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Fighting the drug menace needs a radically different approach

Tags: drugs drug

Sanjeev Sabhlok

India has been racked by the Drugs menace for decades. The menace is widespread but is more prominent in border states in the North-East and the Punjab region.

A way must be found to control this problem, but how? One thing is clear – that there is no worse way to battle the menace of drugs then to prohibit their use.

Fighting drugs through a prohibition are not only a losing proposition, but it also worsens the situation. Not only have millions of participants in the drug trade become full-fledged criminals, but millions of lives have been lost or otherwise destroyed. The war on drugs has entrenched corruption at the highest level in governments across the world including in the police and armed forces.

Worst of all, this war has led to research by criminal cartels to create ever-more powerful drugs that are easier to smuggle in small quantities and in the most unlikely and undetectable ways. Of all the drugs that are trafficked today, less than one percent are caught and destroyed. As a result, we now have the greatest consumption of the most potent drugs across the world. There is no greater illustration of a totally failed policy than this.

We have fought the drug menace emotionally, irrationally. We have been moralistic. We forgot that adults are expected to use reason. A policy is about net costs and benefits, not about morality.

As far as economic incentives are concerned, there is no difference between prohibiting alcohol and drugs. The USA had to undo its 18th constitutional amendment after prohibition corrupted the entire society, but no one has learned anything from that inglorious experience. Moralistic proponents continue to propagate prohibition in India, but worse, the very idea that reason should apply to drug policy has long been taken off the table.

There is no other way to deal with the drugs menace than to regulate it and bring it under societal control. Richard Branson summarised it best in 2014: “There is a wide spectrum of policy options to control various types of drugs. At one end of this spectrum are illegal, criminally controlled markets subject to a full-scale war on drugs. At the other end are legal, unfettered free markets controlled by commercial enterprises. Both of these options are characterized by an absence of regulation, with governments essentially forfeiting control of the drug trade. What’s needed are appropriately regulated legal drug markets.”

Our party’s ideology provides the most powerful basis to think about this issue: What someone does to himself is not the business of government unless he physically harms others, and further, no one should be punished for an action that does not actually harm anyone.

But our party’s policies are not driven only by ideology. We are committed to reason and careful policy analysis. We are keenly aware that no drugs policy will ever be able to eliminate all bad outcomes. So society must rationally live with some bad outcomes: it is a matter of selecting the least bad outcome.

We need to look at this matter through a social cost-benefit test that captures all costs and all benefits, and is updated regularly to account for the constantly changing nature of the problem and solutions.

For option 1, when drugs are prohibited, the costs include the direct cost to taxpayers of the drug war, the crime and mayhem caused by the drug mafia, and the corruption of our police, armed force, and politicians. And the actual addicts – who have to hide their addiction from society – will die in vast numbers and cause others to die through their negligence or violent actions.

Is there any benefit at all from prohibition? Yes, around 1 per cent of the drugs are seized and thereby prevented from being consumed – although this is hard to say since the police do put aside a chunk of their seizures for their personal use: even IPS officers have been caught with such drugs.

For option 2, when drugs are legalized, there is the risk of overconsumption because drugs will become cheaper. But most of this consumption will be of a recreational and minor nature, unlikely to cause significant harm. On the benefits side, we can expect to save the cost of the drug war (the personnel and their equipment), and we will see a massive reduction in crime, murder, and mayhem. And a steep fall in political corruption.

When drugs are legalised, society will be able to generate and devote vast resources to punish drug users who harm others. Those who use drugs and drive, thereby causing accidents or those who use drugs and beat their family would be punished, even locked up. One would expect roadside drug testing to become stringent and more sophisticated over time, and significant reforms were undertaken to reduce domestic violence.

The resources for such activities will come from drug users through a Pigovian tax that forces them to internalise the harm they cause. Despite a very significant levy, drugs would still end up much cheaper than they are today, being produced by standard drug companies.

How would an addict access these drugs? The only way would be to get a prescription. For major drugs, a doctor’s prescription would be needed, while a pharmacist could prescribe mild drugs. The treating doctor would need to fully understand the addict’s situation and manage the addition through a drug rehabilitation plan. The doctor would also advice the addict and his family on safe levels of use to minimise the risk of overdose. The entire society would be aware of exactly what is going on.

SBP is the only Indian party with a rational policy towards drugs. Our manifesto states: “Under various victimless crime laws, people are punished even when they have not directly harmed anyone. Typically, this relates to dealing with or consuming drugs that are deemed illegal. We will review laws regarding victimless crimes for necessity, and where considered necessary, for appropriateness of punishment.

“In particular, it is not the business of government if someone voluntary consumes drugs in the privacy of his or her home, so long as no one is physically harmed. On the other hand, driving or managing heavy machines under the influence of drugs, manufacturing poisonous drugs, or domestic violence arising from drug use will remain a punishable offence. Because drugs will be legalized, they will become amenable to regulation and taxation. This policy will, at one stroke, get rid of a large section of the underworld of crime and terrorism which is currently supported by the illegal drug trade.”

Of course, this policy will require enormous checks and balances, including a radically improved governance system, of the sort I have written about elsewhere.

DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.

via TOI Blog

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