Drug Usage

Drug prohibition leads to more dangerous drugs, and slightly encourages drug use through constant advertisement and the "forbidden fruit" effect. Despite this, and despite the "toughness" of enforcement, drug prohibition has little effect on broad patterns of drug usage.

Prohibition = More Concentrated Drugs

The economics of smuggling leads smugglers to seek more concentrated forms of drugs. Thus, during alcohol Prohibition in the U.S., we had "bathtub gin" and "bootleg whiskey:" harder forms of alcohol were favored over more moderate drinks such as beer and wine. When opium was made illegal, smugglers switched first to morphine and later to heroin. When cocaine was made illegal, smugglers switched from relatively mild coca drinks to powder cocaine and later smokable (crack) cocaine. Since marijuana was made illegal, its potency has steadily increased.

With legalization, people generally prefer moderate drug usage. Since Prohibition ended, hard alcohol usage has declined in favor of beer and wine, which are actually beneficial to health in moderation. "Tar" content in tobacco (a legal drug, today) declined steadily after the U.S. Federal Trade Commission allowed tobacco companies to compete on that basis. When other recreational drugs were legal, relatively few users chose the most concentrated forms.

Prohibition Encourages Drug Use

Although explicitly condemning drug use, prohibition often has the unintended side effect of promoting drug use among certain parts of the population.

Teenagers naturally rebel against authority figures and mandates of any sort. Prohibition, with its "Because I told you so" logic, sets up a "forbidden fruit" effect, turning drug usage into a statement of rebellion.

Prohibitionists are dependent on publicity to keep the public convinced that their efforts are needed. As such, drug users and dealers get much more publicity than they would under legalization. Many groups have documented increases in drug usage with increases in publicity. See, for example, Consumer Reports' Licit and Illicit Drugs for how one newspaper managed to spread "glue sniffing" to the entire country.

Use of the drug Ecstasy peaked years after it was made illegal in 1985. This may partially be attributed to the "forbidden fruit" effect and the widespread publicity the drug received after becoming illegal.

Another side effect of prohibition is to cause some users to switch from more-prosecuted drugs to less-prosecuted ones. Thus, when marijuana laws are strongly enforced, use of hard alcohol goes up. When cocaine enforcement was strengthened, heroin made a comeback.

Prohibition Matters Little

In the end, though, prohibition's effects on drug usage are small. Drug usage is a culturally determined phenomenon, mainly out of the realm of government policy.

Marijuana laws vary considerably across the U.S. and across Europe. Some states and countries have strict laws, others have decriminalized or even legalized personal marijuana use. Yet marijuana use is fairly constant across the U.S. and across Western Europe.

One of the most frequently cited "arguments" of prohibitionists is that "England tried legalizing heroin, and the use skyrocketed." What is so amazing is that prohibitionists, having no real logic to back their claims, are reduced to deception about an incident clearly favoring legalization.

England did legalize heroin (with a doctor's prescription) -- in the 1920s. Heroin use did skyrocket -- in the 1960s. If legalization causes increased drug use, it sure has one hell of a time lag.

What prohibitionists never get around to telling you is that heroin use skyrocketed even more in the U.S. during the same time period, despite strict law enforcement efforts. Nor do they say that the British heroin users had lower overdose rates, less criminal behavior and less public dependency than users under the U.S.'s prohibitionary regime.

The perennial prohibitionists' solution to their failure is to get "tougher." In addition to the instances above, history provides numerous examples of the failure of being "tough." China once beheaded opium users and sold their families into slavery. I cannot imagine a tougher policy, yet opium use in China continued. Many Muslim countries today hang drug dealers -- and continue to do so (it hasn't stopped).

As further evidence against the "get tough" argument, prisons still have high levels of illegal drug use. For example, the Ohio governor's office did a study that found illicit drugs in the bloodstream of 11% - 24% of Ohio's prison population. If drugs can't be kept out of jail, how can they be kept out of anywhere else?

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