One of the most common opinions I hear from proponents of prohibition is that the alternatives will all lead to an increase in drug use especially amongst young people.
The theory is that anything other than absolute prohibition amounts to approval and will be seen as such by our children.
In order to discuss this we actually need to look at 3 questions altogether:
If we can answer these questions we can examine the best policy mix for reducing the chaotic impact that the illicit drug trade has on our society.
QUESTION 1: DOES REMOVING PROHIBITION INCREASE USE?
Two countries with tolerant drug laws in Europe are the Netherlands and Portugal, particularly where the use of cannabis is concerned. Studies by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction have shown that comparative use in these two countries is lower than much of the rest of Europe. In Portugal, for example, where changes to the criminal code in 2001 made possession of personal amounts of illegal drugs effectively as serious as a parking violation, use of cannabis among the general population is at 11.7% of the population between 15-64, and 6.7% among the 15-34 age bracket. Unfortunately, surveys of drug use in Portugal only began after this change in the law, so comparisons are not possible. In the Netherlands, the figures stand at 25.7% and 13.7% respectively. Portugal’s use of cannabis, despite being on the major importation axis for resin in particular, is considerably lower than most countries; the Netherlands is comparable to Germany, and Ireland, and lower than France, Denmark and the United Kingdom, all of which have far stricter drug laws.1
It is also lower than the Czech Republic, which is seen as the most liberal country in Europe in its stance. In 1999 they reversed a previous stance, making possession of amounts “larger than small” for personal use illegal. In 2009 that rather nebulous term was clarified so that an individual can now possess 15g of marijuana before committing a criminal offence.
In the United States, where possession of small amounts of cannabis for personal use has been legal in Washington State and Colorado since 2012 and Oregon, Alaska, and Washington D.C. since the 2014 midterms, the national picture is one of falling consumption of the drug.
Australia has traditionally had a hard-line approach to the possession and distribution of narcotics and here the use of illegal drugs seems to be increasing. Research by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, published in 2014, shows that the use of crystal methamphetamine has more than doubled since 2011, even as rates for tobacco smoking and drinking alcohol have declined.3
It is therefore very hard to suggest that removing bars to possession of illegal drugs, either through legislative changes or increased societal tolerance, increases drug use in a meaningful way. This is partly due to an incomplete statistical picture but, where information is available, it is clear that societies where drug possession is either legal or treated as an administrative offence rather than a criminal one do not see marked increase in the use of illegal drugs either generally or specifically among young people. It is also clear that countries, like Australia, which have harsher enforcement policies, can still see a marked increase in drug use.
QUESTION 2: DOES PROHIBITION REDUCE USE?
The United States passed the Harrison Act in 1914, which required the vendors of opiates and cocaine to be issued with licences before they could sell those narcotics. The Act was subject to various legal challenges, but by 1919 the licensing body had ceased to issue licences, effectively making the sale of drugs illegal. Offences concerning the possession and sale of drugs were enumerated most clearly in 1970 though, with the introduction into law of the Controlled Substances Act, part of President Nixon’s War on Drugs. In 1920, the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution brought in prohibition of alcohol; this was not repealed until 1933 by the Twenty-First Amendment.
While an accurate statistical picture of drug and alcohol consumption does not exist for much of the early part of the century and, for drugs, is even now hard to provide, a comparison of murder rates with periods in which drugs and alcohol were prohibited is instructive.
Trends in crime: comparison during and after prohibition 4
The lowest point in the graph coincides with a period when the prohibition of alcohol had been rescinded and an active war on drugs had not yet begun; murder rates increase when alcohol and drugs are illegal and an active policy of enforcement is pursued. The only way to enforce a monopoly in an illegal market is by force, after all. There has been a decline in the murder rate in the United States since the early 1990s that is not immediately explicable in comparison to drug prohibition, but it may well be to do with increases in police numbers and effectiveness at preventing and detecting violent crime, rather than a correlated relationship with drug prohibition.
In Australia, the use of heroin on prescription was legal until 1953, when importation of opiates was outlawed. The stance was toughened in 1955 when the use of heroin was also made illegal. There are no clear statistics for the use of the drug before and after this period, although it was not until U.S. servicemen started bringing cheaper heroin, produced in the Golden Triangle of Laos, Thailand, and Burma in the early 1960s that consumption increased markedly, potentially due to availability and cost, as well as the societal shifts that occurred at that time.5 There was a historical precedent for the failure of legislating against heroin importation and use for the Australian goverment as well: in the early part of the twentieth century penalties around the use and trafficking of opium were introduced to combat the rising tide of smoking the drug but, by the 1930s, Australia suffered the highest global rate per capita of the drug’s use.6
Drawing firm conclusions is again hard due to the lack of credible data, but it seems clear that both in terms of the correlation of an increase in homicide rates with periods of active prohibition in the United States, and an increase in the consumption of opium and heroin after these drugs were made illegal in Australia, that prohibition does not reduce drug use.
QUESTION 3: CAN WE REDUCE USAGE OF A NON PROHIBITED SUBSTANCE?
The best case study we have here is tobacco. Here is a powerfully addictive and very dangerous drug responsible for around four times as many deaths per annum as road accidents, that is legally regulated throughout the world and is freely and legally imported and exported.
Facts from the World Health Organisation paint an accurately bleak picture of tobacco usage. Smoking cigarettes kills nearly six million people a year, and half of tobacco users will be killed by their habit. There is a socio-economic aspect to the problem as well: nearly 80% of the world’s one billion smokers live in low- and middle-income countries where they have access to poorer medical intervention and less governmental interest in health campaigns and the regulation of advertising. The issue extends beyond consumers of the drug too: tobacco farming is a major source of income among poor families in the third world, many of whom send their children to work on plantations and are poisoned by the nicotine absorbed through their skin when handling wet leaves; this is known as “green tobacco sickness”.7
In Australia, the statistics are as shocking as they are elsewhere. The Australian Council on Smoking and Health has shown that 50 Australians die prematurely every day because they smoke tobacco.8
Tasmania was the first state to introduce a total ban on smoking indoors in January 2006. Since then, all other states have followed suit, most within a year of Tasmania’s change in legislation; the last state was the Northern Territory in 2010.9 In 2012, Australia became the first nation in the world to mandate plain packaging for tobacco in retail outlets; prior to that, since 2005, all packs have carried health warnings.10 Advertising of tobacco and the sponsorship of events is also very tightly regulated, making it very difficult to encounter any form of advertising for such products.11
This has had a clear effect on the consumption of tobacco across all age ranges in Australia. Since the country signed up to the WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control in February 2005, the use of tobacco has declined steadily among adults, continuing the trend in the table below.
The decline is far more dramatic, though, in the younger age brackets, where 2005 marked a real shift downwards in rates of tobacco consumption. This suggests that, while general health information and social tolerance had started to see rates fall from the mid-1980s onwards, the ban on advertising and the use of preventative imagery on packaging has had a serious, positive impact on rates of smoking among younger people.
This is a trend mirrored across the developed world, where advances in public health education and tighter legislation of the tobacco industry’s marketing practices have seen a steady decline in smoking, as shown below.
The other interesting thing to note about tobacco is that even though it is very heavily regulated and very heavily taxed there is still little to no black market for tobacco in Australia.
Criminals cannot compete in a regulated market. The costs of importing goods illegally is too high and the risks to great. Who would buy an inferior, more expensive product when the pure, safe equivalent is freely available?
We can see from the above that prohibition is not necessary and not even sufficient to reduce usage of illicit drugs.
Even if it were the case that adopting measures other than prohibition were to result in an increased rate of usage we have seen that we can adjust our regulatory framework to reduce usage in young people.
One parting thought I would like to leave with is this: should our goal be to minimize usage of drugs at all costs? Surely our goal should be to minimize the impact of drugs; on the lives of our young people and families, and on our society in terms of government expenditure.
If we focus solely on reduction of usage as our key metric of success, we are never going to achieve the best outcome because it doesn't take into account the cost of implementing that policy; both fiscal and emotional.
1. European Drug Report 2013: Trends and developments by EMCDDA, Lisbon, May 2013
2. Results from the 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Summary of National Findings PREPARED BY the Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality (CBHSQ), Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), and by RTI International (a trade name of Research Triangle Institute), Research Triangle Park, North Carolina. Work by RTI was performed under Contract No. HHSS283201000003C.
3. Smoking, drinking rates down but illicit drug use rising: report by Anna Morozow
4. Free from the Nightmare of Prohibition by Harry Browne
5. The Proposed Heroin Trial by Max Neutze
6. Illicit drug use in Australia via Wikipedia
7. Tobacco by WHO Media centre via World Health Organization website http://www.who.int/
8. Statistics on Smoking via The Non Smokers' Movement of Australia Inc.
9. List of smoking bans in Australia via Wikipedia
10. Country Details For Australia via Tobacco Control Laws website http://www.tobaccocontrollaws.org/
11. Regulated Forms of Advertising, Promotion and Sponsorship via Tobacco Control Laws website http://www.tobaccocontrollaws.org/
12. Prevalence of smoking—adults via Tobacco in Australia website http://www.tobaccoinaustralia.org.au/
13. Smoking in Australia via Oxygen.org.au