Friday, March 6, 2009

Legalise It, Tax It

Here's an idea for our cash strapped government: legalise drugs and tax them instead. We've tried prohibition and it hasn't worked (or conversely it has, if you are one of Ireland's recession-proof drug lords). As I've noted before, we have a drug prohibition problem in Ireland, not a drug problem.

The latest report on Irish crime statistics from the CSO (pdf) shows crime levels in every category falling with one obvious exception: controlled drug offences. A primary reason for the fall (though usually not acknowledged by politicians and the Gardai) is the steady fall in the number of young men in the Irish population aged 15-24. They are the age group most likely to be involved in most of the crime categories listed in the chart. We should be mighty grateful for our demographic situation, by the way. Heading into a recession with a burgeoning population of young men would be a recipe for rather more than noisy protests outside the Dail.

There is a precedent: Ireland has not been shy of policy innovations in the past, so why shouldn't drug policies be another area where we could lead the way. As the Economist observes in a reflection on 100 years of failed prohibition policies:
In fact the war on drugs has been a disaster, creating failed states in the developing world even as addiction has flourished in the rich world. By any sensible measure, this 100-year struggle has been illiberal, murderous and pointless.
By legalising drugs we can apply the same controls to their production, distribution and consumption as we apply to alcohol and tobacco. And there's a triple bonus to society: 1) spending on crime prevention will plunge (not just on drug related policing but on all the criminality arising from the activities of drug financed gangs), 2) crime levels overall will plunge thanks to 1, and 3) the government becomes a net recipient of monies from drug consumption rather than a net spender via law enforcement.

Nor does it have to be a 'once-and-forever' policy shift. As organisations like Transform and others have argued, the legalisation of drugs could be tried for, say, 3 years: long enough to wipe out the gangs and criminals; to determine the wider health and social consequences; and to refine policies further. Just as we continually refine policies on alcohol and smoking consumption (both of which have declined markedly by the way, despite their legality and affordability).

As for worried parents (like me) the message is simple: your children are already living in a society with ubiquitous access to these drugs - their decision to use them is as much subject to what you advise them to do as is their consumption of alcohol and cigarettes. Just because something is legal doesn't make it something you have to approve off (does anyone encourage their children to smoke?)

So there you go: legalise it, control it, tax it. The Minister for Finance will have my full support on that one.


  1. Psychology today included a blog post on the issue of drug regulation earlier in the week. However, I'd like to see the argument for regulation articulated a bit better than in the linked post. The author argues that the theory of rational addiction is a poor model for what is irrational drug taking behaviour. Fair enough. But adopting the rational addiction frame doesn't automatically mean deregulation as the rational model can support either regulation or deregulation depending on what kind of incentives you think people best respond to.

    One problem is the message legalization sends and how fallible our behaviour can be. Ireland already has an undeniable culturally ingrained positive attitude towards binge drinking. The research indicates that it is erroneous to adopt the liberal regulative attitudes of 'wet' european countries to bring us in line with their moderate drinking patterns. We will simply drink more.

    As in: Plant, E. J., & Plant, M. (2005). A ‘leap in the dark?’:Lessons for the United Kingdom from past extensions of bar opening hours. International Journal of Drug Policy, 16, 363–368.

    Similar evidence is available for Europe, Iceland, Australia and North America where licensing liberalisation was followed by "rises in alcohol consumption, violent crime, traffic accidents, illicit drug use as well as extra public health and tourism costs."

    The only existing experiment I can think of to test the effect of legalisation vs regulation of illict substances in Ireland is in the sale of magic mushrooms. This was legal in Ireland up until January '06. I haven't seen the figures and although their use is infrequent it would be interesting to see the change in usage over this period.

  2. I take your point about alcohol consumption Michael. There are unique cultural factors in Ireland that have traditionally inclined us towards excessive consumption: binge drinking in effect.

    But I don't see how this inevitably extends to the consumption of illegal drugs. I don't doubt consumption of marijuana and the like would rise if they were legalised: but the consumption of other substances might decline (think of the impact of ecstasy tablets - some clubs/pubs turned off the water supply in the toilets because users were drinking water rather than beer).

    And I think we have to remember that there is a precedent for turning previously illegal activities into legal ones: it's called the national lottery - an invention of the mafia in early 20th century America, as noted here:

  3. positive economics of marijuana tax

    I must say in the U.S. the marijuana prohibition campaign seems incredibly counterintuitive. One in two will smoke it over their lifetime and there is substantial and stable prevalence of regular use. Despite this, the level of enforcement is such that it generates substantial fear (for what reason?) and it goes so far as to endanger people's lives with little remorse.

    There's no where this is more obvious than at my current base in Tallahassee, Florida, and the incredibly tragic case of Rachel Hoffman. After being caught twice with a "baggie" of marijuana, Rachel (a 23 year old graduate from Florida State University here) was told by the Tallahassee police that she would go to prison for four years unless she became an undercover informant. She was then murdered during a badly organised and botched "sting operation" in May of last year. I say little remorse as in the aftermath the Tallahassee police chief says Rachel was suspected of selling drugs and she was rightly treated as a criminal.

    People here, can easily imagine how someting like this could happen to them and with this mentality often start to view themselves as criminals (which can only have negative consequences if use continues which it appears to do). In the case of marijuana use in the US, "Legalise it, Tax it" and leave the people alone doesn't seem like a bad tune to me.


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