The Libertarian in me always gets riled up when it comes to the topic of prohibition. It is my firmly held belief that the state has no right in dictating what I or anyone else does to themselves, as long as it will bring no harm to others. Here in Australia we’re tolerant of small scale recreational usage (for the most part) but it’s still illegal with much of the power left in the judgement of the police. The legality is but a small part of it for me however as the capitalist in me also sees a strong opportunity for a new government regulated industry that would take away power from underground drug traffickers and significantly line the coffers of the government.
It seems I’m not the only one who holds such a viewpoint either. Here’s a great info-graphic that shows the costs of enforcing prohibition vs the revenue that could be raised by treating marijuana as any other agricultural product:
Whilst another $778 million might be a drop in the bucket for an economy as large as the USA the money spent in enforcing the prohibition of all illegal substances, some $14 billion, would be far better spent on education and health programs. History has shown us that prohibition does nothing to stop people from indulging in these activities so why try so hard to stop them? It’s right up there with abstinence only education which has been proven time and time again to be ineffective. But here I am just ranting on a subject, there’s no proof that legalising all these recreational drugs would work right?
As it turns out there’s quite a substantial body of evidence that legalising any and all recreational substances has an enormous positive effect for both the country and the people:
“Judging by every metric, decriminalization in Portugal has been a resounding success,” says Glenn Greenwald, an attorney, author and fluent Portuguese speaker, who conducted the research. “It has enabled the Portuguese government to manage and control the drug problem far better than virtually every other Western country does.”
Compared to the European Union and the U.S., Portugal’s drug use numbers are impressive. Following decriminalization, Portugal had the lowest rate of lifetime marijuana use in people over 15 in the E.U.: 10%. The most comparable figure in America is in people over 12: 39.8%. Proportionally, more Americans have used cocaine than Portuguese have used marijuana.
This isn’t a new experiment by Portugal either, they’ve been at this for almost a decade now. The numbers are quite telling as initial fears mirrored those of any country; legalising drug use would increase usage, bring in the dreaded drug tourists and damage their international reputation. Drug usage overall saw a decrease (although there was a slight increase in marijuana usage), 95% of those arrested for drug misdemeanours were Portuguese (I.E. they were not drug tourists) and internationally Portugal has not been seen any differently due to its liberal stance on these issues (I found it hard to find direct evidence of this but since the majority of the world doesn’t know Portugal has such laws I’d say their reputation is in tact). Probably one of the best outcomes this program had was the doubling of people seeking treatment for drug addiction, something which many will not seek out of fear for what might happen to them. Truly Portugal has shown the world that the decriminalization aspect of recreational usage is viable and effective.
There’s still a lack of hard data on what a government regulated and taxed drug industry would look like. The Netherlands is as close as they come to an actual regulated industry however it’s still extremely ambiguous due to the laws saying one thing, but the enforcement being another. Thus we end up in the situation where it’s not illegal to grow (although you have to hand the plants over if they’re found), coffee shops are allowed to sell it but not buy it (so how do they get it?) and separate registers need to be kept for the sales. Still the government rakes in around $600 million a year from this confusingly regulated industry and the case can be made that such revenue could be used in a similar vein to that derived from the tobacco industry. Seems a lot better than spending an order of magnitude more on trying to make everyone stop.
All this being said I’m in support of a careful, measured approach to implementing such an idea. Whilst I applaud Portugal’s progressive stance on decriminalising all recreational use the implementation of a new industry is something that is not to be taken lightly. A good old fashioned iterative approach starting in well known territory and then expanding (I.E. start with marijuana and move onto others afterwards) would ensure that this fledgling industry was properly regulated and taxed just like its sister industries of tobacco and alcohol.
I haven’t even mentioned the affect that this would have on crime rates in Australia. The data is a bit vague on how many crimes are directly related to drugs but 41% of detainees in Australia attribute their crimes at least in part to drugs (this also includes alcohol). The data seems to show that around that half of them would attribute that directly to alcohol, leaving around 20% of our prisoner population being there for some sort of drug related offence. Even if we’re conservative and say that at least three quarters of those offences would have been committed anyway that’s still a potential crime rate reduction of 5% which would be coupled with the benefit of adding revenue. There just doesn’t seem to be a downside to this equation.
Australia is in a really good position to attempt something like this. We’ve already got the basis in the lax enforcement of the laws and I’m sure there’s more than a handful of people out there with the infrastructure to provide for such an industry should their current activities become legalised. Still we’re in the midst of many other more pressing issues so something like this won’t get any airtime for a while to come. Maybe next term.
But then again I am relying on logic to dictate politics, and we all know how well that works