Thursday, January 13, 2005

Prohibition: the radical experiment that failed

BBC2 last night continued its excellent series ‘What if…’ with a debate on the pros and cons of legalising hard drugs in Britain.

I’ve always been open to some notion of ‘decriminalising’, for example, heroin. By which I specifically mean that heroin users should be treated as patients rather than criminals, as they are currently in Portugal.

This isn’t out of soft-hearted sympathy, and I accept that heroin use is extremely harmful because it is extremely addictive, but my argument was purely cold economics:

An average heroin habit costs the user about £50 a day. Nobody can afford that, so they have to commit crime. If you imprison a user for the crime but fail to address the habit (prison generally makes it worse), then it will cost the taxpayer £18 in criminal justice costs down the line for every £1 it would cost to medically treat an addict. A non-criminal, non-addict can also perform a normal day job and pay taxes himself.

The total economic and social cost of Class A drug use was estimated in 2000 to be between £10.1 to £17.4 billion.

In Switzerland, heroin ‘clinics’ to treat addicts resulted in a net economic benefit of 45 Swiss francs per patient per day, after taking into account the extra cost of running the clinics and the savings in the criminal justice bill.

My argument was also selfish: I've had my home broken into by a young man feeding his heroin habit. I'd rather he was getting treatment at my expense than mugging me or nicking my stereo.

However, recently I have been increasingly drawn to the more radical idea of complete legalisation of heroin, and thus, regulation of the market. Here’s why:

Assessing prohibition
The key to the problem is to stop thinking of prohibition as the norm, and of legalisation as some nutty ultra-liberal idea. Instead, think of heroin as you would any other addictive drug (like alcohol, tobacco) that exists in the world for those people that want to use it, but which has harmful consequences. Then you can rationally assess whether prohibition has been a successful approach to dealing with those harmful consequences.

Restrictions were imposed on doctors prescribing pure heroin in 1968, when there were a few hundred users nationally. Now there are a few hundred thousand…

Proliferation of users and availability
The number one benefit of prohibition must be that it keeps the numbers of users at a lower level than would be the case if heroin were legalised and available from licensed outlets. I’m sure that’s probably true. There must be many people who might use heroin, but don’t precisely because it is illegal. And, goodness knows we have enough problems on a Saturday night in this country with alcohol alone, without wishing a host of new young heroin-users on our streets

But prohibition has failed to stop the number of users rising exponentially, and it has failed to prevent heroin from being easily available to those people that want to buy it. Around four million people use illicit drugs each year in England and Wales (never mind Scotland), and the number of heroin users doubled every four years during the 1990s.

In England in 2003, 42% of 11-15 year olds had been offered one or more drugs. Unlike alcohol and tobacco, you can buy heroin in Britain 24 hours a day, every day including Christmas Day.

An anarchic market: the house that prohibition built
Here’s how the heroin market works:

Because heroin is illegal, the Government has no control over its supply channels, market or price.

Because there is no regulation of heroin supply channels, it is supplied by criminals. Many of these fund terrorist organisations. Afghanistan is the source of 70% of the world's heroin supplies and 90% of heroin used in the UK each year.

Because the profit margins are fantastically high, heroin dealing is attractive to criminal gangs, who have monopolised the market and control the price.

Because the profit margins can be made even more fantastically high by cutting heroin with all manner of rubbish, users inject themselves not with heroin but with a cocktail of crap, which often kills them. Pure heroin has few side-effects other than its appalling addictiveness. In 2002 the UK had the highest level of drug related deaths in Europe.

Because criminal gangs make fantastic profits, they become richer, more powerful and more armed.

Because heroin is fantastically addictive, once you have a customer, you’ve got him for as long as you want him. The sales technique is thus straightforward: find someone vulnerable, malleable or weak, make the introductory offer cheap or free (‘pushing’), and thereafter raise the price dramatically.

Because not many heroin addicts can afford the £50 a day price, they must find alternative forms of income. For men, this is usually crime. For women, this is often prostitution.

When is enough enough?
Here are the two most pertinent drug-related facts:

1) 50% of people in custody and awaiting trial in the UK admitted they were dependent on a drug. (Source: "Prescribing Heroin, What is the Evidence?", Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 2003)

2) 280,000 problem drug users cause around half of all crime. (Source: Home Office white paper on organised crime - "One Step Ahead", March 2004)

The ideal solution would be to eliminate the very existence of heroin, and therefore to have zero users. That’s not going to happen, so we have to deal with the real world, and the fact that heroin and its users exists.

Prohibition as a way of dealing with it has created more users, rich gangsters, rich terrorists, 50% of the UK’s criminals, many of its prostitutes and a thousand or so deaths per year.

So the question is: exactly how bad do things have to get before you admit that the experiment has failed?


martpol said...

Andrew -

This is the cutting edge of politics and the law as they relate to real life, rather than ideals. I agree with you instinctively - though I wonder, what do treatment centres make of the notion of full legalisation as opposed to decriminalisation? Are there any projections about the likely incidence of new users amongst 'normal' individuals in society?

I'm inclined to think that the balance of social benefits are on your side of the argument, as well as economic. Glue and solvents are legal, and can be used to get a pretty serious high: but most people don't, because it's dangerous and it's socially unacceptable. If heroin was legalised, it would need to be in a context of increased education about the dangers of addiction/overdose, as well as the reaffirmation of a powerful stigma around the drug: it's your choice to do this drug, but it'll hardly earn you friends or respect.

Brit said...

Yes, I'm not really interested in the ideals of the arguments. I try to take a practical view of it.

The numbers will increase anyway, though I believe its thought that legalisation would bring, initially, a greater increase in the number of users.

But you then have to set that against the wider social harms of having the heroin market run by gangsters and pushers, and thus the price set so high that it can only be funded by crime.

Treatment over imprisonment is a necessary step, but it won't address the problems of the origins of the supply, and above all, of control of the market.

But yes, in reality the vast majority of people wouldn't touch hard drugs with a bargepole. I wouldn't envisage the opening of large numbers of crack cafes lined up like rows of Starbucks.

Duck said...

This is a tough one. You've done an excellent job of annotating the benefits of decriminalization, but I'm not sure that the downside is fully understood.

I don't think that the comparison to alcohol is totally apt. From my understanding, heroin is much more addictive. Most people in society will become acquainted with alcohol at some point, but only a minority will experience addiction. Most people can moderate their use of it so as to function normally in their day to day lives. What would happen if the majority of people tried legal heroin as the inevitable "experiment" or rite of passage? How many of them would be drawn into a downward spiralling dependency, and what would be the cost to society of rehabilitating them?

Peter Burnet said...


Very well articulated and thought out, but are you not troubled by one of the implications of your pragmatism? If I follow your logic, your case for legalizing a vice like heroin (but it could be booze, gambling, prostitution, etc, etc, and lots of more etc's) seems to become stronger the wider its use and abuse. It's kind of like the attitude the British Government seems to be taking about alcohol--the streets are full of drunks anyway, so let's drop all the restrictions and hope for the best. Forgive me, but I detect a tone of despair or at least fatigue under all your rationalism--it's all so costly and inefficient, etc. What does that say about the cohesiveness and resiliency of society? Do we act stalwart and righteous when only a few are abusing a noxious vice, but throw in the towel when it becomes a plague because it gets costly and messy?

M Ali said...

If the price drops dramatically, there'll be a lot more users.

Simple supply and demand.

David said...

I asked my wife the psychiatrist about this and she said that it's much too easy to accidentally kill yourself with heroin.

Brit said...


I think you hit upon the two strongest arguments against decriminalisation:

1) It will lead to greater numbers of users

This would also be my biggest concern, but as I've noted above, users in the UK have risen exponentially anyway (the number of heroin users doubled every four years during the 1990s), and presumably will continue to do so under prohibition.

Generally however, I would put the objection in the context of the wider harm. In a society where a few hundred thousand hard drug addicts commit half of all of its crime, any solution that attempts to kill that problem at its root should not be dismissed out of hand.

Under decriminalisation, you would no doubt open new routes to drug use. But you'd also close others. By taking the market out of the hands of criminals, you eliminate pushing.

2) It's a leap in the dark.

That's true, but can it go any worse than prohibition? You might as well jump into any ditch if you're on the road to hell anyway.



Your point about "despair or at least fatigue" is perceptive, in that I haven't arrived at a pro-legalisation position through positive libertarian principles, but reluctantly, as the lesser of the various evils on offer.

But there's nothing original in this. The US found exactly the same problems with prohibiting alcohol. Where there is demand, and you can't eliminate the supply, you get a lot of problems if criminals control the market.

This is only specualation on my part, but possibly there's greater room for optimism re heroin in terms of the number of users under decriminalistion:

The demand for alcohol and prostitution is essentially customer-driven - people want the product anyway, so supply will arise to meet this 'natural' demand. The potential users are there anyway.

With heroin, I would guess that users are much more likely to have come to the vice through pushers, than to have just woken up one day and decided to 'give it a go'. So perhaps there is less 'natural' demand than the current user figures suggest. Perhaps.

M Ali said...

Who's to say decriminalisation wouldn't push up the number of users far faster than you anticipate?

I'm sceptical that decrim would cause a significant drop in crime especially when policing methods here definitely offer large scope for improvement.

And how many addicts would stop thieving even if they did get a cheap, legal fix? How many were addicts who became thieves or people who began to thieve and then fell into drug use because of their lifestyle?

Dalrymple can be a miserable old git, but I'm with him on this issue.

Better safe than sorry.

Hey Skipper said...


You make a compelling case to decriminalize heroin (and cocaine/marijuana); but the degree to which it is compelling is based upon the degree to which a couple entering arguments hold true:

- Demand response to lower price (taken as both legal risk and financial cost). It could be more people will use heroin if the price decreases. But there are two equally plausible alternative outcomes: the same users could consume more, or the same users will reach satiation at a lower cost. Since, like alchohol and tobacco, heroin would be ripe for a sin-tax, the best government policy would be to strictly punish unsanctioned channels while setting a tax rate below that which would encourage a black market, or even somewhat lower to allow users to reach satiation without having to resort to crime to support their habit.

- The population of potential addicts. Even though tobacco is completely legal, not everyone smokes, and not all of those that do become chain smoking addicts. Similarly for alcohol, and undoubtedly for heroin should it become legal. The bigger question is to which degree these populations are coincident. I suspect (although have nothing to back up my suspicion) that most people won't become addicted to anything, and the rest easily become addicted to everything. IF that is largely true, then legalizing heroin may not have very much impact on the actual number of users.

Speaking as someone with a reflexive libertarian bent, I think it is, in general, fairly easy to distinguish between private conduct and public behavior. We should leave the former to individuals and harshly punish lapses in the latter.

Further, stopping the "War on Drugs," and reaping the resulting taxes rather than providing a risk premium to drug gangs provides us greater resources to punish public misbehavior--the same resources drug gangs will no longer have.

I am sympathetic to Peter's misgivings about lowering our standards simply because we find meeting the existing standards so difficult. But booze and gambling are already legal most places.

As for prostitution, I think the reflex to prohibit it comes from the same place a lot of liberal initiatives (can you say "affirmative action?") do--it makes the prohibiters feel good about the act of prohibition, which, oddly, makes it easy to neglect the very negative effects of prohibition. Just to pick one--let's assume a woman wants out of the trade. How much harder is it for her with an arrest record?

Peter--I'm more sensitive to your position than the preceding makes it appear. I used to be convinced legalization was the answer, based upon my impression of the entering arguments I listed above.

I am less convinced these days, but I think it an experiment worth trying.

With one caveat: the only treatment available to drug users (who can't pony up their own coin) is palliative care when they present at the ER. If they die, so be it. Mark it up as a public-service suicide.

I know that sounds harsh--but supplying treatment upon demand at no cost to the abuser is a classic case of moral hazard.

But that's enough from me.

Brit said...

M Ali:

I don't want to harp on about this too much, as I've stated that I accept that the number of users would rise. I just don't accept that this is worse than having less users all of whom are also criminals responsible for 50% of the country's crime.

But "If the price drops dramatically, there'll be a lot more users. Simple supply and demand" is over-simplistic.

Price is not the only issue. There has to be a perceived value, too. A man offering to administer a kick in the testicles for £10 isn't going to do any more business if he reduces the asking price to £5.

Along with legalisation would have to come drug education, and help for users to kick the habit. Not cheap, but vastly cheaper than the current criminal justice spend.

The key is to reduce the price of heroin to users to a level at which they do not need to commit a crime to get the next fix. There's nobody in prison right now because they've stolen to fund a tobacco habit.

Do this, while eliminating pushing and banning advertising, and perhaps you won't see double the users if the price is halved.

M Ali said...

Our difference in viewing this issue comes from estimating how many new users decriminilisation would produce.

You believe it wouldn't rise by much.

I believe it would rise dramatically given lower prices and the legitimisation that decrim would provide.

It would be tough for parents to enforce a message of NO DRUGS when their kids could see their friends nip round to the doctor's with a prescription for heroin.

I know in my case that trying out fags was seen as acceptable experimentation during the teen years since it was legal for adults to do so. But drugs, especially hard drugs, were definitely off-limits.

Given how destructive they are (a former mate with a promising career as an engineer is now a drug-dealer who circulates in and out of jail) I don't want to support any steps that would encourage their use.

Besides how much use is drug education?

Everone knows they mess you up and it just comes off as uptight, no-fun adults trying to restrict kids from having fun.

I just see that as a salve to the conscience of those who want to pretend they are trying to minimise social damage when what they're proposing is likely to have far worse consequences than they anticipated.