As I see it (and I'm not alone), we're spending huge sums of tax-payers' money in the modern war on drugs, and what we're achieving is:

Here are a few things we aren't achieving, just for reference:

So, suppose we controlled the drug trade after the fashion of alcohol, tobacco, and (legal) drugs. That can (and probably would) involve some age limit and some obligations on the licensee to watch out for various abuses – such as kids getting their elders to purchase for them – along with auditable stock control and taxes. Some of the taxes will be needed to police the black market, particularly in the early stages – and more could readily be justified by the need to set aside money for drying-out programmes and, in states which provide public health-care, treatment of harms caused by drug use. Suppliers would be businesses whose affairs are accessible to scrutiny by authority: and they should be able to run simpler and cheaper supply lines than the black market, enabling the government to collect fairly good amounts in tax while still ensuring that the licensed dealers can undercut the black market. Of course, tax levels will need to be pretty similar in neighbouring jurisdictions, or the black market will just turn to milking the difference.

The industry would need a lot of regulation and oversight, there's no denying that, especially in the early years. It'd take a while for the black market to die down enough to allow any reduction in policing costs: but when the reduction comes, it'll more than make up for the costs of regulation and oversight.

With anti-tamper packaging, clear labelling and the like, the customer can have confidence in the quality of the product: and the clear labelling can include thought-provoking observations about the ill-effects of drug use if the industry regulators think that would help; and/or simply state the LD50 or some more helpful medical datum.

Even with slightly higher prices per unit weight, the legal dealer can point out that the legal unit weight contains more of what the customer wants than does the black marketeer's unit weight, even if the scale used for the latter is true: and it is guaranteed free of any unwanted nasties. The legal dealer's word comes with the usual backing of trading law: it is a lot easier to trust someone for whom a crime may lose the license, hence a livelihood, especially when you know that the police know who they are, where they live and so on. By contrast, you only have a black marketeer's word: and he typically only has the word of his supplier, with little opportunity for gaining redress if he gets a bad deal; none of which is good for the customer's confidence.

Combine those advantages of the legal dealer with the threat of being caught during a visit to the black marketeer: I'm pretty sure most of the existing trade in drugs will shift out of the hands of the black market. The huge drop in demand will make illegal lines of supply across national borders uneconomic: and that's the point at which international organised crime gets elbowed out of the picture. It may be smart and pull out in advance: but the forces of law and order will need to be ready for any attempts the organised criminals make at trying to gain control of the legal industry; and it's best to push them out, every way we can. After that the black market will depend on theft from the legal trade, who're going to need tough security systems on their shops and distribution networks, and various ways of re-selling goods they purchase legally (hard to do at a profit without adulterating the goods, of course – hence the virtues of good packaging). Naturally, the licensing régime needs to assess the licensee's security systems, to limit the criminals' access.

Overall, the black market in drugs would take a huge drop in turnover: it'd have no-one to sell to but the teen-agers, except when it can manage to under-cut the legal market – which can be made difficult. On the other hand, the legal status quo will have much closer to unanimous buy-in from the adults, and the pushers won't have the steady turn-over from older customers to keep them afloat. The layer of the black market that I expect to see surviving is folk just over the age limit selling to younger teen-agers, much as currently happens at present with alcohol and tobacco (well, for that matter, drugs too). The pusher can't get much of a mark-up on shop prices so long as the kid has some older friends to turn to: so no-one can afford to make a living at selling drugs to teen-agers. The bulk of the remaining illicit trade will be to kids near enough under the legal age to have friends older than it.

That means the legal age has to be rather carefully chosen. Kids a year or three younger than it are going to be taking drugs in non-ignorable numbers (just like they are now): we need to be generally confident of near-adult good sense on the part of the generality of these (if for nothing else, because they're the folk best placed to recognise their more foolish peers' mistakes and whose concern is most likely to actually get their foolish peers' respect). On the other hand, folk who regard themselves as adult – particularly if recognised as such in various official ways, like having a vote – are apt to rankle at being forbidden any of the privileges of adults. In particular, it'll be rather easy for anyone to get drugs who is recognised as adult and responsible by their older peers: if that becomes a significant proportion of those below the legal age, the law loses the confidence and respect of the citizenry.

See also

As psychologist Bruce Alexander has shown, addiction is intimately involved with social dysfunction – which is why many people who've used allegedly addictive drugs don't get addicted and many who've been addicted have broken free of the addiction once released from distress. John Booth Davies's The Myth of Addiction argues for addressing drug abuse in terms of individual choice, instead of – as is inherent in the notion of addiction – regarding the problem as being caused by the drug.

In 1974, the US DEA suppressed research results, subsequently rediscovered in 2000, showing cannabis able to suppress tumors. The research in question was initially funded by the DEA in hopes of obtaining scientific proof that cannabis is bad for people; that they suppressed the results when they didn't match their objective shows beyond doubt that they weren't interested in learning the truth about cannabis – this was a propaganda exercise, misfiring. It is not healthy for a democracy to allow its government to set up any agency which is willing to deceive the people in order to get them to support the continued existence of that agency.

Indeed, the war on drugs is justified by a mess of propaganda, most of which does not stand up to scientific scrutiny, even when those in authority aren't suppressing the results of such scrutiny. Still, there is hope and serious people are giving serious thought to ending the idiocy.

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