Sometimes you can see a policy change coming a mile off. For about the last two decades, drug legalisation looked like such a case.
The positive results of decriminalisation in Portugal, and the examples of marijuana legalisation in Uruguay and various states of the US were becoming more widely known. The Penington report in 1996 argued for decriminalisation of marijuana and when Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett ignored its recommendations it was seen as a stance justified only by retail politics.
It seemed only a matter of time before expert recommendations on decriminalisation and legalisation were taken on board by Australia and nations across the world. An armistice was about to be announced in the increasingly stupid war on drugs. So it seemed.
Then the opiates crisis began. America is in the grip of a really shocking wave of premature mortality, caused by addiction to opiates. The scale of it is really awful – at 32,000 deaths a year, roughly equal to the numbers killed by firearms in that country.
(If you’d like your faith in journalism to be restored utterly while your heart is smashed into a million irrevocable pieces, I recommend this piece, Seven Days Of Heroin, from the Cincinatti Enquirer.)
The US opiates crisis has forced some hard thinking on the merits of legalisation (for drugs beyond talking about drugs beyond marijuana, mostly.)
The rethinking of legalisation has come from the left, like this piece at Vox: I used to support legalizing all drugs. Then the opioid epidemic happened.
And from the right, like this piece at the National Review: The Opioid Crisis Should Kill the Call to Legalize Hard Drugs
Opiates are not only a gateway to heroin abuse but a problem in themselves. Legal opiates accounted for 20,101 overdose deaths in the USA in 2015 compared to 12,990 related to heroin. If a legal drug, tightly controlled by law and available only under prescription, can be abused in a way that spirals way out of control, what does that say about the prospects of ending prohibition of drugs?
TOO MUCH TRUST
With legalisation, nothing is going to end up as available as buying flour at the supermarket. There will always be controls – regulation, licensing, etc. Choosing them is critical. But there is one shortcut we tend to take.
We love to rely on doctors as one of those controls. “Only available via prescription” sounds like a big barrier to drug availability. We have a lot of trust in doctors at a personal care level and that transfers over to a policy level.
But a look at the US medical marijuana system reveals that prescriptions are available ridiculously easily, over the internet, for trivial complaints. The controls in Canada are not much tighter. Doctors are like anyone and are subject to incentives. If they can make money writing quick and dirty prescriptions, some will.
Meanwhile, even the best-intentioned doctors are at the mercy of a pharmaceutical system that is itself far from perfect.
(If you’d like your faith in journalism to further cement while your faith in capitalism is smashed into a million irrevocable pieces, I recommend this piece, ‘You want a description of hell?’ OxyContin’s 12-hour problem, from the LA Times. It describes how a big Pharmaceutical companies lies about its products, got loads of people hooked on opiates and evaded a whole lot of systems designed to stop exactly that from happening.)
To some extent this is like the story on Elon Musk yesterday. It bothers me when too much trust is vested in an entity, person or institution that doesn’t deserve it. And nobody deserves as much trust as we invest in doctors without an panopticon of ombudsmans, review committees and inspectors.
I think we can move towards legalisation of drugs. But what is crucial in regulating anything is the fine details of the way they are controlled.
I wrote about this in The Right Amount of Smoking. Finding the exact sweet spot for control and legalisation is hard. You can fiddle with public and private ownership of suppliers, taxation, occupational licensing, sales licensing and controls on consumption.
At this stage, we probably don’t have enough controls for gambling, and we have too many of the wrong kinds for most drugs.
Finding the right kinds of control is hard and requires ongoing adjustment of the policy settings. Trying to outsource the difficulty we have in solving that to doctors is an attractive shortcut, but not the answer.