Friday, December 03, 2004

Officer, Arrest That Man! He Stole My Crack!

Those who know me, know my stance on the drug war. For those who don't, and can't geuss: it's perhaps the biggest waste of time, resources, and human lives since, well ... actually I don't know if it's ever been topped. That it was entered into after the disastrous experiment with alcohol prohibiton has always deeply confused me: I like to think people are smarter than that (actually, I think they are. It's the government that's incapable of learning from past mistakes.)

The reasons for this are myriad. There's the contemptible position that people are unable to control their own recreational behaviour, and that the law must be employed to prohibit it instead. There's the fact that it hasn't worked: as drug war spending goes up, street prices go down, with bug bust effecting only a temporary rise in price. There's the inherent silliness of imagining that cops, propaganda, and foreign policy can have any significant impact on demand for chemicals that numerous groups have enjoyed since time immemorial. And there's the almost unspeakable brutality of the collataral damage - personal, political, and economic - in places like Colombia.

I'd like to make a different point, though. Over and above all of these things is the question of what, exactly, the criminal law is there to do. Implicit in the war on (some) drugs is the belief that criminal law should be used to keep people from harming themselves, or simply preventing behaviour that a subset of the population thinks is immoral. Laws against buggery - excuse me, homosexuality - fall into the same category, though the resulting oppression was relatively minor, and the distortion on the economy essentially negligible. This is not true for the drug war.

Elementary economics - hell, basic knowledge of human nature - will tell you that when there are people who want something, there will be people who are willing to provide it. Legality makes no difference here, save to add a risk premium to the merchant's profit margin. Now, for any economic activity to be viable, there has to be a certain degree of order. In mainstream society, that order is provided through the law: companies that fuck over their customers get fucked over by the government, at least in theory. Similarly, a customer who tries to fuck over a company will, more often than not, have sanctions brought against them. This helps to ensure that when disputes arise, as they inevitably do, they are settled with a minimum of fuss.

If there is no official sanction to an economic activity, the need for order does not disappear. However, being illegal, the entire apparatus of modern society by which disputes are arbitrated is denied the merchants; as a result, they need to enforce that order themselves. Lacking the resources for a parallel legal system, they resort to the most basic level of dispute resolution known to man. Namely, the direct application of violence.

Now consider something else. Merchants tend to have access to their product at wholesale prices. I, for instance, work for a book store; as a result, I get books very cheaply, often for free. Similarly, drug dealers have access to drugs at a very low price. Many of them take advantage of this (indeed, many enter the trade initially because they are drug enthusiasts.) The effects of overindulgence in chemicals on one's judgement and emotional stability are rarely for the better. Knowing this, ask yourself something: how smart is it to make illegal the trade in mind-altering chemicals, knowing that a) those who sell them have cheap access, often use them more often than the population at large, and as a result regularly suffer from impaired judgement, and b) that, being denied official dispute resolution mechanisms, they will have to fall back on violence in order to maintain a semblance of order within their profession.

Consider the alternative: legalize everything (yes, even crack.) At a stroke, drugs are cheaper, by a factor of 20 or so. A day's heroin binge can be had for five bucks, less than the current cost of a pack of smokes. Sure, more people might use them, though less than you might think. At the same time, those who do use them will have little reason to commit crimes in order to feed their habit. Also, at a stroke, those who sell drugs will be able to use the courts instead of carbines.

There's only one rational solution to the drug problem ... unfortunately, the problem is the government, not the drugs, and our glorious leaders will be the last to admit this.

In the meantime, I'm gonna go out tonight and get completely off my head. And no, not just with booze.

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