For a few moments, imagine the year is 2109 and the U.S. government “grudgingly tolerates” the recreational use of psychoactive drugs, but requires users to take an education course and earn a license to buy and use (even alcohol). The more dangerous substances require regular renewals with check ups, and regulations restrict use to particularly safe settings. Businesses must obey strict regulations and collect taxes to help pay for treatment and health programs.
Some licenses are occasionally revoked temporarily. Judges revoke when use has led to the commission of a crime or is obviously out of control. Social workers revoke when family members make a strong case of problem use. In all cases the user must undergo health or educational programs to regain eligibility. Generally drug use is not hidden from friends and family, and those who grow concerned about another’s use freely confront the user or approach social services to address concerns, knowing the consequences will not lead to criminality for either party. The license system is imperfectly enforced, but is a common reminder for the public that drug use has risks and safe use is a responsibility.
In general drug use is safe, with rare overdose deaths attributed to product defects or accidents. Labels have precise chemical contents, directions, and warnings. Drug producers are discouraged from bringing new or more dangerous substances to market and all drug advertising is heavily restricted. Without fear of police or government interference, tons of controlled research has been done on drug use and a tremendous amount is known about the ill and beneficial effects of drugs as well as population usage patterns. This has allowed the government to see dangerous patterns and enact regulations and educational campaigns to reduce them.
Drug use is more common but abuse is far better treated. Law enforcement spends little time on drug enforcement and the courts have the capacity to process non-drug crimes much more quickly with better justice and less reliance on plea bargaining. The black markets that exist tend to be very small and police are not known to spend much time breaking down doors looking for drugs or arresting friends or family members who use them.
The system is not a panacea, but it’s “drug problem” is primarily a public health problem, affecting far fewer people and institutions, and resulting in far less harm to citizens overall.
One day we use our local time machine to bring back a politician from 1969. When he hears that drug use is permitted, he urges us to fight to eliminate drug use to save our souls. He recommends we eliminate the alcohol and tobacco licenses, then criminalize all other drugs. We float over to our history modules, enter “2009”, and study the results of his policies:
- A huge alcohol problem. Drinkers convicted of DUI or domestic abuse were free to drink irresponsibly and even those who most desperately wanted to quit were constantly confronted with unfettered access.
- Illicit drug markets were so large and well-funded that they terrorized Mexico with thousands of murders yearly, and many border towns lived in police states. The fight against the cartels resulted in even more human rights abuses by the government.
- Alcohol and tobacco markets were also large and effective marketers and lobbyists, keeping regulation and taxes to a minimum.
- The U.S. criminal justice system was swollen with drug arrests and convicts, disproportionately minorities. Public defenders were drastically underfunded and impoverished innocent suspects pled guilty rather than waiting months in jail for a trial with poor legal representation.
- Police forces spent a large amount of time building cases against markets that continually re-emerged. To gather information they paid criminals, who would sometimes finger innocent persons or plant evidence.
- The illicit profits could even corrupt officers to steal drug money or sell drugs.
- Prisons socialized drug offenders with other criminals and stigmatized them with criminal records upon release.
- Police officers and the governments were often viewed as adversaries by drug users and parties who saw the criminalization of drug use as immoral.
- Drug usage was hidden and regarded as criminal activity, making users less likely to seek help, and those seeking to help less likely to interfere in order to avoid police involvement. Users unnecessarily died when others were afraid to dial 911.
- The government had only a notion of the size of the drug problem and usage patterns and had little opportunity and seemingly no interest in educating users on safer use.
- The government blocked the research of drug use, so accurate information about dangers (and potential benefits) were hard to come by. Government agencies even discredited their own studies. This, in turn, bred more distrust from the population who underestimated the dangers of use and had less respect for laws.
- Criminal markets enticed users to try different drugs and routinely employed children, pulling them into a life of crime and, often, drug use itself.
- Civil liberties were continuously eroded and no-knock warrants, early morning raids, and SWAT teams were commonplace in local policing, leading to much unnecessary violence between innocents and officers.
- Zero Tolerance, Mandatory Minimums and many other laws designed to “get tough” had had lots of unforseen negative consequences and the struggle to undo them was difficult.
- Politicians refused to cooperate on the public’s desire for more reasonable marijuana policies, so voters felt forced to enact policies through referendum that ended up too liberal, vague, or poorly enforceable in practice.
- Drug markets lengthened foreign wars by funding terrorist groups, and destabilized producer countries. We spent enormous sums of money sending the DEA abroad to interfere with other countries playing whack-a-mole without any measurable domestic effect.
- The list went on and on.
From the perspective of a (fantasy) world with drug licenses, would you give them up to enact the drug policies of 1969 all over again?
Just like illicit drug users, alcohol users are likely to oppose measures to limit their drug access. Certainly the alcohol industry would fight it tooth and nail, and the size of the industry has virtually made it impervious to tax raises (Mark has good reason to suspect a well-funded marijuana industry could similarly resist regulation). It’d be most interesting to see if law enforcement groups would be behind the idea. These groups are certainly the quickest to use stats of alcohol abuse to oppose marijuana law reform. Could they, with a straight face, say that the current alcohol regulation model is ideal? Libertarians would likely oppose an alcohol license as a limitation of current liberty, but I could see such a thing actually leading to a more liberal drug policy.
So, are alcohol licenses politically feasible?
Would a cannabis license proposal be more publicly palatable than full legalization or “grow-your-own“?
(Aside: California’s medical marijuana policy is in practice a drug license system. Any adult can buy a doctor’s prescription, enabling legal purchase and use. While cannabis is truly medicine for some illnesses, I see advantages to allowing non-ill adults to use the system as well. Users are far less likely to contribute money to the black market, and therefore also less likely to be offered more dangerous drugs. California could improve the safety for users by regulating ratios of cannabinoids, encouraging users to use vaporizers, and requiring dispensaries to disseminate educational material on cannabis. I don’t think they’ve done any of these.)