Defend Truth


Prohibiting prohibition


Styli Charalambous is the CEO and co-founder of Daily Maverick, having joined the effort a few months before launch in 2009. Over the years, he has studied media models and news innovation efforts. He has also helped launch various projects and products within the Daily Maverick orbit.

There is a hard economic reason for decriminalising narcotics. It costs too much. Not only is it exorbitant to monitor the trade and house its perps and victims in prison, but even the human cost is too high. People will always do drugs, but they need to be helped, not persecuted. It’s more humane - and much cheaper. 

Picture it. Port Elizabeth, February 1996, a group of students clamber for seats in the business campus auditorium. Some eyes are bright, keen to drink from the fountain of knowledge, while others, including my own, are reeling from the 99c expired cans of Carling Black Label we’ve just spent our lunchtime consuming. 

It’s Economics 101, our first lecture of the university year, and our desks are enveloped by those scarily heavy textbooks. Today, we’re covering the theory of supply and demand, although we’ve just had our first lesson at the cafeteria where the effect of dropping prices was experienced first-hand. 

The graphs look fuzzy, but I get the gist of what our monotoned professor is saying. The more expensive stuff is, the less demand there is for it. And vice-versa. Depending on the elasticity of demand. Elasticity what? Medicine, for example, has inelastic demand, that being, if the price goes up, the demand won’t wane because people always need medicine. Aah, I could do with some Panados about now. 

We move on to an interesting example of supply and demand. Illegal drugs. Not the kind we just guzzled down our throats at lunch, or the kind the quasi-bad asses suck into their lungs at intervals. No, we’re talking about the good stuff here, narcotics. Mood altering, mind-set changing, get-your-ass-thrown-in-jail kind of drugs.

The theory goes that by legalising drugs and controlling the supply side of the equation, the demand can be better controlled than by prohibiting the sale and distribution of narcotics as is currently the case. “What nonsense”, I mumble under my beer-fuelled breath, as we move on to some more blurry examples. 

Fast forward 16 years, and I don’t know why that lesson, more than any other, stuck with me through all this time. But I find as I learn more about the world and myself, my blinkered view on narcotics has changed 180 degrees since those days in economics lecture halls. As we witness the Western Cape calls for army intervention to assist in the gangland wars fuelled by the illegal drug trade, I know one thing for sure, criminalisation and prohibition have been about as effective as the Limpopo education ministry. 

We’re not losing the war on drugs, it is already lost and no amount of law making or jail time is going to solve the problem. Just look at our overcrowded prisons and gang-run townships. We’re not even close to treating the symptoms, let alone the cause. We need a radical change in thinking if we’re to redress the scourge of illegal drug taking and it’s knock-on criminal consequences to society. 

We don’t need to look too far to find that prohibition is an ineffective and blunt tool to combat drug use. Many of us forget, or just don’t know, that the sale of alcohol was prohibited in the USA from 1919 until 1933. A movement driven by the churches (who else?) in the 1800s deprived people of legally sipping on a cold one or a fine whiskey. Despite the ban, the public wouldn’t be denied their tipple and so began the birth of bootlegging as alcohol was illegally shipped in or produced in moonshine factories to satisfy the people’s demand for a good time. 

And because prohibition had led to a scarcity of supply, the price at which illegal alcohol was peddled was high enough to make large margins worth the while of criminals to get involved in production and distribution. Prohibition was the fertile soil that gave rise to some of America’s most notorious and violent gangsters, including Al Capone. 

South Africans too, quite like their drugs. From cigarettes, to alcohol, to dagga and the devil-inducing “tik”, we’re not going to stay away from these vices even if some are on the government’s naughty list. That is the first truth we need to admit. Many people will always use recreational drugs because it feels good and banning drugs is like banning sex – no law will stand in the way of those who really want it. 

In other words, the demand for drugs is inelastic and demand will always be there, whether the price is money or criminal charges. The best we can do is to legalise it and take control of the economics of drug production and trading.  

There are many arguments for legalising the drug trade and, when used as case studies, alcohol and tobacco provide solid support for the cause. The first is the liberal argument: the freedom for one person to inject whatever they please into their own bodies and bloodstreams. Just as we are allowed to smoke as many cancer sticks as we’d like or buy as many beers as we please, so too should we be able to freely purchase our drugs of choice. 

Besides, many drug users do so only occasionally and for recreational purposes, so why push them into dark alleys of Hillbrow to do so? They should be allowed to pick some up with their next Vodka Red Bull or pack of Marlboro Lights. 

True, illegal drugs can be harmful to the family of users, especially addicts. But that’s where the control of supply and treatment will play its part. Clinics, education and professionally administered supply of the more dangerous and addictive drugs will help fight the addiction problem. The more dangerous the drug is, the more expensive it should be to purchase and is only dispensed in pharmacy following a consultation session with a qualified pharmacist. Just as spirits are sold and taxed differently to beer and wine, so too would we need to treat the harder drugs. 

The next argument is that by legalising the flow of narcotics, the focus of drug policies can shift to what their main objective really should be: dealing with the problem and social consequences of addiction. Right now, putting people in jail and confiscating the never-ending supply of drugs seems to be a priority over treating the real sufferers, the addicts and the victims of crime. Law-makers need to realise that for as long as drugs remain illegal, the street prices will continue to contain massively inflated margins. Which is why there will always be another drug lord or shipment in waiting following a successful drug bust. 

The benefits of legalisation are numerous, but, to focus on the economics again, we would be in a far better position than we currently find ourselves. Our national budget would be greatly improved from the taxes collected from the sale of drugs that now operate completely in the underground economy. To illustrate: if marijuana was legalised in the USA, it would represent the second biggest harvested crop after wheat. It would be traded on the CBOT exchange and we’d have futures contracts for weed. I’m pretty sure Uncle Sam would love to have tax revenue and job creation on that, given this little issue of global financial crisis. And let’s not forget the economic cost of incarcerating drug offenders. In the USA, two-thirds of the entire prison population is made up of drug-related offenders. 

Additionally, the quality of our drugs would increase as pharmaceutical giants climb into the trade, pouring millions into R&D instead of some back street chemist with a failed chemistry degree from U.P.E. Addicts would now be easily identified and offered the care they need, rather than serve as pawns in gangland violence. Those who need the care and treatment the most are pushed into the hands of criminals, instead of doctors and the health system. 

Which brings us to the greatest benefit of legalisation, being the guaranteed decrease in the criminal element that entwines itself with a high-margin illegal product like narcotics. If you think I am exaggerating, ask yourself when last you heard of someone prostituting themselves for a shot of beer? For heroin or tik maybe, but not something you can get on almost every street corner. 

Rehab centre workers will argue that alcohol addicts are the biggest problem they encounter and making hard drugs legal will only increase the opportunity for addicts to get hooked. My hard line answer is that those people were probably destined for misery anyway, likely to get addicted to one form or drug or another. Rather they end up in rehab than become a pawn in a gangland economy. And let’s not forget tobacco, which has been proven to be more addictive than virtually all hard drugs, and what it costs society each year.

As for successful case studies, we only need to see what happened to the US after Prohibition was abolished in 1933. The Great Depression proved the breaking point of the people, along with the hypocrisy of lawmakers who drank themselves silly at parties, yet maintained a pro-Prohibition stance to keep office. Once repealed, organised crime was mostly pushed out of the alcohol trade (and found their way to narcotics) and the state benefited from a larger tax revenue base. We need to start thinking the same way here.

Portugal recently celebrated 11 years of decriminalisation of all drugs, with astounding results. These include reduced health burdens on the state and the significant reduction in the price of drugs, making it less appealing to criminal traders. HIV infections from needle sharing dropped dramatically as did consumption by young teenagers. Prior to the policy change Portugal had the highest rate of needle-induced HIV infections in Europe, a true tipping-point moment that led to the paradigm shift. (Decriminalisation is not the same as legalisation. Offences are administrative rather than criminal but nonetheless a step in the right direction).

The conservatives will no doubt have their panties in a spin. They will be heralding the end of our moral society, should we legalise drugs. But we need to realise that prohibition just isn’t working, we are at our own breaking point. 

Legalisation isn’t a magic pill (sic) solution to our problems, but right now we’re just wasting our efforts and taxpayers’ money. The rich are doing it anyway, and the poor are being victimised by criminals. It hasn’t worked for a century in any country that’s introduced it and if we want to drive the criminal element out of the drug trade, there is only one solution. Abolish prohibition. DM

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