Bruce Burleson -- April 9, 2017

As America faces its worst opioid addiction epidemic ever, it is time to ask the question: Is what we’re doing working?


By that I mean the entire “war on drugs.”  Although waged perhaps with best intentions at heart, the reality is that the “war” isn’t working and never will.  The reason has to do with the nature of markets themselves—for any given product or service.


America and the world operates on market principles—supply and demand.  Even in the old Soviet Union, there were markets for all kinds of goods.  When certain goods were illegal, they became available on the “black market.”  In Moscow in 1987, you could buy just about anything—American-made movies, CDs, books of any kind.  You just needed to know where to go.  But if you were caught, you went to jail.


The same is true of illegal drugs—particularly heroin and cocaine.  When these drugs became illegal, they did not simply vanish from the face of the earth.  The market for them simply shifted from the legal market to the illegal—and with disastrous results in terms of crime, cartels, smuggling, etc.  Because America has always had a demand for these drugs, someone will always find a way to supply them.  We saw what happened with Prohibition of alcohol.  For a dozen or so years, America tried to criminalize alcohol distribution.  But what happened?  Did the market for booze simply vanish?  No.  Instead people opened speakeasies, smuggled the booze into the country, and produced alcohol in the hills.  Incidentally, high-speed car racing, e.g. NASCAR, emerged from the days of Prohibition where people built vehicles that could transport booze and outrun the authorities.  There’s no outrunning a market.   It will always exist whether it’s above-ground or underground.


The reality is that markets for any particular product or service remain stable whether the law allows the product or service or not.  Let’s say for example the government erased the Second Amendment and made all guns illegal. Would patriotic Americans stop acquiring them?  Not likely!  (In fact, we’d probably acquire as many as we could and then make sure the Second Amendment was quickly reinstated!)  The market for the guns would still exist.  All making something illegal does is criminalize something that the government otherwise has no business putting its hands on.  I believe that the same principle applies to illegal drugs.


Conservatives often argue that drugs are awful and should be removed from society.  In fact, some call for stricter enforcement of the existing drug laws.  But the problem remains: markets!  When you remove a drug dealer from the streets, guess what happens?  Very quickly someone else moves into that role, picking up where they left off.  The market for drugs doesn’t disappear when you try to eliminate the supply.  As s substance abuse counselor, I have seen the end result—the worst-case scenarios—of substance abuse thousands of times over.  But almost unanimously, my clients would do the drugs whether they were legal or not.  So, the ultimate solution to America’s drug problem is that we need to begin addressing not so much the supply, but the demand, for drugs.  We need to put more focus on prevention: keeping as many people as possible from becoming addicted in the first place. 


And then there’s the issue of individual responsibility and freedom.  If conservatives want to emphasize minimal government intrusion into society, then the debate needs to be had about whether the government should have the right to tell people what they can or cannot put into their bodies.  It gets down to individual responsibility.  The war on drugs has turned millions of addicts into criminals.  We’ve spent hundreds of billions of dollars trying to tell people what to do when it comes to drugs.  And the result?  Some people still use drugs while others doesn’t.  Perhaps it’s natural selection, or perhaps it’s just human nature.  Some people self-destruct, others don’t.  So, the war on drugs is a complete failure, and was from its inception.


Some argue that making drugs legal will lead to more use of the drugs: that if you can buy heroin or cocaine at a local dispensary (much like marijuana in some states today) more people will engage in using or abusing these drugs.  But the logic of that argument just isn’t there. It’s like saying that opening a new liquor store in the neighborhood generates more alcoholism.  Again, in all likelihood, the actual market for illegal drugs is stable—that is, a relatively similar number of people will use or abuse them whether they’re legal or illegal.  We’ve seen that happen in parts of Europe, particularly the Netherlands.  And there’s no evidence of increased marijuana use in the states where it has been made legal.  There have been instances of people being arrested for driving under the influence of marijuana.  But that has always gone on anyway.  Thus far, marijuana legalization hasn’t been the disaster that a lot of people had thought it would be.  There’s no logical reason to think the legalization of any other substance would be either.


In Massachusetts, there are currently 4 to 5 people dying every day from opioid overdose.  Mainly the reason is that the street drugs are stronger than addicts think they are.  Addicts think they’re buying heroin whereas they’re really getting fentanyl—a drug that produces a slower “high” but is in fact many times more powerful than heroin.  So they keep injecting it over and over to achieve their usual high, and wind up overdosing.  Now imagine if drugs were legal, and properly regulated.  You could go to a dispensary and buy heroin the same way you go to the package store and buy alcohol.  Because alcohol is regulated, you know exactly what you’re getting when you pick up that bottle of Jack Daniels.  The same could potentially be true of heroin or cocaine.  If these drugs went through a proper process of quality control, a user would know exactly what they were getting when they bought it.  There would likely be far fewer overdoses as a result.


In sum, markets for drugs will exist and remain relatively stable whether the substances are legal or illegal.  Demand leads to supply and not the other way around.  People who are ill-inclined to use heroin aren’t going to start doing so just because it becomes legal.  So, as leaders such as Chris Christie, Charlie Baker and President Trump meet in Washington to discuss the opioid epidemic, perhaps the center of that discussion needs to be the reality of the demand—the need for more focus on addiction prevention.  At the same time, the path to ending the war on drugs means legalization, which in turn means the quick disappearance of illegal markets, drug gangs, and Mexican cartels, many of which exist for the sole purpose of supplying America with various illegal substances.  People are understandably jittery about the idea of legalization.  But in my field—as a counselor—there is a saying: if nothing changes, nothing changes.  We tried prohibition with alcohol and it was a disaster.  It’s time to end the ongoing disastrous war on drugs.