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Dhaka Tribune

Why the drug war will inevitably fail

Is legalization the answer?

Update : 30 Jan 2020, 10:57 PM

Recently, in the media, news about the government’s vendetta on drugs has been very common. This has clearly become a matter of national importance. 

While I will stay away from what I think is the politics behind all this, I will, however, drop my two cents here about the whole issue regarding the legality of drugs. 

Have you ever wondered why some addictive substances are legal while other substances are illegal? It almost seems as if the latter substances are far more harmful and addictive than the former ones. 

As such, if certain drugs should be made illegal, it only makes sense that the extent to which they are criminalized and the way in which they are classified should be based on their social, economical, and physiological consequences.

In 2010, the neuropsychopharmacologist David Nutt published a peer-reviewed study in which he got the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs to classify drugs according to their potential harm to society and the user. The results contradicted the classification systems of most countries. 

For example, the study concluded that while the class A (most dangerous) drugs like heroin cause significant harm to the user and those around them, the legal drug alcohol causes far more harm than either of them. Conversely, it concluded that the class A drug LSD is almost entirely harmless.

When any government tries to win a drug war on the supply side, they do so at the expense of ignoring the most fundamental of market forces: Demand and supply. In economics, there is a concept called the price elasticity of demand (PED in short). 

Common sense dictates that if the price of a product increases, its demand will go down and vice versa. The PED of a product shows by how much demand will change if there is a certain change in price. If a high change in price causes very little change in demand, then that product is said to be price inelastic. 

Drugs are the best examples of price inelastic products. Due to its addictive nature, regular users will demand it no matter what the price is. Any effort to curb supply would therefore only result in an increase in price. Drug dealers are almost always guaranteed customers. 

Therefore, the higher the price, the greater risks they will be willing to take. They will be encouraged to produce more drugs and recruit more traffickers which will increase its availability. We all know how effective, efficient, and experienced drug dealers are when it comes to peddling their products. 

You may think that maybe going after the kingpins and neutralizing them might help, but this simply isn’t the case. As long as there’s demand, there will be supply. Someone new will emerge to take his place. Historically, we have seen this happen many times as was the case with Pablo Escobar in Colombia.

Drug wars also lead to a lot of unnecessary drug-related crimes. Drug dealers don’t work within the legal framework, so whenever a dispute arises, they resort to violence. However, these cartels and the violence that comes with them wouldn’t exist had drugs been legal and regulated. 

No one who can buy these drugs legally will be willing to deal with violent criminals to buy the drugs they want. If drugs are made legal, the people selling these drugs will be corporations compliant to the law and not criminals, and they will be much more likely to obey the age limits as well. This will also help the government ensure that no drug is sold to minors.

Many of the problems that we associate with drugs are actually a direct consequence of the fact that it’s criminalized. For example, prohibition makes drugs stronger. If the drugs are more potent, you can store it in a smaller space and thus, you can make more profit. 

In fact, prohibition encourages manufacturers to increase potency since it’s easy to hide drugs when you can store them in a smaller space. If drugs were legal, the government could mandate a maximum potency limit. 

Illegal drugs are often infused with many other harmful substances to increase its addictive properties. However, if drugs were regulated, the government could ensure that this doesn’t happen.

The only countries that have successfully managed to curb the use and misuse of harmful drugs are the ones who legalized it and treated its users instead of turning them into criminals. Users are 86% more likely to report that they need medical attention when drugs are legal, as opposed to when they are stigmatized and criminalized. 

Portugal spends 5% of the money the US spends on drug enforcement, yet, since drugs have been decriminalized in Portugal, consumption fell an incredible 72%. During the same time, drug consumption in the US has increased.

Drugs wars have failed. Across the board, all around the world. Not by accident, but because they were always meant to fail by design. It’s time we take a pragmatic and data-driven approach to our policy-making. Let’s not be whimsical. 

Shams Ishtiaque Rahman is a freelance contributor.

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