That the war on drugs, in its current form, is a failure is obvious to all but the most blinkered observers. But the proper response to this failure is a matter of contention. Pope Francis, for instance, recently suggested we address the underlying causes of drug abuse (without ending prohibition). Others recommend treatment-based approaches. The more libertarian among us are likely to back complete legalization of all drugs.

I would like to recommend a policy that does not reject any of the above as possibly the ultimate answer to this failure, but takes a measured, experimental step that, while running little risk of making matters significantly worse, holds out, I think, great hope for improving them.

With marijuana, the question is apparently being decided in favor of gradual, piecemeal legalization. But heroin and cocaine legalization has far less support, and with good reason: these drugs are far more addictive than pot. (I am not saying that therefore they should not be legalized, merely that is understandable that people might be more sanguine about marijuana legalization than about legalizing harder drugs.) I wish to suggest a halfway sort of legalization that I feel offers several potential upsides: let us try legalizing the milder substances from which cocaine and heroin are derived, namely, coca leaves and opium.

Perhaps if we could simply make cocaine and heroin disappear by wishing it were so, it would be the best of all possible solutions. But basing policy on fantasy is generally a poor choice. (Please see the second Iraq war for evidence.) And the current policy of strict prohibition has fueled organized crime and led to the increasing militarization of our police forces. My proposal offers the following advantages over the current situation:

  1. It allows us to test the waters of just how socially damaging full cocaine or heroin legalization might be, without simply plunging in head first. If simply legalizing coca leaves and opium produces droves of drugged-out zombies (which I don’t think it would), we could rule out full cocaine and heroin legalization, and even consider repealing this halfway legalization. If the effects are that bad, we can be sure that they would have been worse if we had legalized the harder forms of these drugs.
  2. A strong libertarian argument for full legalization (I say “strong,” and not “decisive,” because I think there are significant counter-arguments here), is that many people are able to use these drugs in moderation without destroying their lives. (See the work of Jacob Sullum if you doubt this is true.) “Why,” the libertarian asks, “should these people be denied legal access to them simply because others will abuse them? (And note: while such usage is often referred to as “recreational,” it might often more accurately be described as”medicinal”: such moderate users may suffer from problems in focusing, and find that a mild dose of cocaine alleviates this difficulty, or be in chronic pain, and find that a mild dose of heroin offers them the best relief.) Well, these moderate, responsible users ought to find a milder, safer, and legal form of the drug they use to be a very welcome thing indeed. They could avoid the risk of arrest, of unregulated and adulterated street products that may contain dangerous additives, of job loss, and would enjoy a much greater ability to control their dosage.
  3. The considerations in point number two indicate what I think would be the greatest potential upside of this idea: its impact upon the economics of the trade in hard drugs. The shift in consumption predicted above would greatly lessen the demand for the more dangerous forms of these drugs.
    But it is not only the demand-side that would be affected: suppliers would face dramatically altered incentives as well. Today, many poor farmers are able to eek out a living for their family by growing coca opium poppies that will ultimately be used to produce cocaine or heroin. To think that they will abandon this production with no viable alternative on the horizon is dreamworld thinking. But what if they had a legal outlet for their crops? What if they no longer had to sell their produce to violent criminals, but could sell it legally to legitimate businesses? What if they no longer had to risk arrest or a complete loss of their crop at the hand of their government? How many of them would rush into this new, safer market, and abandon their only current outlet or their product?

Basic economic reasoning from incentives, therefore, indicates that adoption of this proposal would produce a dramatic decrease in both the demand for and the supply of cocaine and heroin, something that decades of drug war have been unable to achieve.

My proposal may not meet anyone’s vision of an ideal solution to the problem we currently face. But economics teaches us that we live in a world of trade-offs, and that perfect solutions to social problems are largely chimeras. To the libertarian who complains that my proposal does not go far enough, I will point out that it does not present any barrier to full legalization of all drugs at a later point in time. To the drug warrior who would complain that it is a surrender, I note that it would be very likely to achieve a goal the drug war has been wholly unable to achieve, and could always be undone later if its effects proved too pernicious. To those who want more resources devoted to treatment or to addressing underlying causes, I reply that my proposal would free up many resources currently being devoted to prohibition for such purposes.

Sometimes, a stop in a halfway house is an important step on the road to recovery.