June 16, 2007

make me the drug czar, please

Over breakfast this morning, Abramorous and I revamped American drug policy. Our goal was to devise a system that restricted access to dangerous drugs without a lot of collateral damage, and to reduce the violence that characterizes the illegal drug trade. It's a harm reduction and consumer protection perspective, not a moral one, and it's based on the fact that 35 years of a drug war aimed at restricting the supply of drugs (thus driving up their prices and making them harder to get) have been an abysmal failure. Street prices of most drugs have been flat or falling since the 70s, with the exception of acid, which is now harder to get. Drug use rates fluctuate, but don't seem to have been affected much by drug war policy.1 Meanwhile, the federal government and the states spend millions of dollars jailing over 250,000 people for drug offenses, at great cost to those people's lives and families as well as to taxpayers, and with no discernible social benefit.

We need to get real and address the demand side. Start with drug education, which needs to be revamped to talk realistically about addiction as the real problem, and the fact that smoking pot is different from taking mushrooms is different from meth. Meth will ruin your life; smoking pot on weekends won't, outside of our stupid regulatory regime. Real, intensive drug education would address that and help folks analyze what risks they can live with and what they can't. We also need to provide tons more access to rehab - most rehab programs are full or expensive or both, and there's not nearly enough access even for people who want to get clean.

We also need to change the afore-mentioned stupid regulatory scheme. Here's a better one.

Class I drugs: Alcohol, tobacco, marijuana. Fully legal, limited restrictions on sale in the same vein as current restrictions on alcohol sale, age limit at 18, increased restrictions on advertising. Marijuana is a much smaller public health threat than alcohol: it's no more addictive, you can't overdose on it, it doesn't make people violent, it has long-term health risks for heavy use at about the same level. There's no real reason to regulate it more intensively than alcohol. So under the new plan you'd be able to buy it at liquor stores with proper ID. Also, drop the age for all of these to 18: the biggest consequence of having the drinking age at 21 is that 18-21-year-olds don't have the option of drinking in some of the best ways (e.g. having a delicious beer or two at a bar with some friends) and instead drink a lot more bad alcohol. Bump up the penalties for drunk/stoned driving, and the resources for getting home safely, since that's a big public health issue.

Class II drugs: peyote, mushrooms, LSD, Ecstasy, coca leaves (not cocaine), probably opium. These are drugs that have much more serious highs than pot/booze/tobacco, some of which I've been told (but not had confirmed) can trigger psych problems like schizophrenia (hallucinogens) or depression (E). Coca is only on this list because it can be used to manufacture cocaine - otherwise it would be Class I. Class II drugs would be fully legal to posses (maybe you have to be 21?), no advertising at all outside of trade publications that review different types, heavy licensing requirements to sell, high taxes. They should be available at pharmacies behind the counter (like Sudafed) or at liquor stores behind the counter. Exceptions to those restrictions for grow-your-own and religious use - restrictions should be on sale, not on use. Tax E more than hallucinogens, since the reason hallucinogens are not widely used is that they're freaky, not that they're pricey/unavailable, and even if they're legal they'll still be freaky. E, being pure pleasure, is much more susceptible to abuse. The point is not to make these drugs unavailable, but to provide barriers to access that slightly discourage heavy use.

The arguments for dropping the Class I age to 18 don't really apply to Class II drugs, because people substitute highs. You can see that now in the way people drink if they don't want the risk of using pot because it's illegal. With pot and booze widely available, there will be less incentive to circumvent the law because there will be substitute goods available. They're not fully equivalent, but I think people will substitute anyway.

Note that legalizing coca would be a huge benefit to Andean countries, where there are sustained, highly destructive campaigns to eradicate coca production by spraying fields with pesticides by air. These campaigns often hit the wrong fields or spray people and houses, and they also create environmental and agricultural damage. Legalizing coca, on the other hand, would allow farmers to grow a crop that's well-suited to marginal land and that has a significant role in traditional culture.

Class III drugs: cocaine, heroin, meth. These drugs are illegal to possess, manufacture, or sell, because they can ruin your life and they can do it pretty fast. However, ruining your own life and ruining someone else's life are two different things, so they call for different punishments. Get rid of possession charges: instead, anyone who possesses C-III drugs gets a ticket. This turns an expensive process of arrest, prosecution, and incarceration into something that actually generates revenue. It also addresses the public health issue of overdoses by taking away the fear that if you bring your ODing friend to the hospital, you'll get arrested.

Meanwhile, possessing anything over some specified limit gets you charged with dealing. Dealing is a mid-level offense if you're small-time and a hugely serious offense if you're big-time, have weapons, or use violence of any sort. This creates a major asymmetry in the market for these drugs, which I think would lead to small-time, non-violent dealers being able to have better success because their risks would be so much lower.

Since coca and opium are now C-II drugs and legally available, cocaine and heroin can now be manufactured in the US. This would break up the cartels and the dominance of violent gangs in that market by making it more like the situation with meth: any bozo with a basement could start manufacturing coke/heroin out of legal ingredients, and dealers wouldn't have to work with the sorts of people who can get illegal drugs past customs. Again, this opens up options for small-time, non-violent dealers while reducing the power of organized crime.

My dad points out that the most important part of this whole system is looking at the actual goals and the actual effects of drug policy, and drawing distinctions between different drugs and situations. Which is not at all what we do now.

Someone put me in charge of drug policy. Or maybe of everything.

1. Again, except for acid, which is less available and less used than it's been for 30 years. I'd attribute this partly to drug war policies that make it riskier to make, but also to the fact that most people making acid have Ph.D.s in chemistry and thus have a lot to risk, and that acid is kind of a niche drug. This isn't a model that works for other drugs.


the fire boss said...

north, you are up to your genius shit again. i was thinking this morning i want to take a photograph of you sitting on a throne, wearing a crown, with a very serious and pensive look on your face, weight of the world on your shoulders and whatnot.

Abramorous said...

for future reference, north, I am abramorous, not the mathemagician. I just don't know enough math to be a mathemagician.

Russell said...

Nice proposal, but I think you don't go far enough with regards to C-III substances. Drug dealers only exist because of the money in the black market, and you can never make them go away, no matter how stiff the penalties. Undercutting the black market for these drugs would have huge benefits in many areas-stabilizing Mexico, Columbia, Afghanistan, etc.

One solution is to give people who have been doctor-certified as addicts a prescription for a small amount of their drug--even the hard ones. Sure, there will be a few addicts out there, but that's simply inevitable, and the benefits of such a system far outweigh the costs.

North said...

my experience working with teen-agers addicted to heroin and cocaine makes me pretty freaked out about the idea of just accepting that some people will hand their lives over to those particular drugs. I think there needs to be some kind of state-offered incentive to stay the hell away from those drugs (which is not what I think about C-I and C-II drugs, where the goal is just to prevent massive over-use). Also, even with a prescription system, you end up with a black market (witness Vicodin, Oxycodone,...).

I agree that undercutting the black market should be a huge priority for those drugs, but I think the proposal does that. The people I'm worried about in Afghanistan, Mexico, Colombia, etc are the growers rather than the refiners (since the primary beneficiaries of drug refining are ultra-violent criminal cartels that can get around customs). Legalizing coca and opium as C-II drugs would protect growers in those countries and allow the refining to be done by illegal US refiners, as currently happens with meth: because the precursors to meth are legal, you don't have the Cali Cartel involved in the meth trade. There are too many competitive opportunties for small producers with less risk.

Tanya said...

Not bad. If people were allowed to grow small amounts of marijuana there would be no black market for the stuff. At least that's my theory.