Mar 5th 2009
From The Economist print edition

Prohibition has failed; legalisation is the least bad solution

A HUNDRED years ago a group of foreign diplomats gathered in Shanghai
for the first-ever international effort to ban trade in a narcotic
drug. On February 26th 1909 they agreed to set up the International
Opium Commission-just a few decades after Britain had fought a war
with China to assert its right to peddle the stuff. Many other bans of
mood-altering drugs have followed. In 1998 the UN General Assembly
committed member countries to achieving a “drug-free world” and to
“eliminating or significantly reducing” the production of opium,
cocaine and cannabis by 2008.

That is the kind of promise politicians love to make. It assuages the
sense of moral panic that has been the handmaiden of prohibition for a
century. It is intended to reassure the parents of teenagers across
the world. Yet it is a hugely irresponsible promise, because it cannot
be fulfilled.

Next week ministers from around the world gather in Vienna to set
international drug policy for the next decade. Like first-world-war
generals, many will claim that all that is needed is more of the same.
In fact the war on drugs has been a disaster, creating failed states
in the developing world even as addiction has flourished in the rich
world. By any sensible measure, this 100-year struggle has been
illiberal, murderous and pointless. That is why The Economist
continues to believe that the least bad policy is to legalise drugs.

“Least bad” does not mean good. Legalisation, though clearly better
for producer countries, would bring (different) risks to consumer
countries. As we outline below, many vulnerable drug-takers would
suffer. But in our view, more would gain.

The evidence of failure

Nowadays the UN Office on Drugs and Crime no longer talks about a
drug-free world. Its boast is that the drug market has “stabilised”,
meaning that more than 200m people, or almost 5% of the world’s adult
population, still take illegal drugs-roughly the same proportion as a
decade ago. (Like most purported drug facts, this one is just an
educated guess: evidential rigour is another casualty of illegality.)
The production of cocaine and opium is probably about the same as it
was a decade ago; that of cannabis is higher. Consumption of cocaine
has declined gradually in the United States from its peak in the early
1980s, but the path is uneven (it remains higher than in the
mid-1990s), and it is rising in many places, including Europe.

This is not for want of effort. The United States alone spends some
$40 billion each year on trying to eliminate the supply of drugs. It
arrests 1.5m of its citizens each year for drug offences, locking up
half a million of them; tougher drug laws are the main reason why one
in five black American men spend some time behind bars. In the
developing world blood is being shed at an astonishing rate. In Mexico
more than 800 policemen and soldiers have been killed since December
2006 (and the annual overall death toll is running at over 6,000).
This week yet another leader of a troubled drug-ridden country-Guinea
Bissau-was assassinated.

Yet prohibition itself vitiates the efforts of the drug warriors. The
price of an illegal substance is determined more by the cost of
distribution than of production. Take cocaine: the mark-up between
coca field and consumer is more than a hundredfold. Even if dumping
weedkiller on the crops of peasant farmers quadruples the local price
of coca leaves, this tends to have little impact on the street price,
which is set mainly by the risk of getting cocaine into Europe or the
United States.

Nowadays the drug warriors claim to seize close to half of all the
cocaine that is produced. The street price in the United States does
seem to have risen, and the purity seems to have fallen, over the past
year. But it is not clear that drug demand drops when prices rise. On
the other hand, there is plenty of evidence that the drug business
quickly adapts to market disruption. At best, effective repression
merely forces it to shift production sites. Thus opium has moved from
Turkey and Thailand to Myanmar and southern Afghanistan, where it
undermines the West’s efforts to defeat the Taliban.

Al Capone, but on a global scale

Indeed, far from reducing crime, prohibition has fostered gangsterism
on a scale that the world has never seen before. According to the UN’s
perhaps inflated estimate, the illegal drug industry is worth some
$320 billion a year. In the West it makes criminals of otherwise
law-abiding citizens (the current American president could easily have
ended up in prison for his youthful experiments with “blow”). It also
makes drugs more dangerous: addicts buy heavily adulterated cocaine
and heroin; many use dirty needles to inject themselves, spreading
HIV; the wretches who succumb to “crack” or “meth” are outside the
law, with only their pushers to “treat” them. But it is countries in
the emerging world that pay most of the price. Even a relatively
developed democracy such as Mexico now finds itself in a life-or-death
struggle against gangsters. American officials, including a former
drug tsar, have publicly worried about having a “narco state” as their

The failure of the drug war has led a few of its braver generals,
especially from Europe and Latin America, to suggest shifting the
focus from locking up people to public health and “harm reduction”
(such as encouraging addicts to use clean needles). This approach
would put more emphasis on public education and the treatment of
addicts, and less on the harassment of peasants who grow coca and the
punishment of consumers of “soft” drugs for personal use. That would
be a step in the right direction. But it is unlikely to be adequately
funded, and it does nothing to take organised crime out of the

Legalisation would not only drive away the gangsters; it would
transform drugs from a law-and-order problem into a public-health
problem, which is how they ought to be treated. Governments would tax
and regulate the drug trade, and use the funds raised (and the
billions saved on law-enforcement) to educate the public about the
risks of drug-taking and to treat addiction. The sale of drugs to
minors should remain banned. Different drugs would command different
levels of taxation and regulation. This system would be fiddly and
imperfect, requiring constant monitoring and hard-to-measure
trade-offs. Post-tax prices should be set at a level that would strike
a balance between damping down use on the one hand, and discouraging a
black market and the desperate acts of theft and prostitution to which
addicts now resort to feed their habits.

Selling even this flawed system to people in producer countries, where
organised crime is the central political issue, is fairly easy. The
tough part comes in the consumer countries, where addiction is the
main political battle. Plenty of American parents might accept that
legalisation would be the right answer for the people of Latin
America, Asia and Africa; they might even see its usefulness in the
fight against terrorism. But their immediate fear would be for their
own children.

That fear is based in large part on the presumption that more people
would take drugs under a legal regime. That presumption may be wrong.
There is no correlation between the harshness of drug laws and the
incidence of drug-taking: citizens living under tough regimes (notably
America but also Britain) take more drugs, not fewer. Embarrassed drug
warriors blame this on alleged cultural differences, but even in
fairly similar countries tough rules make little difference to the
number of addicts: harsh Sweden and more liberal Norway have precisely
the same addiction rates. Legalisation might reduce both supply
(pushers by definition push) and demand (part of that dangerous thrill
would go). Nobody knows for certain. But it is hard to argue that
sales of any product that is made cheaper, safer and more widely
available would fall. Any honest proponent of legalisation would be
wise to assume that drug-taking as a whole would rise.

There are two main reasons for arguing that prohibition should be
scrapped all the same. The first is one of liberal principle. Although
some illegal drugs are extremely dangerous to some people, most are
not especially harmful. (Tobacco is more addictive than virtually all
of them.) Most consumers of illegal drugs, including cocaine and even
heroin, take them only occasionally. They do so because they derive
enjoyment from them (as they do from whisky or a Marlboro Light). It
is not the state’s job to stop them from doing so.

What about addiction? That is partly covered by this first argument,
as the harm involved is primarily visited upon the user. But addiction
can also inflict misery on the families and especially the children of
any addict, and involves wider social costs. That is why discouraging
and treating addiction should be the priority for drug policy. Hence
the second argument: legalisation offers the opportunity to deal with
addiction properly.

By providing honest information about the health risks of different
drugs, and pricing them accordingly, governments could steer consumers
towards the least harmful ones. Prohibition has failed to prevent the
proliferation of designer drugs, dreamed up in laboratories.
Legalisation might encourage legitimate drug companies to try to
improve the stuff that people take. The resources gained from tax and
saved on repression would allow governments to guarantee treatment to
addicts-a way of making legalisation more politically palatable. The
success of developed countries in stopping people smoking tobacco,
which is similarly subject to tax and regulation, provides grounds for

A calculated gamble, or another century of failure?

This newspaper first argued for legalisation 20 years ago (see article
Reviewing the evidence again (see article
prohibition seems even more harmful, especially for the poor and weak
of the world. Legalisation would not drive gangsters completely out of
drugs; as with alcohol and cigarettes, there would be taxes to avoid
and rules to subvert. Nor would it automatically cure failed states
like Afghanistan. Our solution is a messy one; but a century of
manifest failure argues for trying it.

Comments are closed.