The Semantics of Drug Prohibition

This Cinco de Mayo I’m going to use my blog to briefly speak against the one of the great injustices the world inflicts upon its people. Mexico, in particular, is severely affected by this injustice, and no; I’m not talking about free trade. It is America’s war on drugs that subjects the Mexican people to the horrors of a near-militarized country. Of course this is not the only injustice — our lack of a free immigration policy is just as great. But I’m going to focus here.

For a very long time, many people who have opposed drug legalization or decriminalization have stood behind the very valid assertion that there is no model to compare our current laws to…therefore, it amounts to wild speculation as to the implications of our actions regarding liberalization of drug policy.

Well, in 2001, Portugal decriminalized all popular drugs and narcotic substances, including cocaine, heroin, lsd, amphetamines, etc. Nine years later, the findings of the Portuguese experience, released in a report by the Cato Institute (2009), support the assertions of those who wish to see drugs decriminalized (still!).

You can read the report here.

On July 1, 2001, a nationwide law in Portugal took effect that decriminalized all drugs, including cocaine and heroin. Under the new legal framework, all drugs were “decriminalized,” not “legalized.” Thus, drug possession for personal use and drug usage itself are still legally prohibited, but violations of those prohibitions are deemed to be exclusively administrative violations and are removed completely from the criminal realm. Drug trafficking continues to be prosecuted as a criminal offense.

While other states in the European Union have developed various forms of de facto decriminalization— whereby substances perceived to be less serious (such as cannabis) rarely lead to criminal prosecution—Portugal remains the only EU member state with a law explicitly declaring drugs to be “decriminalized.” Because more than seven years have now elapsed since enactment of Portugal’s decriminalization system, there are ample data enabling its effects to be assessed.

One of the more interesting points in the report is that drug prohibition creates a wall of mistrust between society and the state, and thus severely retards the state’s ability to reach out to those who are using drugs in a positive, supporting manner. As you can see from the chart above, in a short time, most adolescent drug use has fallen due to liberalization. Recidivism has also declined, as well as drug-related crime.

And unfortunately it is not the United States that suffers from its own stupidity, it is the poorer countries in Central and South America. Mexico particularly suffers simply because of the border that we share. In a free and open market for drugs, violence would not be a viable option — indeed, it would severely hurt the bottom line. That is not to say violence wouldn’t exist, but that mutual cooperation through trade would be much more profitable. Not only would we be doing Mexico an immense favor, we would also be doing a favor to all of the people who are addicted to drugs and wish to seek help — but can’t currently, because we take a hard-line stance against drugs…not to mention we would be respecting the personal choices of law-abiding citizens.

It would be a victory for the cause of liberty, a victory for markets, and a victory for Mexico. I hope to see such a Pareto improvement in my lifetime!

And I hope everyone has a fun and safe Cinco de Mayo!


3 thoughts on “The Semantics of Drug Prohibition

  1. It’s interesting the immigration debate has so much segue potential for this other subject. I don’t think we, as a nation, talk about prohibition enough using that term; the pro-prohibition people prefer to carry the conversation as if they’re keeping society safe from the harm of drug abuse when, in fact, prohibition is the major source of the criminal aspects behind the recreational drug market.

    Mark Thornton’s The Economics
    of Prohibition
    is a must read.

    Then we have stuff like this going on within our borders. Obama isn’t helping matters much (see here), either.

    The sad thing is there probably isn’t much public support for decriminalization. There may be for marijuana but that isn’t the only drug in question.

    “About 90 percent of the cocaine that enters the United States is trafficked through Mexico, according to the State Department’s 2008… (source)”

    The political discussion needs to be taken to the people and there needs to be massive re-education at that level on the real effects of prohibition. It’s unlikely to happen, though. Public discourse is dominated by large television news organizations; which one of them wants to be labeled the hippy druggie channel?

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