Prohibition: Illogical.

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 (more information at

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 😉


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  1. Logic applies in politics, you just need leaders with the time and courage. The ACT has effectively decriminalised use of marijuana, and developments in the medical marijuana movement (which is pushed for reasons of both real medical benefit and as a stalking horse for legalisation) in the US, are likely to be transported here in time.

    The problem is that any politician proposing such changes would have to spend a lot of time and effort persuading people of this research, and of what may come, fight against a variety of special interest lobbies, and face a loss of votes from those who are fearful of change, yet be quite unlikely to gain any votes from those who are yet to experience the changes.

    As you say it’s also a rather side issue in the face of economic recovery, climate change, the NBN, immigration, water, etc etc.
    But i’d say give it 10 years and pot will be decriminalised and sold with medical approval. In 20 it will be legal. That could be sped up if a few key politicians go to push it, and the media get over the giggle factor and take the issue seriously, but the change is rather inevitable I’d say.
    Then again, you and I both know people who’ve been severely and adversely affected by excessive marijuana use. So properly balancing this legalisation (which i fully support) with the right social cues and support systems to prevent addiction and help people to get back to normalcy if they do overuse, will be necessary to sell this legislation and address the issues already faced in the community.

  2. @andrew: It certainly has dependency issues and there will be people who abuse it, but it’s not chemically addictive.

  3. The last statement was deliberately ambiguous (lacking the appropriate grammatical device to express sarcasm on the Internet) to play into the fact that many believe politics is illogical, whilst still leaving myself open to the interpretation that there is logic to it. A lot of politicians are logical in their decision making although I will admit that simple logic is insufficient when it comes to many political issues.

    It is a difficult position for any politician to take as most of it stems from a lack of education. Whilst there has been some progression in this area (E.G. drug education for myself was preached as abstinence only, for my brother who is 3 years younger it was harm reduction. An enormous difference) we’re still fighting against many decades of intellectual inertia and its not something that can be changed with the few bits of evidence that I’ve put forth.

    I’m with you on the idea that the change is inevitable. As we overcome the problems of the day we can then turn our attention to the ideals that have only been held onto because we haven’t investigated the alternative. Couple this with the current younger population who has spent their life in an increasingly fast paced world radical changes such as this would seem the norm. That’s a bit of arm waving on my part however 😉

    I would hope that most of the funds raised through such a system would be mostly directed addiction and health programs, much like the tobacco revenues are. Whilst there are many drugs that aren’t chemically addictive, as Chris said, there’s the psychological dependence to consider. I’m sure the with the revenue generated and savings made on enforcement would see easily see a net benefit for Australia overall.

  4. Your right chris, its never killed anyone and its not chemically addictive. Still, it’s not ‘safe’ and if the campaign is to both drop the ‘hippie who just wants to get stoned’ stereotype and address the fears, then addressing these issues needs to be front and center.
    There was a faint hope that the GFC would cause governments to legalise pot as a new revenue scheme as Colorado in the US is enjoying
    But no dice thus far.
    What is really needed is a politician or two willing to champion the cause. We already have on record that numerous politicians once smoked pot (Swan, Turnbull, Obama), and no one is actively demonising it (though conservatives like Barnaby Joyce would if it became a debate). So like Gay unions, it needs an individual who is responsible and respected to stand up and say they have smoked pot and think it should be legalised. That would kick start such a debate, and give it a long term chance 
    (Though Rudd’s never smoked it, and I’m pretty sure Gillard hasn’t either. Both were too nerdy, and whilst I live in hope Gillard is more socially liberal than Rudd, I’m not sure she is the type who would fight on it. This will have to come through state govts like the ACT first)

  5. I dont think this Green’s MP is going to be pushing the issue for a while –

    The Greens MP Lee Rhiannon says she will support her eldest son who has been charged with drug dealing.
    Thirty-one-year-old Rory O’Gorman was charged after police allegedly found about $290,000 worth of cannabis at his Bondi Junction apartment.

    300k. Fark! That’s almost mafia boss league…

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