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Wednesday, July 09, 2003

Drug Legalisation

Responding to Mark Kleiman Calpundit posts about the costs and benefits of legalising cocaine. Kleiman thinks its a bad idea because drug abuse will rise, wheras Calpundit thinks that any legalisation is better than the very costly status quo. There is a lively debate in Calpundit's comments section. Any accounting for costs and benefits of drug legalisation has to take account of how drugs are legalised, and, unless there's a shift in the Senate, the United States cannot legalise drugs. Why not? because of the US-backed 1988 United Nations Convention against the Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances. The following is Article 3:

1. Each Party shall adopt such measures as may be necessary to establish as criminal offences under its domestic law, when committed intentionally:
a) i) The production, manufacture, extraction; preparation, offering, offering for sale, distribution, sale, delivery on any terms whatsoever, brokerage, dispatch, dispatch in transit, transport, importation or exportation of any narcotic drug or any psychotropic substance contrary to the provisions of the 1961 Convention, the 1961 Convention as amended or the 1971 Convention;

ii) The cultivation of opium poppy, coca bush or cannabis plant for the purpose of the production of narcotic drugs contrary to the provisions of the 1961 Convention and the 1961 Convention as amended


Unless there are some drastic political changes in Washington, legalisation can't simply happen; the most that could happen politically is an effective decriminalisation, similar to the Dutch policy of looking the other way on soft drugs. (Contrary to popular belief, drugs are still illegal in the Netherlands; the Dutch simply ignore some parts of the Convention.)

Such a decriminalisation effectively means that 1) there won't be any tax revenues, for an "illegal" product cannot be taxed or state-distributed; and 2) enforcement (or, in this case, the lack of it) will be uneven, as jurisdictions exercise their prerogative to uphold the law. This unevenness is likely to lead to conflicts between adjoining states if their enforcement regimes are different. It may also make states tort-liable for non-enforcement, especially when people under the influence commit an even greater crime. Such a decriminlaisation policy could thus prove quite costly to state governments even if the law is equally not enforced.

I am in favour of legalisation, but for it to work a proper policy would have to be devised, including either an amendment to (or, failing that a withdrawal from) the 1988 convention. Even countries proposing changing drug laws don't mention either option, as the US, its chief advocate, can inflict "punishment" on such countries. (The current US threats to cut aid if it does not get an exemption from the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court is a case in point.) The idea of drug legalisation is as old as John Stuart Mill; unless someone comes up with a way of making it happen politically, it will remain just that--an idea.