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The Harmful Side Effects of Drug Prohibition

Excerpts from a fantastic thesis by Randy E. Barnett that shares the same title as this post.

Some drugs make people feel good. That is why some people use them. Some of these drugs are alleged to have side effects so destructive that many advise against their use. The same may be said about statutes that attempt to prohibit the manufacture, sale, and use of drugs. Advocating drug prohibition makes some people feel good because they think they are “doing something” about what they believe to be a serious social problem. Others who support these laws are not so altruistically motivated. Employees of law enforcement bureaus and academics who receive government grants to study drug use, for example, may gain financially from drug prohibition. But as with using drugs, using drug laws can have moral and practical side effects so destructive that they argue against ever using legal institutions in this manner.

One might even say—and not altogether metaphorically—that some people become psychologically or economically addicted to drug laws.1 That is, some people continue to support these statutes despite the massive and unavoidable ill effects that result. The psychologically addicted ignore these harms so that they can attain the “good”—their “high”—they perceive that drug laws produce. Other drug-law users ignore the costs of prohibition because of their “economic” dependence on drug laws; these people profit financially from drug laws and are unwilling to undergo the economic “withdrawal” that would be caused by their repeal.

Both kinds of drug-law addicts may deny their addiction by asserting that the side effects are not really so terrible or that they can be kept “under control.” The economically dependent drug-law users may also deny their addiction by asserting that (1) noble motivations, rather than economic gain, lead them to support these statutes; (2) they are not unwilling to withstand the painful financial readjustment that ending prohibition would force them to undergo; and (3) they can “quit” their support any time they want to—provided, of course, that they are rationally convinced of its wrongness.

Their denials notwithstanding, both kinds of addicts are detectable by their adamant resistance to rational persuasion. While they eagerly await and devour any new evidence of the destructiveness of drug use, they are almost completely uninterested in any practical or theoretical knowledge of the ill effects of criminalising such conduct.4 Yet in a free society governed by democratic principles, these addicts cannot be compelled to give up their desire to control the consumption patterns of others. Nor can they be forced to support legalisation in spite of their desires. In a democratic system, they may voice and vote their opinions about such matters no matter how destructive the consequences of their desires are to themselves or, more importantly, to others. Only rational persuasion may be employed to wean them from this habit. As part of this process of persuasion, drug-law addicts must be exposed to the destruction their addiction wreaks on drug users, law enforcement, and on the general public. They must be made to understand the inherent limits of using law to accomplish social objectives.

Later we get this nice summary:

We can conclude then that the end or purpose of drug laws is to discourage people from engaging in risky activity in which they wish to engage either because they desire the intoxicating effects they associate with the consumption of a drug or because they desire the profit that can be realised by supplying intoxicating drugs to others.15 The means that drug laws employ to accomplish this end is using force against those who would engage in such activities, either to prevent them from doing so or to punish those who nonetheless succeed in doing so.

But what about those who are not discouraged and who engage in such conduct anyway? Does the practice of punishing these persons make life better or worse for them? The answer is clear. As harmful as using drugs may be to someone, being imprisoned often makes matters much worse.

Normally when considering matters of legality, we are not concerned about whether a law punishes a lawbreaker and makes him worse off. Indeed, normally such punishment is deliberately imposed on the lawbreaker to protect someone else who we consider to be completely innocent—like the victim, or potential victim, of a rape, robbery, or murder.21 We are therefore quite willing to harm the lawbreaker to protect the innocent. In other words, the objects of these laws are the victims; the subjects of these laws are the criminal.

Drug laws are different in this respect from many other criminal laws. With drug prohibition we are supposed to be concerned with the well-being of prospective drug users. So the object of drug laws—the persons whom drug laws are supposed to “protect”—are often the same persons who are the subject of drug laws. Whenever the object of a law is also its subject, however, a problem arises. The means chosen for benefiting prospective drug users seriously harms those who still use drugs and does so in ways that drugs alone cannot: by punishing drug users over and above the harmful effects of drug use. But the harm done by drug prohibition to drug users goes beyond the direct effects of punishment.

 Higher prices lead to more infection

Higher prices can also make drug use more hazardous for users. Intravenous injection, for example, is more popular in countries where high drug prices caused by prohibition drive users to the most “efficient” means of ingesting the drug. In countries where opiates are legal, the principal methods of consumption are inhaling the fumes of heated drugs or snorting. Before the Harrison Act of 1914, “when opiates were cheap and plentiful, they were very rarely injected. Moreover, injection is rare in those Asian countries where opiates are inexpensive and easily available.” While physical dependence may result from either inhalation or snorting, neither is as likely as intravenous injections to result in an overdose. And consumption by injection can cause other health problems as well. For example: “Heroin use causes hepatitis only if injected, and causes collapsed veins and embolisms only if injected intravenously.” Finally, the scourge of HIV-AIDS has been caused, in part, by the sharing of unsterilised needles by drug users.

Drug Laws Make Drug Users Buy from Criminals

The following basically embodies the concept of “The prohibition is the gateway not cannabis”.

People who still wish to use drugs are forced to do business with the kind of people who are willing to make and sell drugs in spite of the risk of punishment. Such transactions must deliberately be conducted away from the police. This puts drug users in great danger of physical harm in two ways.

Most violent crime stems from prohibition not the drug

Second, users are likely to be the victims of crime. I would estimate that approximately half the murder cases I prosecuted as an Assistant States Attorney in Cook County, Illinois were “drug related” in the sense that the victim was killed because it was thought he had either drugs or money from the sale of drugs. Crimes are also committed against persons who seek out criminals from whom to purchase prohibited drugs. Because drug users and dealers want to avoid the police, crimes against these groups are unlikely to be reported. As a result, these crimes are likely brought to the attention of the authorities only when a victim’s body is found.

In 1979, I obtained the confessions that were ultimately used in a prosecution involving the savage murder of three young men. 34 One of the three had approached four members of the Latin Kings to purchase marijuana. When his initial attempt to do business with the gang members was rebuffed, he mistakenly believed that this was due to a lack of trust—rather than a lack of marijuana, which was the case. To ingratiate himself with the gang members, he boasted (falsely) about his gang-affiliated friends and his gang membership. Unfortunately the persons he named were members of a rival street gang, the Latin Eagles. The gang members then told him that they could supply marijuana after all and asked the three to accompany them to an alley. There they were held at gun point and eventually stabbed to death. These young men were not members of any street gang. These are drug-law-related deaths. Three young men are dead because drug laws prevented them from buying marijuana cigarettes as safely as they could buy tobacco cigarettes. While smoking either kind of cigarette may have been hazardous to their health, that issue is now moot. Where and how are their deaths registered in the cost-benefit calculation of drug-law advocates?