The ineffectiveness of governments against drug cartels has led many to call for a change of strategy. Particularly in Europe and Latin America. Former drug generals call for a shift from an all out war against drugs focusing on health issues, treating addicts and educating people against drug abuse.
This emphasis puts less stress on locking lowly peddlers and poor third world peasant up. And it involves the relaxation of punishment of consumers of soft drugs. This is a step in the right direction. But as long as the drug trade continues, crime will remain an integral part of it.
Full Legalization would drive out the gangsters. And it would move the issue to that of a public-health one. Not one of law and order. The US alone spends almost $40 billion per annum on trying to end the drugs trade.
Once legalized, supply would come under tax regulations. These taxes could fund education and treatment. This combined with the billions saved in law enforcement could warn the public of the dangers. The one caveat will be the ban on selling drugs to minors. This should remain.
Like taxing other commodities, different drugs would attract different levels of tax. The retail price would be set to dampen consumption, but stop the emergence of a black market and the need for crime to fuel habits. It will be a tough balance to achieve, but a lot simpler than trying to fight the illegal drugs trade.
Legalizing the sale of drugs also brings it under the purview of government regulations. These regulations are already in place for products like alcohol and tobacco. Once set for drugs, they will restrict sales to children, control quality standards and warn people with specific medical conditions to avoid certain drugs.
There would also be checks on selling merchants, ensuring they take responsibility for their products.
Such restrictions are possible with alcohol and tobacco and reduce the risks to young and incompetent users. Without the need to engage in an illegal activity people will move to purchase drugs in less concentrated reforms.
Prohibition incentivizes fewer transactions of more dangerous stuff. In the 1920’s America, the banning of alcohol led to a boost in the illicit sale of hard liquor.
How to cross the bridge of legalization?
When a powerful new intoxicant came available in the 18th century the impact was disastrous. In took years of education for gin to stop being a problem. That is a strong argument for careful progress. It takes time for sensible conventions around drug-taking to develop.
Moreover, a century of illegality has deprived governments of decent information. Research is sparse and rarely impartial. Nobody understands how society might respond to legalization and the physical effects of most drugs is not known in detail.
If drugs were illegal how might their distribution take place? The thought of heroin on supermarket shelves is not a nice one. Today caffeine, alcohol or medication, all drugs in one form or other, have their specific distribution channels and controls.
Whilst coffee is available in any café, alcohol needs an age proof and medication needs a prescription. The same might one day be true of different drugs based on knowledge about their potential harm.
One route is for different countries to try different solutions. At present many are bound by UN convention and that would need relaxing.
Legalizing drugs would not be easy. It entails risks, and societies are risk adverse. But the role of authorities should be two fold.
To stop drug-users from harming themselves and others.
And to regulate the flow of drugs into the market ensuring minimum quality standards and safe distribution.
The first activity is difficult while the law is busy trying to stamp out the trade.
The second cannot be implemented until legalization is in place.
A legal market will ensure that drug-taking will be no more dangerous than drinking alcohol and smoking. And just as countries tolerate these two vices, they should consider tolerating those who sell and take drugs.