Posts Tagged ‘drugs debate|’

It’s The Demand, Stupid…Again!

Wednesday, January 5th, 2011

When in my previous post (Let’s Stop This Insanity!) I said that the demand for drugs is the linchpin of the so-called War on Drugs (WoD), I was not advocating criminalising the demand for drugs — which, by the way, should be the logical policy those who support prohibition and the WoD should follow. If for the sake of the argument, one could be prepared to assume that there is something rational and logical about the WoD, then its supporters should focus their efforts not on the supply of, but on the demand for, drugs.

I do not support the WoD, for I believe it’s one of the most heinous policies ever engineered and should be stopped. When I say that the demand is the linchpin of the WoD, what I want is to draw the attention to an important point, which is, that any policy aimed at tackling the so-called “drug problem” should start by acknowledging that our demand, and our willingness and ability to pay for illegal drugs, are sufficient and necessary conditions to make the supply of drugs possible and to sustain and stimulate its relentless growth. In other words, it is our demand that underpins the supply, and not the other way round.

And that is something previous generations understood quite well, apparently. Remember the Opium Wars? Well, we decided to “push” our case, rather forcibly some would say, due to the “barriers” the Chinese were creating to try to stop the free flow of a commodity in which the British Empire was particularly competitive: opium.

Interestingly, though, the supply, as far as the British East India Company was concerned, was a legitimate activity, and the demand, well, could have done with some improvements, or so we thought…for the Chinese seemed to have a different opinion. Exactly 200 years ago, the Qianlong Emperor issued the following decree:[1]

«Opium has a harm. Opium is a poison, undermining our good customs and morality. Its use is prohibited by law. Now the commoner, Yang, dares to bring it into the Forbidden City. Indeed, he flouts the law! However, recently the purchasers, eaters, and consumers of opium have become numerous. Deceitful merchants buy and sell it to gain profit. The customs house at the Ch’ung-wen Gate was originally set up to supervise the collection of imports (it had no responsibility with regard to opium smuggling). If we confine our search for opium to the seaports, we fear the search will not be sufficiently thorough. We should also order the general commandant of the police and police- censors at the five gates to prohibit opium and to search for it at all gates. If they capture any violators, they should immediately punish them and should destroy the opium at once. As to Kwangtung and Fukien, the provinces from which opium comes, we order their viceroys, governors, and superintendents of the maritime customs to conduct a thorough search for opium, and cut off its supply. They should in no ways consider this order a dead letter and allow opium to be smuggled out!»

So, the Chinese wanted to enforce the ban on the importation of opium and wanted more rigorous and thorough controls of smuggling activities, and we…we begged to differ and, well, as they say, the rest is history.

Back to the 21th century, and what do we see? We see a curiously similar situation, although, in our case, the role is reversed. Yes, we all have become feverish followers of the Qianlong Emperor’s doctrine: not only have we banned the importation of drugs, but also criminalised their users. Ironically, and perhaps perversely, we have decided to enforce our point of view by, guess what, by declaring war…again! Only this time we wage it on those who dare to bring it into the Forbidden City, to undermine our good customs and morality.

We should know better by now, and understand that not all wars are equal, that some are even less equal than others. And the so-called WoD is perhaps the most unequal of all. By shifting the onus from drug consuming countries (like ours), to drug producing countries (like those south of the US border), we are relinquishing to a great extent our responsibility as consumers for fuelling the violence, corruption and destabilisation of the democratic institutions of those countries directly or indirectly involved in the supply and distribution of drugs.[2]

In case of any doubt, I would like to reiterate what I said at the beginning of this post: I am in favour of the legalisation of drugs, not just their demand, but the whole chain: production, distribution and consumption of drugs. To me, the WoD encapsulates the idiocy, intellectually and pragmatically speaking, of the policies aimed at enforcing the prohibition to produce, distribute and consume illegal drugs. So far, the burden has fallen mainly on the supply side of the drug equation. I do believe that the campaign calling for ending the WoD will be strengthen if we all understand that the onus should be on the demand not on the supply side of the market. If we understand that, we could start treating the problem for what it is: a health issue, not a criminal one.

Gary S. Becker, an American economist and Nobel Prize winner, has eloquently highlighted the imbalance of the whole WoD business when he says:[3]

«No one has estimated the social cost of American drug policy on Mexico, Colombia, and other countries, but it has to be immense. Perhaps these countries should just allow drugs to be shipped to the US, and put the full burden of stopping these shipments on American enforcement agencies. The American government would protest, but such a result would provide a clearer picture to the American people of the full cost of current policy, including the major costs imposed on other countries. One can hope that then we will get a serious rethinking of the American war on drugs, and some real political movement toward decriminalization and legalization of various drugs.»

Is there somewhere a moral to be learned from the way we have responded and continue responding to the use of narcotics, stimulants and other drugs? Why is it that we continue enforcing policies that have proved to be completely inadequate, again and again? Are we to believe that it all comes down to just sheer ignorance?

Probably it is just me, but I am always rather puzzled every time somebody pulls that quotation out of their hat, you know, the one warning us of the perils of not paying due attention to our history teacher: those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it! Well, it seems to me that it is not much that people choose to ignore history, but rather that everybody sees it through their coloured glasses. To me, history sometimes resembles a capricious mistress who is prone to be amenable to several masters…all at once.

  1. [1] You can get a bird’s eye view of the issue here: The Opium Wars
  2. [2] As for policies aimed at legalising the demand (consumption) of drugs while at the same time criminalising the supply (Holland, for instance), they are at best conceptually very challenging, and at worst, highly counterproductive. Some argue that it is a step in the right direction, others than it undermines the efforts to stop the WoD and relieves consumers of all responsibility for the harm the WoD is causing all over the world. I hope to discuss this issue later, in a new post.
  3. [3] See, Becker, Gary S. The American War on Drugs is Not Only an American Disaster.
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