Legalize cocaine? A splendid idea, says The Economist

To people on both sides of politics, it is not news to hear that President Joe Biden is a wimp. But the surprising news is that he is a wimp because he is insufficiently in favour of hard drugs. This was the tub-thumping message sent by the world’s leading news magazine, The Economist, this week when it rebuked him for granting a presidential pardon for 6,000 people in jail for possessing marijuana. “Joe Biden is too timid. It is time to legalise cocaine,” it declared.

Cocaine? True, Sherlock Holmes used it. Sigmund Freud used it. But it was made illegal as society realised how dangerous it is. It can cause seizures, heart failure, respiratory failure, cerebral hemorrhage, and strokes. It is intensely addictive. There is no magic medication to save someone who has overdosed.

The Economist is ideologically committed to libertarianism of the 19th century economist and philosopher John Stuart Mill. “Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign,” Mill said – and that ought to be the motto of The Economist. It supports all autonomous action which is harmless and profitable (or if pressed, merely profitable). Hence, in recent years it has thrown its considerable prestige behind campaigns for the legalisation of drugs, pornography, prostitution, euthanasia, same-sex marriage and an international market in surrogate mothers and babies.

And now cocaine. At the moment, The Economist’s campaign might seem quixotic, but it is as sure of victory as Lenin was in Zürich:

Just now full legalisation seems politically impossible: few politicians want to be called “soft on drugs”. But proponents must keep pressing their case. The benefits—safer cocaine, safer streets and greater political stability in the Americas—far outweigh the costs. 

There is no doubt that the war on drugs has been no more successful than Vladimir Putin’s special operation in Ukraine. The drug cartels are bigger and bolder than ever. American-financed eradication campaigns have failed in Colombia. And now Colombia has a new left-wing president, Gustavo Petro, who has proposed “phased decriminalisation” for coca growers in his country.  

The Economist is not interested in “phased” anything. It wants to treat cocaine like another dangerous, but socially acceptable drug, alcohol:

The real answer is full legalisation, allowing non-criminals to supply a strictly regulated, highly taxed product, just as whisky- and cigarette-makers do. (Advertising it should be banned.)

While the war on drugs needs innovative strategies, legalization is not one of them. The Economist – and many others – are blinded by an ideology which preaches that harming others should be the only limit on our desires. The same argument works for heroin, meth, and fentanyl, by the way. Won't it be great when high school students can buy cheap, pure, strictly regulated, highly taxed fentanyl in the neighbourhood 7-Eleven?

However, cheap, readily available cocaine will inevitably harm people – though the casualties are not going to include the readers of a magazine which costs A$13 on a newsstand. It’s possible for people to experiment with it and not get hurt. But those who do become addicted ruin their own lives and the lives of their families and workmates.

Furthermore, legalization is a one-way street. It will be almost impossible to reverse.

As Jonathan P. Caulkins, an expert on drug policy at Carnegie Mellon University, told the New York Times last year:

It’s easy to imagine an ideal legalization, but that’s not what we’re going to get. We’re going to get the legalization that comes out of our political process and institutions. And marketing is the concrete example. Once a product is legalized, the companies that produce it will enjoy First Amendment commercial free speech protections that will allow them to market.

He points out that there is also an enormous risk of what economists call “regulatory capture” – the now-legal cocaine companies would be in a position to bend legislation to their own benefit, just as the tobacco, alcohol and sugar industries have in the past:

When you create a legal industry, you create a powerful lobbying force … a lot of the regulations are actually going to be shaped by what’s in the industry interests much more so than public health. Public health doesn’t tend to win in the lobbying battles against industry.

And as Caulkins points out elsewhere, the people who suffer the most are heavy users, who tend to be less educated and poorer – and ignored by politicians and journalists.

Industry prioritises profit over protecting customers, and recognises that most sales and profits flow from the minority of people who consume heavily (e.g., the “whales” in the gambling industry). Regulatory bodies are prone to industry capture, and their political overlords are more responsive to large numbers of affluent voters than to small numbers of poor ones.

If the war on drugs isn’t working, it’s not time to run up the white flag; it’s time for a more humane, creative rethink of how to save vulnerable people from their weaknesses. In societies where loneliness and meaninglessness have become epidemic, shouldn’t we aim at social reforms which reduce demand for drugs which anaesthetise the pain of being a human being?

Confirmation of this approach comes from a surprising source.

“Reducing drug use does not require wars, it needs us all to build a better society: a more supportive, more affectionate society, where the meaning of life saves us from addictions… Do you want fewer drugs? Think of earning less and giving more love. Think of a rational exercise of power”, Colombia’s president told the UN General Assembly last month.

President Petro is a former Marxist guerilla but he’s on the money. The Economist should take his advice seriously.


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