horrid, but the most urgent to reduce seem to me to be for hard drugs, as for alcohol, the first two: the gang murders, the prison rapes, and all the rest. The horrors of the third will remain just as amenable (or not) to compassionate treatment with or without criminalization, but I think that the balance here favors decriminaliation: while legality may create a few more addicts, all addicts will be easier to treat if they haven’t spent years being brutalized by the prison system. The best objections to legalization/decriminalization seem to me to spring from the last, and the argument that addicts of hard drugs become crazed and do truly terrible things. To that I would reply that our current losing war on drugs has failed to stop the spread of these addictions, and that there may be a place for making a law that says something like the following: You may legally possess hard drugs, but you may not legally be HIGH on hard drugs outside of your own, or a friend’s private property. That might limit the disorder somewhat. The main counterargument there would be that ending prohibition would create more addicts—I assume it would, but I don’t think it would be *a lot* more, and I think the other harms outweigh it.

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  4. Tom, thanks. And I generally agree with your post, the harms you’ve laid out, etc. However I’m still not convinced that we need to legalize all drugs, and feel that the wiser thing to do would be to begin with an end to marijuana prohibition and then take it from there.

    Small steps can often help avoid one stepping over the brink…

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  5. I’m all for ending the concept of a “war” on drugs and obviously for legalization of marijuana. I’m also in favor of at least decrimininalizing hard drugs; I’m not so sure where I stand on legalizing them, although I probably tend towards the “legalize ’em” side of that issue as well.
    That said, I think Tom is being a bit too optimistic about the ability of regulations against being high in public to prevent disturbances of the peace. The obvious analogy there is regulations against public drunkenness, which are amongst the most ignored and loosely enforced types of laws around, and have virtually no deterrent effect.
    As for the issue of whether legalization would create more or less addicts, it’s always important to remember that use and addiction are not always the same thing. I think legalization of hard drugs would almost certainly increase their use; but I think it’s at least plausible (though by no means certain) that the effects of ending the black market would decrease the frequency of addiction.

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  6. .D. Kain: I couldn’t agree more about the value of incrementalism. We might begin with the decriminalization of marijuana, then move to its legalization, and maybe then to decriminalization of harder drugs. After that, civil society and the criminal justice system would probably need a pretty long breather—a generation?—before moving on to legalization of harder drugs.

    Thompson: I think you raise a really valid point about my over-optimism with regard to “high and disorderly” laws. While I think the harm reduction of decriminalization would outweigh the harm caused by disordered addicts even if you’re completely right about that (which you very well might be), let me try to give another (quite possibly still very inadequate) answer to your point as well:
    1. There is no consistent societal campaign against being drunk and disorderly (which is seen by many as harmless frat-boy fun) to compare with the crusade, led by MADD, against drunk driving. If there were an organization bringing similar pressure to bear on being “high and disorderly” as MADD and its allies inside and outside government bring to bear on drunk driving, it might help—but such an organization—dedicated to how a substance is used, rather than whether it’s used—is impossible (or at least very improbable) under a prohibition regime.
    2. If police are freed from the time they spend policing drug use (and perhaps other deeply self-destructive, but consensual, crimes like prostitution) they might have more time to go after drunk drivers, high drivers, high burglars, drunken brawlers, and other threats to the life and property of innocent third parties.

    E.D. Kain & Mark Thompson:
    Thank you, Gentlemen, for making me feel welcome on your lovely new blog.

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