Legalizing drugs

2009-03-13

in Economics, Law, Politics, Science, Security

High voltage power lines

In a recent leader and briefing, The Economist has reiterated its support for worldwide drug legalization. They argue that, while legalization will certainly bring problems of its own, it is better than another century of failed attempts at prohibition. All told, the case is a very strong one. Legalization could bring with it government control: tax revenues, funds to treat addicts, quality control of products, and public information. Legalization would bring the problem into the open, as well as allow the billions of dollars spent on anti-drug policing and prisons to be put to better uses. In their leader, the magazine makes the surprising suggestion that the participation of legitimate drug companies in the development and improvement of recreational drugs could make them safer.

Legalization could also undercut organized crime, the body that probably benefits most from the current arrangement. That, in turn, would cut down on the crime associated with an illegal trade. Legalization would also suspend the situation in which governments criminalize large segments of their own population. The point is made that Barack Obama could easily have ended up in prison for his youthful experiments with cocaine. Certainly, prison sentences for drug use have the capacity to ruin what would otherwise be excellent lives by stigmatizing those who receive them and exposing them to one of the most intolerable social environments that exist within secure states.

An interesting rebuttal is offered to the idea that looser drug laws turn more people into drug users and addicts. Comparisons of otherwise similar states (harsh Sweden and laxer Norway, for instance) suggest that laws have little impact on the level of drug-taking in society. Under a legal regime, there would also be an opportunity to dispel misinformation about drugs. Certainly, the arguments that politicians have sometimes made about the ‘extreme’ danger of marijuana undermine their credibility when talking about substances that are genuinely far more dangerous.

In short, drug legalization does seem to offer the prospect of weakening the connections between many different harmful phenomenon: from the way in which poppy eradication is undermining peacemaking efforts in Afghanistan to the way in which the poor are more likely to go to jail for drug offences than their richer fellow citizens. While it would be asking too much for governments to take the plunge and legalize everything instantly, it may not be too much to hope for gradual progress in that direction, with a growing emphasis on harm prevention and a more evidence-based approach to policing, lawmaking, and judicial decisions.

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{ 54 comments… read them below or add one }

Dan | thesamovar March 13, 2009 at 10:14 am

Legalising seems like a good idea to me too, both for pragmatic reasons and also for reasons of freedom. People should be free to harm themselves if they want. That said, a way of mitigating some of the worse effects of legalising drugs might be to regulate them so that for the more dangerous ones it requires you to jump through bureaucratic hoops to get them. Nothing impossible, just something irritating enough to stop people trying them too casually. I’m not sure if this would work or not, but I believe it’s been tried with alcohol in some countries (Sweden?) so I guess we have the evidence.

. March 13, 2009 at 11:16 am

The New Czar in Town
Obama chooses a drug czar who recognizes the war on drugs hasn’t worked.
By Andrew Marantz
Posted Thursday, March 12, 2009, at 4:19 PM ET

Vice President Joe Biden sponsored the legislation that created the job 21 years ago, so it was fitting that on Wednesday he announced the Obama administration’s choice for drug czar: Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske. The announcement thrilled neither progressive anti-prohibition groups, which dislike the idea of a career cop in charge of drug policy, nor conservative anti-drug groups, which distrust Kerlikowske’s record on enforcement.

So, which is it? In nominating a cop, is Obama snubbing the left? Or is Kerlikowske the kind of squishy cop even liberals can love? Or is he another in a string of compromises, a bid for bipartisan support that will satisfy no one? Trick questions. Like Obama, Kerlikowske is, first and foremost, a pragmatist. His nomination is a victory not for any political faction but for common sense.

R.K. March 13, 2009 at 11:18 am

I agree that the ‘war on drugs’ has caused more harm than drugs themselves.

It’s a common pattern. For instance, the ‘war on terror’ has killed far more people than terrorism has.

Sasha March 13, 2009 at 12:38 pm

It will be interesting to see how this discussion develops. It looks as though the ball may get rolling in California with Tom Ammiano’s ‘Marijuana Control, Regulation and Education Act’.

The Digg Community certainly seems to be in support of legalization. Due to the efforts of Diggers, the top question posted to Obama on his http://www.change.gov website during the transition involved the legalization of marijuana. Furthermore, various online polls including CNN have yielded overwhelming support for legalization both in California and nationally.

Anon March 13, 2009 at 12:57 pm

In their leader, the magazine makes the surprising suggestion that the participation of legitimate drug companies in the development and improvement of recreational drugs could make them safer.

I would be pretty wary of this. To me, pharmaceutical companies are about on par with sleazy drug dealers, when it comes to how much they prioritize the best interests of their customers.

Anon March 13, 2009 at 1:01 pm

Also, it would be strange to continue to clamp down on what tobacco companies can do, in terms of advertising and products, while permitting drug firms to experiment with new forms of ecstasy.

Tristan March 13, 2009 at 1:52 pm

The difficulty I have with the legalization of drugs, is that drugs are already – because of addiction – only marginally transgressive, mostly they are a distraction that enables systematicity to re-iterate itself all over the globe. The opium wars are just an explicit example of the use of drugs by states for the purpose of systematic population control (control in the sense of ‘having under the yolk’). I realize I’m in a minority here – but I really do think that the distopic futures which include happy drugs without apparent side effects are a real possibility – if we aren’t already there (was that literature about the future-future or the present-future?).

Milan March 13, 2009 at 1:59 pm

Also, it would be strange to continue to clamp down on what tobacco companies can do, in terms of advertising and products, while permitting drug firms to experiment with new forms of ecstasy.

Regulation would definitely be necessary. Drug screening trials akin to those for pharmaceuticals would be important for any new drugs, as would purity standards and liability rules.

Sharp restrictions on advertising would probably also be wise.

Milan March 13, 2009 at 2:05 pm

Tristan,

The kind of drugs you are describing would be developed legally by big pharmaceutical companies, anyhow. Anti-depressants are a lucrative and (legally at least) entirely legitimate business.

Legalizing marijuana, cocaine, etc doesn’t seem likely to have any effect on the emergence or non-emergence of soma-type drugs.

Tristan March 13, 2009 at 2:13 pm

Milan,

I think you are almost right, but missing an important ideological barrier. We allow anti-depressants legally because they serve a “legitimate medical purpose”, which of course in reality is social control, but according to the explicit logic at least, is just to bring people to the “normal” everyday standard of happiness.

Legalizing marijuana and cocaine would mean the pharmecudical companies would be free to develop drugs that would be chemically similar to existing anti-depressants, but could be I suppose stronger, and more importantly – they could be sold as recreational drugs, and become part of mainstream culture. The “counter-culture” aspect of drugs keeps the use of drugs associated with transgressive activities – so even if getting together with your revoutionary friends to smoke dope makes it more difficult to participate in transgressive activity because of the bodily impairment, the fact that you need to collect with other people who don’t respect the law to engage in the smoking of dope means that there is some structural transgressive tendencies associated with it.

If dope were legalized, and smoked in starbucks, the transgressive social quality of it would be entirely lost. Don’t you think?

Milan March 13, 2009 at 2:27 pm

The culture surrounding drugs would certainly change: probably becoming more akin to what exists now surrounding alcohol. Given that there would probably be age limits, the ‘teenagers drinking under the bridge’ effect would be large.

As for the soma theory, is it worth maintaining the War on Drugs, with all its harmful consequences, to reduce the probability of such an outcome in the future?

Tristan March 13, 2009 at 2:38 pm

Is it worth maintaining existing values when they have obviously become inappropriate? No. Does that mean we should embrace the legalization of drugs as a movement towards enlightenment? No.

Milan March 13, 2009 at 2:42 pm

‘Enlightenment’ would not be the goal.

‘Harm reduction’ is a much better description. Ending alcohol prohibition certainly didn’t produce ‘enlightenment,’ but it was a big blow to the Mafia and probably saved a lot of people from moonshine methanol poisoning.

Magictofu March 13, 2009 at 2:52 pm

Should there be a difference between the social control of man-made stupefiants vs. plants and fungi?

Milan March 13, 2009 at 2:56 pm

There should be public warnings that express the dangers and unknowns associated with any particular substance. For instance, cocaine would have warnings about overdoses.

Those on comparatively benign substances like cannabis or psilocybin mushrooms would rightly inform people that they are less dangerous than other options.

I think it’s fair to say that there are artificial substances that are relatively benign, and there are plants and fungi which are very dangerous. The treatment needs to be by the substance, not by the category.

Matt March 13, 2009 at 3:42 pm

The previous assertion that the purpose of anti-depressants is “of course” social control is absolutely ridiculous, and ignores or is ignorant of the major problem of REAL mental illness. No wonder people with depression feel stigmatized if this is the prevailing attitude, that the drugs that help them are really to bring them into line, to make them behave. While anti-depressants are likely over-prescribed, there is a segment of the population (a fairly significant one) that benefits greatly from them, whose lives are vastly improved because of them, and in some cases who might be dead without them. The problem that people have with the large drug companies, is that they have to sell their wares like any capitalist entity. This is can be seen as being akin to drug pushing, but the fact that they do this does not automatically discredit the products that they make. There is always going to be a conflict between making profits and benefiting society, but the fact of the matter is if these companies didn’t make money, they would not develop new products. Anyway, this is off topic of the discussion anyway, but I felt angered to read that anti-depressants aren’t legitimate. The fact is it’s not okay to allow someone to consistently live below “the normal standard of happiness,” (taking into account their freewill and desire to change) just as it’s not okay to let someone live with untreated TB, infection, etc, etc.

R.K. March 13, 2009 at 3:47 pm

I agree that anti-depressants have valid medical uses, though they can certainly be mis-prescribed and misused.

It’s a bit depressing when healthy people blithely condemn drugs that have helped a lot of people with mental illnesses – especially because of the implied moral superiority.

Tristan March 13, 2009 at 4:08 pm

Oh, sorry, I didn’t realize – of course, I’m a huge idiot – and mental illness is being treated in completely neutral way, in a way that doesn’t in way presume what a docile human body is. And there is certainly no conniving intent to keep people on anti-depressants any longer than neccesary. And the dissmissal of psychoanalysis in North America and Europe wasn’t an over-reaction and it had nothing to do with the realization that since psychoanalysis reveals traumas, it neccesarily reveals the un-avoidable traumatic nature of civilized life – the extent to which living in society doesn’t simply produce trauma as a contingent side effect, but as a central means to its own perpetuation. None of these ridiculous assertions are true.

Milan March 13, 2009 at 4:15 pm

This seems a reasonable time to remind people of rules #1 and #6.

Anti-depressants are a touchy subject of conversation, though still one worth considering. The conversation ought to be civil and, ideally, should include the perspectives of people who have had direct experience with the drugs, either in terms of prescribing or taking them.

At one point, I had a very dismissive attitude about these drugs. Talking with friends who have been on them and doctors who have prescribed them has left me less certain about how it is appropriate to feel about them. I do think saying that they are only used for ‘social control’ is an insufficient treatment of the subject.

It is also worth mentioning that contemporary anti-depressants are very far from the soma ideal. They have a lot of side-effects, both while they are being used and after someone stops taking them.

. March 13, 2009 at 5:17 pm

Dealing with drugs: On the trail of the traffickers
The cocaine business: Sniffy customers
Levels of prohibition: A toker’s guide
Drug education: In America, lessons learned

Magictofu March 13, 2009 at 5:30 pm

The reason I suggested differentiating plants and mushrooms is not because I feel they are less dangerous (I don’t) but because they pose different kind of problems mostly because many specimen grow wild. This might well be less the case with today’s cannabis which is probably the result of millennia of selection by farmers and growers, but often a simple walk in the woods can provide you with many recreative drugs.

This might well be a non-issue but it was prompted by all the scary remarks about pharmaceutical companies.

. March 13, 2009 at 5:43 pm

Anthropologist Helen Fisher takes on a tricky topic — love –- and explains its evolution, its biochemical foundations and its social importance. She closes with a warning about the potential disaster inherent in antidepressant abuse.

Milan March 13, 2009 at 5:45 pm

Magictofu,

That’s a good point. If there are drugs that people can go out and find for themselves, the kind of controls possible at liquor stores couldn’t be used.

That may justify some kind of special treatment, for them.

. March 13, 2009 at 5:46 pm

It’s Time to End New York’s Rockefeller Drug Laws
by Russell Simmons & Gabriel Sayegh

“After nearly four decades, it looks like the Rockefeller Drug Laws may finally be on their way out. The New York State Assembly recently passed legislation-A.6085-to significantly reform the failed laws. Now it is up to all of us to make sure that this bill gets to the Governor’s desk without being weakened, so he can sign it into law. It is the time to put to bed the Rockefeller Drug Laws once and for all.

The Rockefeller Drug Laws passed in 1973, mandate harsh mandatory minimum prison terms for simple, low-level drug offenses. Under these laws, people convicted of first or second time low-level drug offenses receive long prison terms-not the treatment or support services they often need. New York spends hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars every year locking up people for drug possession, yet spending on community-based drug treatment is pitifully low, and treatment options for people with drug problems are too limited. Incarceration costs $45,000 per year per person; community-based treatment and alternative programming, often $15K or less.”

. March 13, 2009 at 5:53 pm

Penn Jillette on legalizing pot

Here’s Penn Jillette — a teetotaller for all substances — calling for the legalization of marijuana on the incredibly sensible grounds that a) Many presidents, including recent ones, have smoked pot; b) Lots of other happy, well-adjusted people smoke pot; c) Imprisoning pot smokers by the millions costs a lot of money and ruins the lives of millions of otherwise fine Americans.

Matt March 13, 2009 at 7:04 pm

First, I’d like to mention that I personally don’t think anyone here yet has come close to breaking rules #1 and #6 yet, myself or others included. I would say that disagreement does not a jerk make. Anyway…

I’m surprised that anti-depressants are viewed so skeptically when their goal, or at least the goal of those prescribing them is to combat clinical depression. I expect the skepticism comes from the fact that they’re often prescribed as an easy fix and are associated with the perceived molly-codling-ness of modern society and new, excessivley used diagnoses like ADD, ADHD, etc. And like any medication, there are significant side-effects, the most notable (and shocking) being increased risk of suicide. Drugs like modern SSRIs with their high levels of side effects unfortunately have to exist before better drugs come out, they are a link in the chain of progress of modern medicine. Rarely or never will a drug come out in a perfected state. Hopefully one day treatments for common mental illnesses will exist that are better understood and target the specific problem. Playing with serotonin and dopamine processes without the full understanding of why treatment successes or failures are occuring is admittedly far from ideal medicine. Still, I think most doctors would agree the benefits of having these medications available outweigh the drawbacks.

mek March 13, 2009 at 7:27 pm

I think the pharmaceutical company discussion above misses the point. Are there any illegal synthesized drugs in use today that were not originally developed legally by pharmaceutical R&D? The typical pattern is as follows:

1) Drug is developed, tested, FDA approved
2) Drug is used for medical purposes
3) Drug becomes popular for side effects / recreational purposes
4) Drug becomes prolific on black market
5) Drug is labelled a controlled substance

It’s self-evident that a drug must be discovered before it can be banned. Eliminating #5 does not mean we have to revisit the method by which drugs are developed. Of course I believe that pharmaceutical regulation has really lapsed in the last decade or so, with terrible consequences, so at any rate more regulation would be good.

The other thing I want to talk about, which is often ignored, is the direct connection between drug prohibition and violent crime. Vancouver is in the throes of a gang war now, and every single one of these murders is a direct result of prohibition.

Tristan March 13, 2009 at 8:30 pm

“I do think saying that they are only used for ’social control’ is an insufficient treatment of the subject.”

This commits a pretty strong equivocation between what the drugs can legitimately be used for, and how the way they are take up by our society tends towards making them mechanisms of social control. My thesis was that they are used as mechanisms of social control, by supposing a “normal” and re-enforcing that, and also by encouraging people to stay on them indefinitely. Does this mean they “hurt everyone”? Of course not. But people who happen to have taken these drugs have no special position from which to judge the way our society mobilizes them and towards what ends. If anything, the good they did for them might make it more difficult to see the harm they do in general.

Tristan March 13, 2009 at 8:37 pm

“I’m surprised that anti-depressants are viewed so skeptically when their goal, or at least the goal of those prescribing them is to combat clinical depression.”

In the actual world, it’s certainly the case that anti-depressants are often prescribed to help people with depression. Depression is a real thing, it’s a way of being attuned to the world which sucks. If there’s some pharmacons that can help with that, help train you to attune to the world more positively, then that’s great.

However, in the “civilized” world, which means the same world, but seen from the perspective of state-technicity, anti-depressants are not prescribed to help people with depression, they are, as you rightly point out in correct language, prescribed to “combat clinical depression”. What is clinical depression? It’s a made up word – a scientific construct that tries to grasp “depression”, which isn’t a word or a concept, but a way of being in the world. You can try to name it, but the name will never exhaust the thing. However, “clinical depression” has a definition and thereby an exhaustive meaning. So, first of all – the drugs don’t have the stated purpose of dealing with depression, but of “combating clinical depression”. We might also be worried about this word “combat”. What kind of things do we combat? Things we can’t understand, things we can’t mediate with, things we can’t engage with. So, we take depression as “clinical depression” and immediately it becomes a hostile enemy, over-against us, which we “combat” by destroying it with drugs. Drugs change chemical balances – and since clinical depression is defined scientifically as a chemical imbalance, the drugs defeat the clinical depression.

It seems to me that its the technical, scientific-representational, story about these drugs which should be terribly offensive to anyone who has ever been “diagnosed” with “clinical depression”.

Matt March 13, 2009 at 10:24 pm

I think that taking issue with the language of the, scientifically accepted mind you, term “clinical depression” is just arguing semantics and avoids the issue that some people are depressed beyond the fact that (paraphrasing) ‘the world sucks.’ It is to these people that depression is an mental illness much the same as a cancer is physical illness, and indeed it can be linked to physiological reasons (which anti-depressants aim to treat). I don’t think it’s a stretch to see that if one’s pancreas can stop functioning correctly leading to diabetes then perhaps one’s brain (or parts thereof) may stop functioning correctly leading to various mental illnesses. To address the fact that some people are kept on anti depressants for a long time, yes, this is no doubt the case in many circumstances. In the cases where applicable, alternative and non pharmaceutical depression treatments, specifically cognitive behavioural therapy are usually recommended, and in fact can have a life-long lasting positive effect. For some people this is not enough and their treatment has to be augmented by drugs. We could just as easily be arguing about schizophrenia and anti-psychotics (which have massive side effects) and the fact that untreated schizophrenia is considered worse than the alternative.

I doubt I’m going to sway you with my arguments the same as I won’t be swayed by yours, and I freely admit there can be insidious aspects to anti-depressant use, however I would think it’s a stretch to consider them a form of population control due solely to the fact that the people prescribing them are in the vast majority of cases doing it to help their suffering patients.

Tristan March 14, 2009 at 1:43 am

“taking issue with the language of the, scientifically accepted mind you, term “clinical depression” is just arguing semantics ”

“Semantics” – from OED:

[ad. Gr. {sigma}{eta}{mu}{alpha}{nu}{tau}{iota}{kappa}-{goacu}{fsigma} significant, f. {sigma}{eta}{mu}{alpha}{giacu}{nu}{epsilon}{iota}{nu} to show, signify. Cf. F. sémantique.]

A. adj.

{dag}1. Relating to signs of the weather. Obs.

2. a. Relating to signification or meaning.

b. In weakened uses.

B. n. pl.

1. a. = SEMASIOLOGY. Also, (the study or analysis of) the relationships between linguistic symbols and their meanings. Const. as sing. and pl.
Now the usual word in this sense.

So, I agree, I am arguing about what words mean, about what “depression” means, and about how ‘depression’ doesn’t mean the same as ‘clinical depression’. You are absolutely correct to say this is a semantic issue. Semantics is the meaning of words – this is the most essential thing.

Tristan March 14, 2009 at 1:45 am

Matt: “For some people this is not enough and their treatment has to be augmented by drugs.”

Tristan: “Does this mean they “hurt everyone”? Of course not. But people who happen to have taken these drugs have no special position from which to judge the way our society mobilizes them and towards what ends. If anything, the good they did for them might make it more difficult to see the harm they do in general.”

I don’t know why I need to repeat myself so often. Well, so it goes.

oleh March 14, 2009 at 2:06 am

I agree that the legalization of cannabis as a potential starting point to see how that goes. Then one could learn from that experience. I would be hesitant to legalize other drugs at this point.

An initiative from the United States on the issue to decriminalize , if not legalize, marijuana possession could be a good starting point. Obama probably is a good candidate for initiating this.

The selection of a former police chief with a relaxed enforcement method as the new drug czar seems a good choice precisely because he strikes a middle ground and does not support one extreme. He may therefore be acceptable to the majority of those in the middle on this issue.

mek March 14, 2009 at 11:38 am

I think we should drop the anti-depressant discussion, as it’s not directly relevant to the post.

Milan March 14, 2009 at 1:24 pm

mek,

I find it interesting that the prescription of anti-depressants by doctors has been more controversial, in this forum, than the global legalization of all drugs.

I am happy to stick with discussing the latter, if others wish to.

Oleh,

Legalizing marijuana fails to capture most of the benefits that would be associated with all-out legalization. Among those, reduced costs of prison and policing, reduced power of organized crime, reduced destabilization of producer and trafficking states by drug groups, etc.

While it’s not politically practical to jump immediately to total legalization, it is a much more appealing (though still imperfect) outcome than legalizing any one drug.

Tristan March 14, 2009 at 3:29 pm

“has been more controversial, in this forum,”

I brought this issue up because I argued the issues to be related. How I feel about existing attitudes is background, and interesting, but not my positive point – which is how societal attitudes towards anti-depressives might change if marijuana is legalized. Reasons we have for being worried about the existing effects of anti-depressants become reasons to be worried about their mass consumption if it becomes acceptable to market them as a recreational drug. Existing worries, which might be considered over-paranoid, about “social control”, might become much more concrete if anti-depressants were explicitly marketed as a way for people to “relieve stress, kick back, relax, don’t worry”.

. March 15, 2009 at 1:40 pm

Plans for minimum alcohol price

The government’s top medical adviser has drawn up plans for a minimum price for alcohol which would double the cost of some drinks in England.

Under the proposal from Sir Liam Donaldson, no drinks could be sold for less than 50 pence per unit of alcohol they contain.

It would mean most bottles of wine could not be sold for less than £4.50.

Milan March 17, 2009 at 1:19 pm

There does seem to be some danger that attitudes towards drug use would shift in harmful ways, as the result of legalization.

Still, I think the beneficial consequences would be greater than the negative ones. As an analogy, reducing agricultural subsidies in rich countries would have adverse effects on some farming communities. but we should still do it because cutting agricultural subsidies is likely to produce better overall outcomes.

Tristan March 17, 2009 at 4:16 pm

Seems like a valid analogy. I’m not sure about thinking the justification only in terms of consequences though… (j/k)

Milan March 17, 2009 at 4:22 pm

When it comes to the negative consequences of legalization, it is worth remembering that we could redirect all the police and prison spending currently used for drugs in that direction.

Of course, the more prisons are operated as businesses, the more they will work to keep lawmakers from adopting policies that will reduce their profits.

. March 18, 2009 at 9:37 am

Focus shifts to flow of cash, arms into Mexico

Carolyn Lochhead, Chronicle Washington Bureau

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

(03-18) 04:00 PDT Washington – — California lawmakers and the Obama administration have begun to shift U.S. border policy with Mexico, abruptly changing focus from illegal immigration to the flow of cash and weapons from the United States that is fueling a savage war between the Mexican government and powerful drug cartels.

“It is unacceptable to have 90 percent of the guns that are picked up in Mexico and used to shoot judges, police officers, mayors, kidnap innocent people and do terrible things come from the United States,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said at a hearing Tuesday. “I am appalled that you can buy a 50-caliber sniper weapon anywhere and it’s not restricted to a federal firearms dealer – you can just buy it.”

steve March 19, 2009 at 5:39 pm

I believe that leagalizing marijuana would pose a big problem for company owners to have people come to work not high. You cant just find out with a blow test like with alcohol. If you where to test someone for marijuana on a job site you would have to do a mouth swab which is still inacurate because you could of smoke some when you got up that morning but you are not high now. what i am trying to understand is how would you check acratly that a worker is high at the time, or would companies just ban it all together.

Matt March 19, 2009 at 7:30 pm

Steve – That assumes that if drugs are legalized there would be a higher prevalence of usage. There is nothing to stop an employee from coming to work high as it is. Also, most drug tests aren’t currently endorsed by the Canadian Human Rights Commission Policy on Alcohol and Drug Testing because they don’t assess level of impairment and violate the employee’s human rights. So even if a ‘blow’ test were available, it would probably be in violation of the employees rights.

To that end, there are companies in Canada driven by the oil sector that actively test for drugs in their employees. This hasn’t been adequately challenged in court (although there are a few cases that partially address the situation), but there is a decent chance the companies doing the testing would be found to be in the wrong.

. March 27, 2009 at 11:23 am

Comparative efficacy and acceptability of 12 new-generation antidepressants: a multiple-treatments meta-analysis

Depression is a major cause of disability worldwide, and the need for treatment options, whether they be antidepressant drugs or psychological interventions, is correspondingly great. A range of clinically-proven antidepressants is available, and this multiple treatments meta-analysis seeks to draw conclusions from the many randomised trials in which drugs have been studied against active comparators. Weighing systematically the evidence available on both efficacy and tolerability, the authors suggest that sertraline and escitalopram might be appropriate first-choice treatments.

. March 27, 2009 at 3:59 pm

Obama Thinks Legalizing Marijuana Would Not Help the Economy. Economists Disagree

From CNN:

In a statement that’s sure to disappoint many of those who submitted questions to President Obama’s virtual town hall meeting, the president made clear Thursday he does not support legalizing marijuana as a means to spur economic growth.

Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron disagrees:

The U.S. repealed Prohibition of alcohol at the height of the Great Depression, in part because of increasing violence and in part because of diminishing tax revenues. Similar concerns apply today…

. April 3, 2009 at 2:10 pm

Drugs and legalisation

SIR – We read your leader and briefing on how prohibition has failed to halt the trade in illegal drugs (“How to stop the drug wars”, March 7th). We agree with your assertion that a massive criminal market is an unintended consequence of controlling drugs. Indeed, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has called attention to this issue in a recent report to the Commission on Narcotic Drugs. However, we reach a different conclusion to you and find that legalisation is not the solution.

Drugs are controlled because they are harmful, they are not harmful because they are controlled. Legalising the use of drugs would be tantamount to losing a portion of every generation to addiction. Choosing between public health and public security is a false dilemma. Governments should, and can, do both. To reduce supply, more resources are needed to eradicate poverty and not just illicit crops. To reduce demand, more attention should be placed on drug prevention and treatment.

To tackle drug-trafficking, states should use international agreements against organised crime and corruption. The fact that certain transactions are hard to control does not mean that they should be made legal. I doubt that The Economist would support the legalisation of paedophilia, human-trafficking or arms-smuggling as “the least bad solution”.

Walter Kemp
Spokesman and speechwriter
United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime
Vienna

SIR – You are right to reiterate the case against drug prohibition, but regulation and taxation just will not work. Opium and cocaine are cheap to grow, high value and low weight, so the hundredfold mark-up to which you refer is almost wholly due to their illegality. Any conceivable tax would fall far short of equating to a hundredfold mark-up, and would in any case be emasculated by smuggling.

Analogies with alcohol and tobacco are misleading. Relative to drugs, these are bulky and low value, and neither face anything remotely corresponding to a hundredfold mark-up. Regulation and taxation are thus fairly straightforward. The only feasible alternative to prohibition is to take the international drug-trade into public ownership.

It is demand in developed countries that is driving this trade. Licensed growers should be directly linked to registered users. Such an approach could be phased, each country moving at its own pace. Over time, the market share of illicit drugs would be steadily squeezed and trafficker income and profits would drain away.

Jeremy Berkoff
London

SIR – Separating the markets for hard and soft drugs is critical. As long as cannabis distribution is controlled by organised criminals, consumers of the most popular illicit drug will continue to come into contact with sellers of addictive drugs. Cannabis should be taxed and regulated like alcohol, only without the ubiquitous advertising.

Robert Sharpe
Policy analyst
Common Sense for Drug Policy
Washington, DC

SIR – The evidence in support of your 20-year campaign in favour of legalising drugs has become ever more compelling. In 2000 I argued in your pages that the drug war had failed based on my experience in Colombia in the early 1990s (Letters, March 18th 2000). It is striking how much the costs of the drug war have mounted since then. In Colombia, despite improvements in security and $6 billion of American aid, cocaine production continues at roughly the same level and about 3,000 people still die every year because of cocaine-related conflict.

Many ministers and officials will admit in private that current policies have done much more harm than good but are not prepared to speak out because they see no point given entrenched American attitudes or hostile public-opinion. With the Obama administration showing a willingness to review both domestic and foreign policy this must be the moment to consider seriously the solution The Economist has so persistently proposed.

Sir Keith Morris
British ambassador to Colombia, 1990-94
London

SIR – You have given up far too soon on the war on drugs. It worked for Mao in defeating opium, after all. The strategy is simple: send all drug users to “re-education” camps, execute the dealers, and most importantly, do so within the context of an authoritarian and isolated society. A few more Patriot Acts, plus a healthy dose of protectionism, and we should be just about ready to emulate Mao’s success.

Adam Skory
Berkeley, California

The following letters on drugs appear online only

SIR – As a veteran of the war on drugs, with some 1,000 arrests under my belt, I have witnessed the utter futility of prohibition. There is no historic evidence that prohibition reduces drug use. Just about anyone who is going to do drugs uses them, regardless of their legal status. In fact, it is the notion of a “forbidden fruit” and prohibition-created profits that entice both young users and dealers. Youths report in federal surveys that it is easier for them to buy illegal drugs than beer or cigarettes.

Polls show that very few Americans would try heroin or cocaine if it were legalised tomorrow. There is no dam of potential drug users being held back by prohibition. Ending it would remove the violence in the same way that repealing the prohibition on alcohol did. This would be a pure win-win situation for everyone but drug dealers and terrorists.

Jack Cole
Director
Law Enforcement Against Prohibition
Medford, Massachusetts

SIR – Many illegal drugs, particularly stimulants like crack and ice, often induce violent psychosis in heavy users. Crack and ice are also hideously addictive, far beyond the imagination of well-meaning people whose opinions about drugs were shaped by smoking a few spliffs in the 1960s. Using a little willpower just does not cut it anymore. Four out of five people who try crack, even once, are enslaved to it for the rest of their miserable, stunted lives.

Medical science simply does not know how to help these unfortunates. The current drug war is a disaster, but any policy that increases availability still further will almost certainly lead to a catastrophic upsurge in random, drug-fuelled violence, as drug-gorging addicts lose their minds in a psychotic orgy of mass destruction.

Eric Worrall
Southampton

SIR – You are misguided in recommending that money saved from enforcing prohibition would be better spent treating addictions. Drug treatment does little more than enable drug use. In developed countries, rehab is the gateway to an expanding array of social-welfare and mental-health services that create disincentives for addicts to cut their consumption. Studies touting the effectiveness of drug treatment have little validity because they are based on self-reports.

Dr Michael Reznicek
Psychiatrist
Spokane, Washington

SIR – Any amount of funds designated for stopping drug- trafficking will never be enough. The higher investment in policing increases the price of drugs, delivering higher gains to the “narcos”. These market forces will always make investment in policing drugs insufficient.

Mexico needs to reform its law enforcement at all levels, from petty thieves to white-collar corruption. Nevertheless, America could show its true support by acknowledging its fair share of accountability in drug issues. Mexico should stop fighting the war on drugs on behalf of the United States. If America does not want a narco state as a neighbour and second-biggest trading partner, it should fight this war on its own soil.

Ignacio Gallo
Mexico City

SIR – An underestimated impediment to drug legalisation is the addiction of various governmental and law-enforcement agencies to the proceeds from properties seized in the quest to catch drug gangs. Illicit drugs are a great revenue stream for governments.

Ray Wilfinger
Cary, North Carolina

SIR – Your solution to the drug wars is not at all “messy”, but logical and correct. Ironically, on this side of the Atlantic, it is the free market, get-the-government-off-our-backs crowd that is crowing the loudest to keep drugs in the hands of the gangsters, criminals and warlords. Condemning someone to the joint for lighting up a joint won’t stop people from using drugs any more than preaching abstinence will stop people from engaging in sex.

Fred Bercovitch
San Diego

Peter April 17, 2009 at 9:52 am

Matt: I think that taking issue with the language of the, scientifically accepted mind you, term “clinical depression” is just arguing semantics and avoids the issue that some people are depressed beyond the fact that (paraphrasing) ‘the world sucks.’

I’m not denying there are people with severe clinical depression who require anti-depressants. It is easy to argue the margins because the extreme cases appear self-evident. Confronting someone will severe depression will legitimize the drug industry as easily as students taking Ritalin to study for tests trivializes it.

I don’t want to play semantic games with you, but it does depend on what you mean by accepted “scientifically”. There is an accepted definition in the DSM-IV, but there is also a growing body of academic literature criticizing the DSM-IV and DSM-V. Psychological illnesses aren’t akin to natural properties discovered by the other sciences. There is a politicized (once again, I am not saying that real illness does not exist) process and it seems very hard to argue that no value judgments about impairments, proper functioning and normality slip into what we consider an illness.

Even accepting the selection criteria and by extension the definition, definitions of mental illness are left functionally vague. There are lists of symptoms, which once again are (real) but merely grouped together by a group of doctors in the drafting process, and then my illness (whether I am mildly depressed, moderately depressed or severely depressed) hinges on how many of the symptoms I exhibit. Beyond that, the symptoms themselves are products of interpretation. Suppose I have suicidal thoughts, do I have them often? A lot? Considerably? – What exactly do these metrics mean in terms of hard, objective qualities? Only “all the time” appears clear, and yet is deeply misleading since it isn’t technically possible to fulfill it literally. There are serious question that can be somewhat summed in the polemic that one doctor might consider me severely depressed while another might consider me mildly depressed.

There are also questions of value neutrality. Once again, arguing the margins is easy because those with severe depression are so abnormal in their functioning that it is usually apparent, and many would accept them as atypical. But for the majority, what is the appropriate amount of happiness? How long is it normal to feel bad after a funeral? The problem comes from the notion of illness as a deficiency or impairment to normal functioning while another troubling aspect of anti-depressants is that they seem to break down the conventional treatment/enhancement distinction. We either have to start telling some very complex and loaded story about normalcy, to explain why some people need these drugs and other do not, although they also might derive benefit, or else we have to accept widespread and increasingly trivial use by anyone who claims to benefit.

Anyways, I’m not trying to attack you, or trying to trivialize or stigmatize those with mental illnesses, but I am suggesting that the picture is a little more complicated and there are some valid criticisms of the pharmaceutical industry. I think you made an excellent point, few people still argue about schizophrenics, but in more moderate cases like beta-blockers or other social anxiety drugs – what is the proper amount of social? Is it natural and normal for seventy year olds to have an erection for six hours? To the mundane, I had a housemate who once joked that Scope invented and cured the halitosis epidemic in one quick sweep.

. May 12, 2009 at 12:05 am

Ex-drug czar John Walters made a fool on CNN
By Mark Frauenfelder on Civlib

It’s almost sad to watch ex-Drug Czar John Walters made of fool by Harvard senior economics lecturer Jeffrey Miron, who effortlessly knocks down every ludicrous anti-marijuana myth Walters sets up.

. June 26, 2009 at 11:15 am

Alcohol link to one in 25 deaths

One in 25 deaths across the world are linked to alcohol consumption, Canadian experts have suggested.

Writing in the Lancet, the team from the University of Toronto added that the level of disease linked to drinking affects poorest people the most.

Worldwide, average alcohol consumption is around 12 units a week – but in Europe that soars to 21.5.

The report authors warn the effect of alcohol disease is similar to that of smoking a decade ago.

The analysis also found that 5% of years lived with disability are attributable to alcohol consumption.

The paper says that, although there have been some benefits of moderate drinking in relation to cardiovascular disease, these are far outweighed by the detrimental effects of alcohol on disease and injury.

. September 11, 2009 at 2:31 pm

Portugal’s drug policy
Treating, not punishing

Aug 27th 2009 | LISBON
From The Economist print edition
The evidence from Portugal since 2001 is that decriminalisation of drug use and possession has benefits and no harmful side-effects

“There are widespread misconceptions about the Portuguese approach. “It is important not to confuse decriminalisation with depenalisation or legalisation,” comments Brendan Hughes of the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, which is, coincidentally, based in Lisbon. “Drug use remains illegal in Portugal, and anyone in possession will be stopped by the police, have the drugs confiscated and be sent before a commission.”

The aim of the dissuasion commissions, which are made up of panels of two or three psychiatrists, social workers and legal advisers, is to encourage addicts to undergo treatment and to stop recreational users falling into addiction. They have the power to impose community work and even fines, but punishment is not their main aim. The police turn some 7,500 people a year over to the commissions. But nobody carrying anything considered to be less than a ten-day personal supply of drugs can be arrested, sentenced to jail or given a criminal record.”

. February 19, 2010 at 10:34 am

“Frustrated that people continued to consume so much alcohol even after it was banned, federal officials had decided to try a different kind of enforcement. They ordered the poisoning of industrial alcohols manufactured in the United States, products regularly stolen by bootleggers and resold as drinkable spirits. The idea was to scare people into giving up illicit drinking. Instead, by the time Prohibition ended in 1933, the federal poisoning program, by some estimates, had killed at least 10,000 people.”

. February 19, 2010 at 10:36 am

“And the numbers were not trivial. In 1926, in New York City, 1,200 were sickened by poisonous alcohol; 400 died. The following year, deaths climbed to 700. These numbers were repeated in cities around the country as public-health officials nationwide joined in the angry clamor. Furious anti-Prohibition legislators pushed for a halt in the use of lethal chemistry. “Only one possessing the instincts of a wild beast would desire to kill or make blind the man who takes a drink of liquor, even if he purchased it from one violating the Prohibition statutes,” proclaimed Sen. James Reed of Missouri.

Officially, the special denaturing program ended only once the 18th Amendment was repealed in December 1933. But the chemist’s war itself faded away before then. Slowly, government officials quit talking about it. And when Prohibition ended and good grain whiskey reappeared, it was almost as if the craziness of Prohibition—and the poisonous measures taken to enforce it—had never quite happened. “

. August 23, 2010 at 4:13 pm

“THE nota roja, a section reporting the previous day’s murders and car crashes in all their bloodstained detail, is an established feature of Mexican newspapers. It is also an expanding one, as fighting over the drug trail to the United States inspires ever-greater feats of violence. Last month in the northern state of Durango, a group of prisoners was apparently released from jail for the night to murder 18 partygoers in a next-door state. A few days later, 14 inmates were murdered in a prison in Tamaulipas. In all, since Felipe Calderón sent the army against the drug gangs when he took office as president almost four years ago, some 28,000 people have been killed, the government says. There is no sign of a let-up, on either side.

So it came as a surprise when on August 3rd Mr Calderón called for a debate on whether to legalise drugs. Though several former Latin American leaders have spoken out in favour of legalisation, and many politicians privately support it, Mr Calderón became the first incumbent president to call for open discussion of the merits of legalising a trade he has opposed with such determination. At a round-table on security, he said this was “a fundamental debate in which I think, first of all, you must allow a democratic plurality [of opinions]…You have to analyse carefully the pros and cons and the key arguments on both sides.” It was hardly a call to start snorting—and Mr Calderón subsequently made clear that he was opposed to the “absurd” idea of allowing millions more people to become addicted. But it has brought into the open an argument that appears to be gaining currency in Mexico.

The president spoke despite some recent success for his military campaign, with several important mafia bosses captured or killed. The latest was Ignacio Coronel, whose killing last month when the army raided his house was important for the government, which has been accused of giving the Sinaloa mob an easier ride than other gangs. (A car-bomb last month in Ciudad Juárez, on the border with the United States, may have been planted by rival traffickers to draw in America as a “neutral referee”, speculates Stratfor, a Texas-based security-analysis firm.) Half a dozen government agencies are said to be searching for Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, Sinaloa’s boss and the country’s most notorious trafficker. Officials claim success in strengthening the police and bringing recalcitrant state governors into line.”

. September 14, 2010 at 2:59 pm

Talk of legalising drugs

SIR – I applaud Mexican President Felipe Calderón for his honesty and courage in calling for a debate on drug legalisation to help reduce the bloody war in Mexico (“Thinking the unthinkable”, August 14th). Former President Vicente Fox has since gone further and called for an end to prohibition. Their openness and frankness are in stark contrast to the Obama administration. Barack Obama’s drug tsar, Gil Kerlikowske, has repeatedly said not only are he and Mr Obama opposed to legalisation, but that the word is not even in their vocabulary.

America has sent Mexico $1.3 billion in aid to buy guns and tanks. What Mexico really needs doesn’t cost a penny. It needs America to open up a debate about the causes of and solutions to the violence in Mexico. All options need to be considered when coming up with an exit strategy for this unwinnable war.

Tony Newman
Director of media relations
Drug Policy Alliance
New York

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