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Legalize Opium, Not Heroin

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.

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#1 Comment By Egypt Steve On August 15, 2014 @ 7:34 am

Sounds to me like an idea worth trying, although I would also assume (with no actual knowledge on the subject) that if you could buy opium or coca legally, then you could use that to produce heroin and cocaine for personal use or sale, the way it’s possible now to use over-the-counter materials to make meth.

#2 Comment By James M. On August 15, 2014 @ 10:05 am

A halfway house to the legalized drug trade? What’s happened to this magazine? Gay marriage, Huntsman, and now the silly drug fixation that’s taking over the internet.

And contrary to the popular meme, being completely against legalization doesn’t make one a ‘drug warrior’ who supports shooting dogs, ridiculous searches, and imprisoning children.

#3 Comment By James M. On August 15, 2014 @ 10:23 am

And yes, I see what you’re going after in this piece. I’m speaking more generally about
drug legalizers or people on the spectrum.

Although it is troubling that the former AmConMag seems to be slipping towards libertarianism, along with the other issues mentioned.

#4 Comment By Aaron On August 15, 2014 @ 11:31 am

Heroin… isn’t that the drug that opiate addicts buy [1]?

Of all the opiate addicts I’ve spoken with, including those with chronic pain conditions, I’ve found plenty who used heroin when they were out of pills, but not a one who argued that they were taking the heroin for purposes of pain management. Further, I’m not convinced that even if I found such a person, they would be convinced by the argument that smoking opium was going to be an effective alternative for pain management, as compared to the prescription pharmaceuticals that in some cases triggered their addictions. One of the unfortunate realities of treating pain with traditional opiate/opioid medications is that tolerance increases with use — if you’re to the point that you need medication on par with heroin to moderate your pain, opium simply isn’t going to cut it — and even if opium is initially sufficient to moderate somebody’s physical pain, their tolerance will rise and they will soon require more opium (or stronger medication) to manage their pain.

It’s also difficult for me to believe that a sufficient market could be created for opium, at sufficient prices, to allow for the purchase of the world’s opium poppy crops at prices that would match or exceed the amounts paid by heroin manufacturers, even if I presuppose that opium could not be synthesized at a much lower cost. If the market won’t support this enterprise, we’re really talking about governments purchasing poppy crops for above market value — in which case it makes little to no difference to the economics of the purchase program whether the governments subsequently allow the harvest to be used for opium, for use in pharmaceuticals, or choose instead to dump them into the ocean.

The same holds true of coca leaves. I have no great fear of coca chewers — I saw plenty of coca being chewed while I was in the Atacama desert and saw no sign that it was being used in a manner different than we North Americans use strong coffee. But it’s difficult to imagine a significant market for coca leaves, for coca teas at places like Starbucks, and the like, such that, from an economic standpoint, we could as easily just buy up the coca crops and destroy them. I don’t see that any cocaine user is going to find chewing coca leaves to be an acceptable alternative to getting high.

One of the reasons farmers grow opium and coca is that it’s economically safe. If you grow a conventional crop, odds are it’s much more vulnerable to weather and crop failure. Once your crop is ready you have to harvest it, transport it to market, hope not to lose a significant quantity to spoilage, and hope that you can find a buyer willing to purchase your crops at a price that allows you to turn a profit and fund the next year’s crops. With coca or opium poppies, the buyers come to you, cash in hand. If you flat-out buy the crops to keep them out of the hands of drug cartels, you’re going to encourage more farmers to grow the crops as the easiest path to a stable income. If you limit how much you buy, the rest will still go to the drug cartels.

A long comment, the gist of which is, “This type of idea is interesting, but nowhere near as easy to implement as you seem to believe.”

#5 Comment By Andrew On August 15, 2014 @ 12:14 pm

@James M

Although it is troubling that the former AmConMag seems to be slipping towards libertarianism, along with the other issues mentioned.

Agree. This whole “legalize” campaign is worrisome.

#6 Comment By CJ On August 15, 2014 @ 12:42 pm

I share Egypt Steve’s assumption about using the legal products to produce the illegal ones. I also question whether the unprocessed “natural” products would be potent enough for users.

James M. –

Why do you find the legalization discussion “silly?” The unintended consequences of the drug war are having serious effects on the republic. Not only the extreme police actions you mention, but also the border crisis caused by powerful drug gangs funded by the drug trade. What we’re doing hasn’t solved the problem it was meant to solve and has created a host of others. It’s certainly worth talking about.

#7 Comment By Gene Callahan On August 15, 2014 @ 12:51 pm

James M. I am not a libertarian. I am looking for a sane solution to this madness.

#8 Comment By Bob Johnson On August 15, 2014 @ 4:22 pm

@James M

It doesn’t matter what you claim to be in favor for, it matters how what you support is implemented in the real world.

Saying you be against legalization but not in favor of shooting dogs, searches, raids, and ruining peoples lives is an extremely easy position to take. Drug prohibition can only be affectively implemented through massive amounts of coercion and spending. You sound like leftists who say they support communism, but oppose famines, political repression, and the other downsides of communist countries.

This article would displease libertarians; I’m one and I support full legalization of all drugs.

Drug prohibition is extremely anti-conservative. Alchohol prohibition was a product of progressive, Catholic-hating social engineers and religious fundamentalists, and drug prohibition was brought into conservatism by pro new deal neocons like Irving Kristol and Bill Bennett.

#9 Comment By Dennis On August 15, 2014 @ 4:58 pm

James M, can you provide one coherent argument for why Opium Poppy, a naturally occurring plant that has been used safely for various medicinal and recreational uses for nearly as long as civilisation itself, should be illegal? The drug war is a joke, and even worse is anti-opiate hysteria. Apparently only drugs chemically created by multi-national pharmaceutical companies are ok! Reminds me of Bob Dole repeatedly saying “drugs are bad” during the 1996 campaign, then hawking boner drugs soon after. Boner juice for political scum getting kick-backs from multi-national corporations is ok; a bit of weed or opium for others just wanting to relax or dull their pain is a crime!

What a joke.

#10 Comment By Patrick J. Shea On August 15, 2014 @ 5:22 pm

I have to admit to a fascination with laudanum and coca leaves since encountering them in literary form, though I’ve experienced neither in physical reality. These less refined, perhaps less dangerous, forms of drugs might be a good compromise or test case. Interesting suggestion. Unfortunately, 20th Century moralizing about drugs will still be a high barrier.

#11 Comment By Jake Lukas On August 16, 2014 @ 12:52 am

James M. says: [..] Although it is troubling that the former AmConMag seems to be slipping towards libertarianism, along with the other issues mentioned.

The American Conservative has been willing to explore these kinds of issues openly [2]. Its continued willingness to do so can only be counted as ‘slipping towards libertarianism’ if it has always been slipping towards libertarianism.

I might suggest, however, that there are perfectly conservative reasons to be concerned about drug policy and its effects–at least if a concern for the integrity of communities and families and a wariness towards concentrations of power can be called conservative. If this is the case, then many solutions deserve exploration from a conservative perspective. Where better than AmConMag to do so?

The publication of an article does not constitute an endorsement of a position, much less a declaration of party doctrine. It merely indicates that the editors believe that a writer has something to offer.

#12 Comment By Rodney B. On August 16, 2014 @ 4:35 am

It is kinda like Ferguson, MO. You think you know that something can only work one way and you discover you were totally wrong. So wrong in fact that you were hurting people. Hurting people and didn’t even know it because you think you know that it can only be one way.

Now, if you don’t have a problem with hurting people then that is a different problem.

#13 Comment By David Raynes On August 16, 2014 @ 7:55 am

The simple statement that “the war on drugs has failed” is just not made out.

To base a whole argument on an extremely doubtful proposition is not too clever.

Most US citizens, by far the majority, overwhelmingly the majority, do not use illegal drugs.

The very proposition that regulation of the use of some drugs has failed, is a planted meme, expensively paid for by the legalization lobby, financed by people like George Soros.

It is extremely surprising that someone writing for “The American Conservative” would not understand that. It should not be up to a casual reader, from a foreign country, to point that basic fact out.

I suggest you “compare & contrast” (as they say in high school examinations) the take up and use, of the generally legal drugs of tobacco & alcohol, around the world, with nthe take up and use of the illegal drugs.

The harm from tobacco & alcohol is much reduced, often insignificant, where there are laws, taboos or cultural mores, against use.

#14 Comment By Carl M. On August 16, 2014 @ 2:13 pm

Excellent piece! The dose makes the poison.

As to James M.’s objection, I would note that this proposal takes us back to where this country was at its founding. Laudanum was popular in Washington’s day.

This is a LONG LONG way from the anarchism that characterizes the core of the libertarian movement.

#15 Comment By A. G. Phillbin On August 16, 2014 @ 5:37 pm

@Egypt Steve,

I am no expert, but I believe that processing the plant substances opium and coca leaves would be far harder to process into powdered heroin or cocaine, respectively, than it is to process the already artificial over the counter stimulants into crystal meth. There are too many processing steps from raw plant materials to powdered drug, and would require far too large an amount of plant derivatives to start with, and would not be cost effective for someone like the average meth dealer.

@James M.,

And contrary to the popular meme, being completely against legalization doesn’t make one a ‘drug warrior’ who supports shooting dogs, ridiculous searches, and imprisoning children.

Yes it does make you a “drug warrior,” even if you don’t like the way the “war” is being fought. These elements of the “drug war” are unavoidable under the current prohibition regime, unless you are in favor of lax enforcement. You are the soft support for the “drug war,” like it or not.

#16 Comment By Delirium On August 17, 2014 @ 9:40 am

“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.”

Activists never, ever see social damage in their barmy pet cause. It’s an ersatz religion for them.

“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.”

Alcohol has all of that, yet it still amounts to half of substance-abuse crimes. We need new types of drunkards! For diversity!

“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?”

They do not fear such things as anybody with local knowledge might have enlightened you, had you not decided to be all-knowing already.
Also, legally competing with the black market in prices?

Thinking like this just confirms that libertarianism is just an euphemism for lunacy.

#17 Comment By fuow On August 17, 2014 @ 3:00 pm

A sensible suggestion, indeed.
So sensible that I, a very left-of-center liberal think it is worth giving a try.
Which probably means that the ‘libertarians’ (freedom for me, but not for thee, especially if you’re gay) will reject it.
The conservatives will reject it because anything which even smells of freedom for poor people is a bad thing.
Sweet pipe dream, though. I think the responses you’ll be getting here should make it clear that you ‘real’ libertarians should not have cast your lot in with the Republican conservatives, much less the tea-party.

#18 Comment By Gene Callahan On August 18, 2014 @ 11:25 pm

@David Raynes: “The simple statement that “the war on drugs has failed” is just not made out.

“To base a whole argument on an extremely doubtful proposition is not too clever.”

I did note that this would be obvious “to all but the most blinkered observers.” So it is good that one of you has shown up to give evidence for that assertion.

#19 Comment By Kurt Gayle On August 19, 2014 @ 2:22 pm

Mr. Callahan, I think the following has some considerable bearing on the discussion you’ve opened:

Did you ever see the headline “Biggest Opium Consuming Country Invades and Occupies Biggest Opium Producing Country”?


Neither did I.

But here some interesting background facts to accompany Gene Callahan’s “Legalize Opium, Not Heroin”:

Afghanistan is by far the largest producer of illicit opium in the world – producing more than the rest of the world combined. In fact “in 2007, 92% of the non-pharmaceutical-grade opiates on the world market originated in Afghanistan” (UN Offices of Drugs & Crime, Afghanistan Opium Survey 2007).

“In July 2000, Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, collaborating with the United Nations to eradicate heroin production in Afghanistan, declared that growing poppies was un-Islamic, resulting in one of the world’s most successful anti-drug campaigns. The Taliban enforced a ban on poppy farming via threats, forced eradication, and public punishment of transgressors. The result was a 99% reduction in the area of opium poppy farming in Taliban-controlled areas, roughly three quarters of the world’s supply of heroin at the time.” (International Journal of Drug Policy 16 [2005] 81–91 cited in Wikipedia)

Soon after the Taliban instituted the opium poppy farming ban, it was ended abruptly by the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and overthrow of the Taliban. Based on UNOC data, opium production in Afghanistan has been on the rise and at record- or near-record levels since U.S. occupation began in 2001.

Afghanistan opium production graphs:


#20 Comment By Carl On August 24, 2014 @ 10:47 am

Gene shows that one need not be a libertarian to oppose the “war on drugs”.

But it helps, no?

#21 Comment By John On August 27, 2014 @ 10:46 am

I don’t understand why the Green Party doesn’t adopt this position. How can anything that grows in the ground be declaired Illegal?