Pretending supply is the problem makes everything much worse for everyone
The USA is the most over-medicated society in history, with a typical US citizen aged forty-five now taking four prescription medications per day, and the average person having over seventeen different prescription medications every year. Added to this number is the twenty-seven billion dollars spent annually on over-the-counter medications such as NSAIDs, antacids, and a wide range of other drugs.
This state of affairs exists because 86% of US citizens are overweight, have appalling diets, and take no meaningful exercise. This results in a wide range of chronic ailments, all of which are due to atrocious lifestyle choices and which cost the US healthcare system nearly one trillion dollars per year of unnecessary spending.
But this is actually relatively harmless compared to the damage done by the our insatiable appetite for illegal drugs. Whereas we harm mostly ourselves though our terrible lifestyle choices, our drug habit also harms tens of millions beyond our borders. And while we wheeze and waddle our way through life, millions of less fortunate adults and children are subject to daily terror, beatings, rape, and murder.
When there’s a strong demand for something that is illegal, supply will be provided by those who are comfortable operating outside of the law. The USA ought to have learned this rudimentary lesson in economics from the experience of Prohibition, but both citizens and politicians have very little in the way of memory and so the easiest way to win votes is to proffer simplistic solutions, even if those “solutions” only serve to make everything much worse.
And so it was that in 1971 under the Nixon Administration the USA proudly declared a “war on drugs” while being the world’s largest consumer of drugs of all kinds.
This is rather like declaring a “war on unhappiness” while encouraging everyone to work at least sixty hours per week and feeding them an endless diet of apocalyptic TV shows.
If our war on drugs were merely stupid, it wouldn’t matter much. But it’s not merely stupid. It’s insanely stupid and it is the direct cause of millions of innocent lives being blighted forever.
By criminalizing certain types of drug, the USA (and by extension every other nation that foolishly stumbles down this path) ensures that it is enriching the very last people who ought to be granted economic benefits: criminal gangs. When a substance is illegal and yet demand is very high, it’s obvious that the substance will be supplied in an uncontrolled manner by those willing to break the law in order to reap the financial benefits. And so our infantile war on drugs has directly created huge international drug cartels whose revenues run to the tens of billions of dollars per year.
These cartels can afford to buy practically any weapons they want, can maintain standing armies of thousands of young men, and can corrupt pretty much any nation on Earth in order to gain impunity for their actions.
Meanwhile the USA continues to suck in drugs at a level guaranteed to make the cartels even richer tomorrow than they are today.
It’s our appetite for drugs that creates the market.
According to politicians, however, (and we all know how marvelously intelligent and well-informed they are…) it’s the supply of illegal drugs that creates the problem.
OK, let’s examine this argument with a thought experiment.
Let’s imagine we have a product called Crap. It’s a white powder that has zero metabolic effect, zero odor and zero taste. There’s a lot of Crap available and our friendly neighborhood drug-dealer is desperate to sell us some. But we try it and nothing happens. Are we really going to rush out and buy some more? No matter how hard our local drug dealer tries to persuade us to take a second hit of Crap, we refuse because it gives us nothing in return for our dollars. Maybe we wake up in the morning to discover a free parcel of Crap on our front doorstep because our local drug dealer is now eager to give the stuff away, but we just toss it into the trash. Even for free, Crap isn’t worth our time.
Supply cannot create markets in the absence of consumer demand. Just ask any manager of a failed product launch.
Conversely, when we’re eager to snort our next line of cocaine or buy heroin to feed the addiction created by our local doctor putting us onto a (perfectly legal) opioid, there’s plenty of demand and it’s only basic economics that someone will seek to satisfy that demand in order to make a profit.
Our brief thought experiment is enough to destroy the infantile argument that supply is the problem.
But if supply is not in fact the problem, then why is the USA spending billion dollars per year in a futile attempt to reduce supply? Why aren’t we addressing the real problem, which is demand?
Well, what politician is going to be brave enough to tell self-indulgent pampered and spoiled US citizens that the problem is us?
We can agitate for educational programs elsewhere, for example to teach Chinese consumers that it’s wrong to exterminate rhinos and tigers in order to utilize their body-parts as aphrodisiacs. We can agitate for educational programs in Africa that teach people to have fewer children in order to ensure higher standards of living for those already born. But no one is going to propose an attempt to educate us about our addictions because that would upset us, and we vote.
We don’t vote for people who make us feel bad about ourselves.
So if demand can’t be addressed because a huge number of us are addicted to our legal and illegal drugs and we don’t want to face up to the problem, then why aren’t all drugs legalized so that they can be controlled for safety and yield welcome tax revenues, just as happens today with alcoholic beverages, pharmaceutical products, and tobacco?
Well, we’ve all been told for the last fifty years how terribly wrong and evil it is that cocaine and heroin should exist in the world. Now imagine our reaction to a politician who’s going to tell us that actually, hey guys, we’re going to make these things (and all the rest, too) legal?
When we look at the difficulty of slowly decriminalizing marijuana, despite its very mild narcotic effects and very evident analgesic properties, we can see that decriminalization is a long slow road fraught with difficulties. Trying to decriminalize drugs with stronger narcotic effects and fewer medical benefits would be at least another order of difficulty. Why bother to undertake such a tough mission when it’s easier to keep on doing what we’ve been doing for fifty years? Even if it can never work, causes huge harm to tens of millions of innocent lives, destabilizes entire nations, and creates a refugee crisis?
Screw refugees! Build walls, beat them with baseball bats, squirt them with teargas. Those are the solutions John Wayne would approve of! Who cares that we created the refugee crisis with our war on drugs? Who even understands this basic fact of life?
Some argue that legalizing all narcotics will mean that some addicts self-harm. This is absolutely true. It’s true in the same way that we have people today who are alcoholics and smoking addicts. Some people will always self-harm with whatever is available. In the UK in the 1980s some young men sniffed polystyrene glue, damaging their lungs irreparably in order to achieve a brief “high.” Some people cut themselves with knives. But we don’t criminalize glue and kitchen implements because of this.
Here’s the real difference between criminalizing certain compounds and legalizing others: drug cartels destabilize nations, have well-armed standing armies, and brutalize & kill with impunity. Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, AstraZeneca et al do none of these things. Pfizer et al legally employ hundreds of thousands of people, provide healthcare benefits, and pay taxes.
Which would you rather have?
The USA’s insanely wasteful and stupid war on drugs lumbers on, the devastation all around increases each year, and the vast majority of us remain oblivious to the fact that we are the cause of the problem.