Legalizing Drugs is a Terrible Idea
Like the War on Drugs, it's a quick fix that would only make things worse.
Since I was a kid, I’ve been hearing the argument that the answer to the addiction crisis is to legalize drugs. In high school in the 1990s, the pro-legalization National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws was ubiquitous; NORML activists were constantly hanging around our campus collecting signatures. They seemed pretty fringe at the time, even though most of us agreed with them. But they turned out to be on the right side of history; fast forward 25 years and their position is the law in numerous states and probably soon the whole country.
Legalizing hard drugs was a more adventurous argument at the height of the crack wars, but it made a certain amount of sense. The drug trade was controlled by organized crime, which fueled the 90s gang wars. Since the supply was illicit it was underground, which meant that it was uncontrolled and contaminated by all sorts of toxic shit, including rat poison. If the commercial sector manufactured and sold cocaine and heroin, so the theory went, and the government regulated it vigilantly, the drug gangs and cartels would go out of business, the violence would fade along with them, and we could reduce the lethality of the substances people were putting into their blood streams.
That argument has changed little over the intervening decades, even though the drug trade has changed radically. If that argument made any sense during the crack era, it makes zero sense whatsoever today.
The most obvious problem with this line of thought is that some of the key drugs that are fueling the addiction crisis today are legal. That is to say, the substances themselves — like the actual molecules — are not only legal, but commercially manufactured as normal medicine. In fact, their use as prescribed, controlled medications is what started the modern opioid crisis in the first place, as anyone who’s ever heard of the Sackler family already knows.
To be sure, these substances are also illegally manufactured in Mexican labs, illegally imported into the United States and illegally sold on American streets. But that’s exactly the point: if you have a controlled substance that’s strictly regulated by the government that’s also highly addictive, as legalization advocates propose, then it’s only a matter of time before a demand emerges for the unregulated sale of those drugs to feed people’s out-of-control dependency. From that demand emerges a black market. This was precisely the path that the current addiction epidemic followed: Purdue Pharma invented an incredibly addictive pain medication; doctors, relentlessly lobbied by Purdue, overprescribed it; and patients became so dependent that their prescriptions were no longer sufficient to satiate their appetites. They ditched their doctors and turned instead to street dealers of OxyContin, or took up heroin instead. That demand led to the emergence of a vast transnational infrastructure of illicit production and distribution of synthetic opioids, which is how we got street fentanyl.
Another novelty of today’s drug trade that upends the case for legalization is that it’s no longer organized as a top-down hierarchy. The idea behind legalization is that when forced to compete with massive, legitimate drug corporations, the cartels won’t be able to survive and will have to find another line of work. Who’s going to risk arrest or overdose by buying from a street dealer when they can get their fix safely and legally at Walgreens? (The answer to that rhetorical question has been made clear by the pain pill epidemic: millions of people.)
But that presumption misunderstands how the transnational drug trade is currently structured. As Sam Quinones documents in his outstanding book The Least of Us, fentanyl and meth production looks more like a Jeffersonian vision of small yeoman producers than like a vertically-integrated oligopoly. The word “cartel” is somewhat of a misnomer. Mexican drug cartels are not tightly coordinated committees of established incumbent actors, like OPEC is. In the era of meth and fentanyl, they’re more like loosely coordinated networks of small entrepreneurial producers, each responding independently to their own parochial conditions and incentives. It’s not a cabal of cigar-smoking bosses that coordinate the activities of an army of workers from a mansion on a hill, like it was in the days of El Chapo; it’s the invisible hand — the global forces of supply and demand, channeled into each actor’s local context. In other words, the drug trade is a free market.
But it’s a free market based on a product that their regular consumers — addicts — are enslaved to, which makes the demand infinitely elastic. As Quinones reports, after the US and Mexico put tight import controls on ephedrine, the key ingredient to methamphetamine, underground chemists devised a way to make meth without the stimulant, and the market was flooded with this new type of “P2P” meth. Consequently, prices for the drug collapsed.
If an actual cartel controlled the industry, it would have restricted production to raise street prices again. But the response from the manufacturers was to produce more meth, not less, driving the price down even further. In an industry comprised of small local producers, each lab was responding to the price collapse by increasing production in order to make up their shortfall by selling more product. American streets were inundated with cheap meth, which spawned more addicts and an increased demand for the drug.
In other words, increased competition doesn’t necessarily tank illicit drug production. In the case of the new meth, it encouraged more production. If we legalized meth or fentanyl, it wouldn’t necessarily put the cartels out of business. It might just spur them to produce even greater quantities of the drugs to stay in business, driving the addiction epidemic on American streets to unprecedented heights.
Even the legalization of marijuana cuts both ways in its impact on the addiction crisis. It’s true that legalization has driven illicit growers and smugglers out of business, leading to a decrease in criminal activity and a safer and higher quality supply of weed. But in Mexico, as Quinones writes, the rancheros who were driven out of the marijuana business simply switched to producing and smuggling meth. There’s thus a case to be made that the legalization of marijuana made the addiction crisis even worse.
The reality is, there’s no simple fix to the addiction epidemic, whether it’s a War on Drugs or drug legalization. The most important part of any solution, in my opinion, is treatment and recovery, but that approach alone amounts to merely treading water if you’re not also doing interdiction and suppression. The criminalization of hard drugs provides the public with tools with which we can intervene in the broken lives of addicts, and disrupt the production and distribution of deadly, evil substances. It doesn’t have to lead us to mass incarceration: managed responsibly, it can steer addicts toward recovery, as it does in the Netherlands and Portugal. Legalization merely surrenders these powerful tools to the free market, which, in a libertarian’s imagination, might lead inexorably to better outcomes, but in the real world, can make things much, much worse.