Decriminalising Heroin?

In March last year I shared my view that heroin usage should be decriminalised in Australia. Harry Clarke didn’t agree with my stance and in comments he asked that we think of the children:-


Almost all users iniate heroin use when they are young risk-takers. They are myopic in outlook with high discount rates. There are significant health risks of using heroin – your mortality each year is around 2% above the rest of the population. Heroin use is not a rational choice and there are no rational addicts.

I had argued that there were in fact few health risks associated with long term heroin usage. I don’t refute the higher mortality rate but it is primarily due to issues of legality and uncertain doseage. However lets assume for the moment that Heroin is a killer and ponder what we might do to reduce the number of children trying such drugs in the first place. A whitepaper published earlier this year by the CATO Institute looks at the situation in Portugal.

On July 1, 2001, a nationwide law in Portugal took effect that decriminalized all drugs, including cocaine and heroin. Under the new legal framework, all drugs were “decriminalized,” not “legalized.” Thus, drug possession for personal use and drug usage itself are still legally prohibited, but violations of those prohibitions are deemed to be exclusively administrative violations and are removed completely from the criminal realm. Drug trafficking continues to be prosecuted as a criminal offense.

The full report is worth a look. Of specific interest is the following chart which shows that following decriminalisation drug usage amoungst school students has actually declined. I wonder if this great news will persuade people like Harry to think of the children.

35 thoughts on “Decriminalising Heroin?

  1. It’s good to see proper studies on this (no matter what their result). This study really confirms my belief (and perhaps everybody else who walks around in certain places in Melbourne that doesn’t look a policeman) that supply was never an issue for some drugs.

  2. The CATO Institute raised an interesting thought experiment a while back. They pointed out that if we had the same contacts as Rock-and-roll stars, who never have a hard time getting the substances of their choice, then we would have the same health issues they do. When did a drug-using star last die from drugs? Keith Richards might be a lesson for us all- he’s still going strong!

  3. Yea, I have reading about the Portugal experiment and it really does sound encouraging.

    Reason did a vid on the subject too, interviewing someone who has been following up on it.

    http://reason.tv/video/show/755.html

    The guy argues that government resources previously used to fight drug use through policing has been allocated towards helping people fight dependency and running campaigns against drug use and it’s actually working to lower consumption. I may not agree with the latter part however the government policy has clearly shifted in a direction providing better results.

    Harry’s views are simply personal preferences cloaked up to suggest scholarship when it’s nothing of the sort. Almost 100% of what Harry writes about are banning or taxing the shit out of what he doesn’t like other than downing wine of course.

    In any event we’ve basically tried the policing side of things for 30 years now and it’s a failed policy on almost every front. But Hey, don’t tell Clarke that.

  4. With regards the chart, the difference may be quite a lot more than what is indicated here unless there has been an adjustment made for the possibility hat in the earlier survey the illegality may have depressed the figures.

  5. My long-held opinion is stated quite well by Diana Hsieh, Objectivist blogger:

    “You simply cannot force people to be rational, productive, and interesting people — and the costs of attempting to do so are enormous”

    Even if the results were not good, prohibition still would not be worth it, because:

    “once you accept the principle that the state ought to force people to do or not do something for the sake of some supposedly greater social good, then that’s the end of all individual liberty”

    And of course there will be a myriad of unintended consequences.
    The analysis above doesn’t include the decrease in policing costs and therefore the dcrease in tax payer burden, the increase in safety to innocent citizens, the increase in safety to actual drug users etc.

    This issue is infuriating. Authorities around the world are ultimately causing the unecessary deaths of people (many totally innocent) and getting away with it.
    The violence in Mexico as a prime example.

    The reason the results are good is because you were right Terje, heroin should be decriminalised and Harry Clarke is wrong.

  6. My concern is that decriminalising consumption while pursuing dealers is not a long term solution. It just looks better than the status quo.

    I’d be happy to see the law completely withdraw from regulating non-addictive recreational drugs, but an entirely free market for heroin, cocaine and other addictive drugs has the potential to spin seriously out of control. Think China in the late 19th and early 20th century. Some people are very susceptible to addiction and choice only applies at starting, not stopping.

    My suggested solution, which I admit goes entirely against my liberal principles, is to have the government participate in the addictive drugs market as the lowest price seller. In other words, addicts would be able to buy heroin from the government at a lower price than they could from a dealer. If the dealer price fell, the government’s price would fall below it, ultimately making it uneconomic for dealers to stay in business.

    The government’s price could include a clean syringe and needle as well, to reduce disease transmission, and sale quantities could be limited to discourage export outside Australia. There might even be a special low price for a single dose for strung-out and desperate addicts who might commit a crime if they don’t score.

    This would only succeed under certain conditions, including a bit of stigmatisation of addicts to discourage the young and impressionable. I’ve probably overlooked a lot of unintended consequences too.

    It should be self-funding though. And all the police resources devoted to catching importers and dealers can be abolished or redeployed. Competition from the government will do the job much better.

  7. At the moment the government is the most expensive supplier. So if nothing else you would be turning things on their head. In trying to remove incentives your focus on the supply side of the equation is innovative. Althought I think the Greens also want the government to give away drugs so I’m amused to see you line up with them. Other than phobia toward private profit what reason is there for the government be the cheapest supplier instead of Kmart.

    I think decriminalisation of use is a very worthy starting point. It may not be a long term solution but it could be a solution for a long time.

  8. DavidL & Terje — the government is already deeply involved in the drug trade via the police. They can undercut the market because their cost is zero (from drug busts) and they don’t have to worry about getting caught.

    Cocaine was legal for centuries without a big problem. It was sold to help children with colds, and included in soft drinks and wine. The pope famously endorsed a specific type of cocaine-wine. Without illegality, I think cocaine would be treated similarly to red bull with roughly the same social impact.

    Heroin also was widely available for a long time with no great cost, and was sold commercially. Though it must be admitted that it did lead some people to be lazy, and caused constipation.

    These drugs only started killing lots of people and leading to high crime when they were prohibited.

  9. John – criminals who also happen to have jobs as police may sell prohibited drugs. However the government does not.

  10. The government’s involvement in the drug trade, apart from the methadone program, is currently just as illegal as it is for other criminals.

    I know cocaine and heroin were legally around for a long time before they were banned, but I’m not sure I agree there was no great cost. In those days of small government, things weren’t measured all that much. I’ve read of people who lived essentially normal lives as opium addicts, but there were others who didn’t. And in those days they smoked or drank it rather than injecting.

    But I’m also a bit like Terje – decriminalise first, legalise second. If the government got into the business of selling narcotics and wiped out the competition, it could ultimately privatise the company. In the meantime, the ‘war on drugs’ will have ended and the criminals gone broke.

  11. Its true that heroin is not in itself a physiologically harmful drug – it weakens the liver but not much more. But it does induce dependence and that in itself is a nasty. Do you want to put yourself in the position of needing to inject a drug several times a day to avoid the prospect of erxperiencing painfull withdrawal. It is an ugly prospect.

    Terje, if legalising heroin reduced its use I would support legalisation. But wherever opiates are effectively legal large fractions of the population end up using.

    Can I put my opposition to the use of drugs in a more positive way. Isn’t it better for immature youth to get really ‘high’ by becoming good at a martial art or through music or even mediation rather than using drugs?

    Were you so wise at age 18?

    Of course you will say that these are just my value judgements and that I have no right to impose on others etc but is that right? I don’t know if you have kids or not but I’ll ask you anyway would you prefer a child to use heroin through an act of free will or become a master at something like Aikido?

  12. “It is an ugly prospect.”

    It’s also a reality for my diabetic friends (though it’s not withdrawal they would endure, the concept is the same).

    “would you prefer a child to use heroin through an act of free will or become a master at something like Aikido?”

    That’s extremely silly. If any parent could flick a switch to decide what happens, obviously they’d choose the martial art. But life and people are not like switches. The choices we face are nothing like your false dichotomy.

  13. Its not ‘extremely silly’. It might be wrong but it isn’t that.

    The options are:

    Legalising heroin.

    Penalising use of heroin and encouraging those who (being immature and not fully rational) might have used dope to instead get high on a martial art.

  14. I’m not Terje but I hope you don’t mind me butting in…

    “Do you want to put yourself in the position of needing to inject a drug several times a day to avoid the prospect of erxperiencing painfull withdrawal”
    No I wouldn’t but if someone else does it without interfering with anybody it is entirely their business. I’d really like to know on what basis you would like to interfere.

    “But wherever opiates are effectively legal large fractions of the population end up using.”
    Really? Like where? Do you really believe that?

    “Of course you will say that these are just my value judgements and that I have no right to impose on others etc”
    Yes I think they are exactly that – your value judgements. Value judgements which you would like to impose on everyone else. I suppose on these grounds you would have alcohol made a criminal act as well?

    “would you prefer a child to use heroin through an act of free will or become a master at something like Aikido?”
    I would prefer my child to have free will thanks and hopefully I can steer him to the way of Aikido or whatever through good parenting.

    Legal or not kids are going to get a hold of drugs if they really want to. Alcohol is one hell of a drug but most of us manage to get by for most of the time without it destroying our lives. The sky will not fall down if all drugs were made illegal tomorrow. In fact prices would come down and as a result drug related theft would decrease. Police would be free to spend their time chasing “real” criminals and the taxpayer would be relieved of the courts, lawyers, police and prison costs involved with futile and hypocritical drug prohibition.

  15. Can’t be bothered addressing this nonsense Jaz. You didn’t read my argument and are just reciting a Libertarian mantra. Between your ears there should be a brain – use it.

  16. Seeing as I don’t seem to be comprehending your agrument HC would you care to enlighten me on exactly what your argument is? Or can I just instead ask you to answer the following:

    Why should alcohol and cigarettes be legal and heroin and cocaine not?

    Where is your source that when opiates are made legal a large portion of the population ends up using?

  17. Harry would love to see a ban of cigs, so don’t go there, Jaz. He written numerous times that he would like to see tobacco products regulated as a controlled substance and you could only buy cig under prescription at a pharmacy. Obviously he hasn’t thought about the possibility odf a black market developing with the result that people would end up smoking even worse crap.

    Of course, Harry wouldn’t do the same with wine etc. because he uses it that himself and anything that Harry likes should be left alone. I call this ‘personalized economic where you twist economic principles around to suit personal prejudices.

    ———
    Harry, decriminalizing hard drug use would be recognition that prohibition doesn’t work, has never worked and will never work. Habitual hard drug use is a bad thing, however criminalization hasn’t done a thing to stop the use and only made things worse.

    Perhaps of these days you’ll admit that and not apply personal preferences to serious issues like this.

  18. Harry – Welcome. I’m glad you found this discussion. I figured you would do soon enough.

    Can I put my opposition to the use of drugs in a more positive way. Isn’t it better for immature youth to get really ‘high’ by becoming good at a martial art or through music or even mediation rather than using drugs?

    The use of drugs as a lifestyle choice isn’t something I favour. Friends who take drugs or drink too much won’t find me going on at them about it but likewise I’ll readily say that I think other choices are wiser and I’ll point out the negative consequences of their choices. However I’m not into moralising about it. Taking drugs is not morally wrong. And the judgement about whether somebody actually has a problem isn’t always clear cut.

    I agree that it is better for people to get high on martial arts or at the local gun club or rock climbing or any number of other activities besides popping pills or injecting drugs. I also think prison time represents a bad lifestyle which is why I’m not actively in favour of imprisonment or criminalisation for any activity unless there is a really good reason.

    Were you so wise at age 18?

    I’m not sure what this question implies. I have supported the decriminalisation of heroin (and lets stick with decriminalisation rather than legalisation for now) since I was about 20. At 18 my interest in public policy was still limited to questions about inflation and unemployment and whether the Phillips curve I learnt about in high school was actually meaningful.

    As a personal annecdote my mother worked as an OT with outpatients in a pysch ward when I was growing up. They ran a methadone program which did cause me to be thinking about such issues. She would side with you in this debate however I’m not my mother.

    I tried cannabis when I was 19. I tried alcohol in quantity when I was 16.

    Of course you will say that these are just my value judgements and that I have no right to impose on others etc but is that right? I don’t know if you have kids or not but I’ll ask you anyway would you prefer a child to use heroin through an act of free will or become a master at something like Aikido?

    I have three beautiful kids. I don’t favour kids taking drugs. Which is why I cited the chart from Portagul as a positive thing.

    My kids are quite young but when they reach an age where it becomes more relevant they will know my views on how their life is best spent in this regard. However the brutal reality is that irrespective of my desire to conduct their life for them they will ultimately make their own choices. Criminalised or otherwise they will no doubt encounter drugs and the opportunity to try them. If they did get hooked on heroin I would rather they did not also have to deal with the courts or high prices. Hopefully they will choose wisely and it won’t ever be an issue.

    Do you have the right to impose on others? I don’t have a pure position on that question. However I think the ultimate efficacy of institutionalised coercion is generally quite low and the negative consequences rarely insignificant.

  19. Harry, I think you are being disingenuous. I know you are not young enough to be naive or dumb enough to be dumb.

    Your argument is based on the proposition that banning something (in this case heroin) prevents kids from getting access to it. That’s simply not the case, and you know it. Billions of dollars are spent, at great cost to our community and liberties, to prevent drugs reaching kids. It’s a failure. If kids want to get them, it’s not at all hard.

    I share your distaste for drugs, but it’s time to admit that prohibition doesn’t help. It’s never worked with abortion, prostitution, pornography, guns or moonshine. It sure as hell isn’t working with drugs.

  20. David:

    Harry of course doesn’t rely on direct studies that show prohibitions don’t work. That would be applying scientific method and Harry only wants to use scientific method when beating AGW sceptics across the head by referring to them as “denialists” along with other abusive terms. The reason of course is that this issue conforms to Clarke’s personal prejudices.

    Let Clarke demonstrate quite clearly (with evidence) where prohibition has ever worked when there is widespread demand for a product or variety of related products instead of relying on tangential studies used to reinforce his prejudices that certainly don’t provide evidence in any way.

    He’s been abusing the libertarian view for years now and it’s time for him to get out for rock and tell us.

    So Harry here is the question you need to answer… and it’s no point hiding behind indirect studies that only assume prohibition.

    Please direct us to any study clearly showing prohibition has ever worked to quell demand for one product or many related products?

    If you can’t and continue with this nonsense you should be tagged as a “denialist” yourself in the worst possible way.

  21. JC – the prohibition of leaded petrol has in general worked, at least in so far as it was intended to. So I think you need to choose your parameters carefully.

  22. The involvement of police in the drug trade can’t be dismissed so easily. The fact that their involvement is technically illegal doesn’t much change its importance.

    People — let’s keep it polite. Even when (especially when) you disagree with somebody.

    I agree with HC that young people often make bad decisions. I think that old people also often make bad decisions. However, I’m not sure that trying to micro-manage their decisions is desirable or effective. The collateral damage in the ‘war on drugs’ is huge… not to mention the further white-anting of the concept of individual responsibility… and all for a marginal (at best) change in the usage rates.

  23. The collateral damage in the ‘war on drugs’ is huge… not to mention the further white-anting of the concept of individual responsibility… and all for a marginal (at best) change in the usage rates.

    Has there been even a marginal improvement? I read somewhere that the use of hard drugs around 1900 was about 2% of the population when there were no drug laws to speak of in the modern context. This figure hasn’t really changed all that much over the past 100 years. So prohibition has done nothing to deter habitual use. Not a thing.

    The US federal government says its spending around $30 billion a year on federal law enforcement however that figure is fudged and if you take the total figure into account such as state resources, incarceration costs and the hidden below line costs at the federal level I would bet you wouldn’t have much change from $150 billion.

    Our own costs wouldn’t be that much different on a proportional level if we took into account the more slightly relaxed laws.

    It’s a freaking disgrace and its about time that the people who continue to support this horrendous set of polices are severely dealt with.

    You ask people to be polite when for years we have been taken Harry’s abuse over this issue. I don’t actually see harry using polite talk with people who disagree with his personal preferences. He throws the “denialist” word around at any given opportunity over the issue of AGW.

    How about harry demonstrate success with prohibition?

  24. JC, being polite gives you the moral high ground!
    Even when debating with someone of uncertain heritage, if you keep your own arguments noble, you will win over onlookers who will want to be with you. Politeness is not just about impressing the opponent, but everyone else.
    So I try to be polite to all, especially those who are trying to provoke baser arguments, because the gutter is their natural home. Don’t go into the gutter, JC!!

  25. Nic:

    I have been polite to Harry. All I’d like him to do is demonstrate after all these years of abusing libertarians to prove the following:

    Let Clarke demonstrate quite clearly (with evidence) where prohibition has ever worked when there is widespread demand for a product or variety of related products instead of relying on tangential studies used to reinforce his prejudices that certainly don’t provide evidence in any way.

    I’m not talking about taking lead out of petrol either.

    It’s a reasonable request.

  26. hc, it is silly. Even accepting those are the only two possible activities, there are still four options, not two:

    1-legalising, and encouraging martial arts
    2-legalising, and not encouraging martial arts
    3-prohibiting, and encouraging martial arts
    4-prohibiting, and not encouraging martial arts

    And as DavidL so rightly points out, legalising or prohibiting don’t have as much influence on drug-taking rates as you might like.

  27. Sometimes, good arguments will win. I am not a smoker. I attribute this to the government warnings about the dangers of smoking, my own parents, both smokers, who wanted to break their habits, and the fact that I had no friends, and so couldn’t succumb to peer pressure.
    The same things might work for keeping people off drugs- a legal framework, but with lots of pressure to lead a healthier lifestyle.
    In a truely libertarian society, all drugs would be licit, but nothing would stop anti-druggers from campaigning against drugs, either.

  28. all drugs would be licit, but nothing would stop anti-druggers from campaigning against drugs, either.

    That’s true. I couldn’t think of one libertarian that would think injecting smack is a great idea.

  29. The below highlights a real problem with prohibition that rarely comes into public view. That being that the vast majority of drug users are occasional users and represent no problem to society. Incidentally a very large study in Britain established a similiar pattern and results surprised the researchers.

    Prohibition or Regulation: An Economist’s View of Australian Heroin Policy

    Robert E. Marks
    University of New South Wales – School of Economics

    Australian and New Zealand Journal of Criminology, Vol. 23, No. 2 pp. 65-87, 1990

    Abstract:
    CONCERN for the spread of HIV infection and with the growing social costs associated with the policy of heroin prohibition have recently led many to reconsider the policy. A large question facing advocates of decriminalisation or legalisation is to what extent the numbers of users would grow under a more regulated scheme. More regulated because under prohibition there is a completely unregulated market, which is, however, illegal: lawless laissez-faire. This paper advocates some degree of regulation for the supply of heroin, and abandonment of the unsuccessful policy of prohibition. In attempting to answer the question of the numbers of users under a different regime¿and their importance to society¿the paper closely examines the structure of the black market, using a previously unpublished survey of the illegal industry performed in Victoria some years ago by the illicit industry itself. This confirms recent findings that there are relatively large numbers of occasional users who seldom come to the attention of medical or law-enforcement authorities, and whose heroin use per se imposes little cost on society.

    Keywords: distribution black market survey, heroin, illicit drug policy

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