How to Legalize Drugs Without Creating More Social Pathology

The insanity of the War on Drugs is a common topic in progressive and libertarian circles. The war on drugs is carried out with enough just enough capriciousness and leniency that it falls short of actually wiping out the drug markets. But enforcement is strict enough that the markets operate without the protection of the law. The result is organized gang violence, turf wars, and an economic incentive for youths to enter a life of crime.

Simply decriminalizing possession does not help very much. In fact, it would make the black market problem worse. Demand would rise because consumers would face fewer consequences, but the sellers would still be black market gangs.

Complete legalization would also likely be a disaster. The consequences of drug addiction have been utterly devastating to inner city communities. I encourage everyone to read the book “The Corner” by David Simon (the creator of the Wire). “The Corner” describes a year Simon spent shadowing a family in inner city Baltimore. The impact of drugs is stark and devastating.

In a previous book (“Homicide”), David Simon recounts an experience visiting a crack house:

… Once a stately Victorian home, the structure is now nothing more than a gutted shell without electricity or running water. Plates of food, piles of abandoned clothing and diapers, plastic buckets and metal pots filled with urine cluttered the corners of the house. The stench of the squalor becomes more oppressive with each room, until both uniforms and detectives are going downstairs at regular intervals for a cigarette and a breath of winter air on the front steps. In every room, paper and plastic plates laden with food have been deposited in layers, one on top of the other, until a week’s feedings can be traced in archaeological sequence. Cockroaches and water beetles blot in every direction when debris is moved, and despite the heat in the upper floors of the house, no detective is willing to shed an overcoat or sport jacket for fear that the garment will be overrun. … two dozen human beings have learned to leave food where it falls, to pile soiled clothes and diapers in the corner of the room, to lie strangely still when parasites crawl across the sheets, to empty a bottle of Mad Dog or T-Bird and then piss its contents into a plastic bucket at the edge of the bed, to regard a bathroom cleaning product and a plastic bag as an evening’s entertainment. Historians note that when the victims of the Nazi holocaust heard that the Allied armies were within a few miles of liberating the camps, some returned to scrub and sweep the barracks and show the world that human beings lived there. But on Newington Avenue the rubicons of human existence have all been crossed. The struggle itself has been mocked, and the unconditional surrender of one generation presses hard upon the next.

Now this is the most extreme of extreme cases. But a few groups have estimated that Baltimore has 50,000 heroin and cocaine users. The effect of addiction on their life is devastating.

The common rebuttal is that since all this pathology is happening despite drugs being illegal, drug legalization clearly doesn’t work. But this ignores that drug prohibition actually does more or less work for most communities. I can walk around my city without ever being tempted to buy heroin. My corner CVS does not sell speed balls next to candy at the front counter. As a result, most people do not face frequent temptation to use drugs, most people do not find it easy to locate drugs, and most people do not use drugs.

So how should the laws be reformed to create a sane drug policy?

The solution is quite simple. Legalize all drugs, but make them hard to obtain. The government auctions off a limited number of drug selling licenses at a steep price. The sellers are only permitted to sell drugs privately to licensed consumers. Limit the total quantity that can be sold to a fixed amount. All public advertising and public selling of drugs is banned. Drug dealers should not even be allowed to operate public web sites or list themselves in the phone book. Since the ban only restricts public transactions and promotion, the ban is easy to enforce. When drug consumers buy their drug license, they receive access to a private web site where they can find listings of the drug sellers. The consumer orders online or over the phone, and then picks up the drugs from the seller’s private, unmarked office.

The difficulty of obtaining a drug consumption license should vary depending on the drug involved. A marijuana license might be available from city hall, and cost either $300 or 10 hours of community labor. To obtain a morphine license, the consumer might have to travel to a nondescript office in an out-of-the-way location, and watch the final fifteen minutes of “Requiem for a dream” over and over again in a loop for four hours. The morphine license might cost either $2000 or 50 hours of community labor.

The government taxes and regulates the drug market to limit addictiveness, cheapness, and danger to the consumer. All government drug revenue is dedicated to a blind charitable trust, so that the government is not tempted to promote drug use to increase revenue.

The hurdles to buying a drug consumption license are tailored to be as burdensome as possible, without being so onerous that a black market sprouts up. When the policy is first created, the burdens might be on the lighter side. This would draw consumer away from the streets and suck the money out the black markets, causing the black markets to collapse. Once the black markets had disappeared, the burdens to getting a license would be raised considerably. The government could actually make it more difficult to buy drugs legally than it originally had been to buy in the black markets. But because the black markets have been destroyed, sellers trying to start new black markets will find the task immensely difficult. Without the presence of hundreds or thousands of other black market sellers diluting the effectiveness of law enforcement, any new black market sellers will find themselves provoking the full brunt of law enforcement.

The net result of this policy is best of both worlds. The black markets are shut down and the turf wars brought to an end. But ordinary folk find it even more difficult to obtain the most destructive narcotics.

Unfortunately, no one in power or running for office has ever proposed such a scheme. Thus our real problem is not just an insane drug policy, but also an insane political system.