Legalize, regulate, educate and rehabilitate

I have argued on a number of occasions in this blog for the legalisation of the production and consumption by competent adults of all currently illegal drugs/substances that do not induce behaviour likely to cause significant harm to others. It should remain illegal to sell potentially harmful substances to children and the mentally incompetent. Education, regulation and, for those who succumb and regret it, treatment and rehabilitation are the appropriate drug policy of the government. But those competent adults who insist on the right to fry their brains ought not have the government stand in their way, although their friends should.

The ignorant moralists who tend to make policy in this area are, however, pushing hard in the opposite direction. Just today’s newspapers had two stories, one from the UK, the other from Afghanistan, to show that the forces of ignorance and darkness are on a winning streak.

In the UK, the mild weed we used to partake of in the 1960s and 1970s appears to have been displaced to a large extent by the much more powerful ‘skunk’ variety. Partly in response to this, partly in response to medical research demonstrating a link between cannabis use and psychosis, but mainly because of a tabloid-driven urge to appear strong on crime and on the causes of crime, the Brown government is now considering reclassifying cannabis as a Class B rather than Class C drug, increasing the maximum penalty for possession from two years to five. That proposal is insane. Convicted criminals are being released from jail early because jails are bursting at the seams, and the government wants to go after a few million reefer friends? Full legalisation and regulation would permit standardisation and quality control the way we have for alcohol and tobacco today. Criminalising the production and consumption of substances that do not cause behaviour likely to harm others should be the province of the Taliban, not of a 21st century UK government.

The US authorities, obviously incapable of learning from past mistakes in the Andean countries, want to start widespread aerial spraying of opium poppies in Afghanistan. In support of its proposal, the US cites a recent study by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. This reports that the Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan were becoming more involved in the drugs trade. The opium crop in Afghanistan is estimated to have grown by 17 percent last year.

Would intensive aerial spraying of the poppy crops, even if it succeeded in destroying much of the crop, achieve the purpose of weakening the insurgency by lowering the revenue base of the Taliban? Almost certainly not. In the short run reduced supply meeting an inelastic demand would increase prices and revenues. Very soon, cultivation would move to new areas, just as it did when aerial eradication of coca plants was used in Colombia.

In addition to strengthening the revenue base of the Taliban, the spraying would also reduce support of poppy farmers for the government of President Hamid Karzai. They have no realistic alternative livelihood. Destroying their crops and poisoning their land is hardly going to win hearts and minds in Helmand. Fortunately, the allies of the US in Afghanistan, as well as the Karzai government, are strongly opposed to this demented US proposal. I hope they will have the backbone to tell the US authorities to forget it.

The obvious solution is to legalise the growing of poppy, the production of opium and its derivatives and their sale to competent adults. This would deprive the Taliban of their revenue base. In the process it would also deprive the worldwide criminal community of an easy source of rent.

Sale to minors would of course remain illegal, as the sale of alcohol to minors is today. Education on the health hazards of opium, heroin etc. should be expanded. Sensible regulation can reduce the health risks associated with impurities, variable concentrations and content etc. Better treatment and rehabilitation should be available for those who succumb and want to kick the habit.

Maverecon: Willem Buiter

Willem Buiter's blog ran until December 2009. This blog is no longer active but it remains open as an archive.

Professor of European Political Economy, London School of Economics and Political Science; former chief economist of the EBRD, former external member of the MPC; adviser to international organisations, governments, central banks and private financial institutions.

Willem Buiter's website