After nearly a century of abject failure, the war on drugs is finally slowing down. Presidential candidates are coming out in support of legal cannabis, psychedelic research is finally getting going, and people are discussing reducing sharply the criminal penalties for drug crimes.
But if "war" is our policy model for dealing with drugs, what should replace it? Here's a sensible, moderate proposal: full socialism for drugs. Recreational drugs should be legalized, but only sold through a restrictive government monopoly.
The war on drugs failed, in part, because drugs are easy to produce and smuggle, and there is an extremely strong demand for them. Cocaine, heroin, LSD, and most other other illegal drugs can be produced relatively easily from agricultural products or simple starting reagents, and a small suitcase can contain a huge number of doses (hundreds of billions in the case of LSD). Prohibition merely created a dangerous black market.
The only drug that was successfully banned through the drug war model is methaqualone (better known as quaaludes), as Alex Pareene has pointed out. That's because making methaqualone requires a high-tech industrial laboratory, and the U.S. government forced both domestic and foreign drug companies to stop. But even a police state can't possibly maintain enough control to stop tiny, easily-manufactured shipments from slipping through the cracks, either by way of smugglers or bribes. Meanwhile, the gigantic potential profits involved mean that every time a supplier is caught, several more jump in to take their place.
This accounts for the worst side effects of the drug war: the apocalyptic violence and instability in Latin America and parts of Asia as drug gangs ruthlessly fight the state — and one another — over control of a hugely lucrative trade. Tens of thousands of civilians have been killed in the crossfire.
Legal commercial supply of drugs would solve this problem, but has its own considerable downsides. The bulk of drug profits come from a relatively small fraction of serious addicts, and the tobacco and alcohol industries have been every bit as unscrupulous as Pablo Escobar in cultivating addiction, sowing doubt about their products' deeply harmful side effects, and lobbying the government to prevent regulations. Indeed, with efficient industrial manufacturing and cutting-edge advertising techniques, they have been considerably more effective than illegal drug dealers at creating large addict populations. The Sackler family stuffing billions of extremely addictive opioid pills into Appalachia — following the Big Tobacco model of deception and lobbying to the letter — provides a recent example, with deadly results.
Big capitalist businesses — which are already starting to roll up the cannabis market — should not be allowed anywhere near this stuff. Above all, drug policy should strive to keep the profit motive far, far away from addictive substances.
A government monopoly is a far better solution. All the downsides of state retail monopolies — somewhat inefficient services, limited sales hours and selection, and so on — are actually advantages when it comes to the drug market. We don't want it to be "efficient." Advertising would be forbidden (indeed, all drug advertising of any kind should be banned, including for prescription drugs), and prices could be kept just high enough to prevent a black market from forming, especially for the most dangerous drugs. States like Pennsylvania and Utah — as well as most of Canada, and all the Nordic countries save Denmark — already have something like this model in place for hard alcohol, and it works reasonably well.
The level of control would vary depending on the substances. Relatively harmless stuff like marijuana, MDMA, most psychedelics, and weak formulations like coca tea, would be over-the-counter for people over the age of 21. Harder drugs like cocaine, morphine, and meth would require a doctor's prescription and be given out to addicts (who should have free drug treatment available, but that's a topic for health-care policy). Ideally hard alcohol and smoked tobacco would go in the latter category, too, since they are just as dangerous as heroin or cocaine. True, they are not as addictive, but they do have worse side effects: Together alcohol and smoked tobacco kill about 570,000 Americans every year. But given how embedded they are in everyday society, they would probably have to go over-the-counter as well.
While this approach would not solve America's addiction problem, it would solve the problem of crime and violence involved in the drug trade, particularly in beleaguered countries like El Salvador and Honduras. Incidentally, legalizing drugs is probably the quickest and easiest way to help stem the flow of refugees trying to escape those countries. If we want to fight addiction, industrial and welfare policy to reduce economic despair in impoverished communities — where most opioid overdoses are concentrated — would be a good place to start.
That's not to say that drug socialism wouldn't target America's addiction problem at all. Addiction reduction can be accomplished through education, restrictive regulations, and so on — witness the rate of smoking, which has fallen by nearly two-thirds since the 1950s. Making the hardest drugs complicated, annoying, and expensive to get one's hands on — while making safer, healthier stuff like cannabis or mushrooms more available to those who just want to get high (which citizens in a free society should be able to do) — could help in this process.
But ultimately, if we want to bring the inevitable drug trade out of the violent criminal underworld, some method of legal supply must be arranged. Good old Big Government is the way to do it.