Saturday, December 3, 2016

Legal Status is *NOT* the Limiting Factor in Drug Use

Some people are skeptical of drug legalization. They worry that legalizing certain substances will open up the flood gates and new addicts will pour through. I'll argue below that these fears are grossly exaggerated, if not totally unfounded. The legal status of a drug is almost never the limiting factor on the decision to use it. There is almost always some other cost or consideration that looms far larger than the cost of the legal penalties imposed on its use.

If you go to, you can find testimonials on drug experiences. For example, this one:

So: I traveled through many familiar spaces. Presently I came to a space where Buddha-like Fire Gods created whole realities simply by making gestures. Their gestures, against the fabric-context-space of what seemed to be this proto-reality, caused ripples and indentations that emanated outward forever, each becoming, not a new universe, but a whole new reality. The space I was in was not reality. It struck me as 'backstage' -- the place where the props and sets and costumes out of which realities are constructed are kept.

I was seated, lotus-style, among an infinite number of these Fire Gods, arranged in stacked concentric rings that extended and radiated in all directions without end. There is no way to describe the sheer vastness of this space. It had an ancient-beyond-ancient and noble-beyond-noble feeling to it, and I felt awed and honored to be seated there. I decided to try my hand at creating realities. I followed the general pattern I'd watched others execute. Doing so was astounding. The simple movement of my hand brought forth heat like that of the core of the Sun, yet the heat did not burn me. Each movement of my hand violently shattered the space around it, and the aftershocks from my Act swayed the other seated Fire Gods, but did not disturb their somber equanimity. When at length I brought my hand to rest upon my knee, the Creative Act was finished, and I took up the noble and dignified silence of my fellows; a silence which was interrupted from time to time only by the Divine explosion of an occasional Act of Creation by one of us. I continued to meditate there for countless Ages. Eventually I rose higher than this realm, passing through a space of pure, infinite Consciousness, and then through endless Space-time itself, and finally into the limitless Nothing.

The drug that induced this trip is a dangerous street drug called DXM. Thank goodness it’s illegal, or people would be doing it all the time. A trip like the one described above is simply too enticing for anyone to resist. Just kidding! It’s not dangerous or illegal. It’s the active ingredient in cough syrup. Anyone can go down to the pharmacy and get enough to trip balls. Given that this was the premise of a South Park episode, I think it’s fairly common knowledge that you can get really high on cough syrup. But few do. It’s really not all that dangerous either. As I mentioned in this post, there were just under 300 deaths “involving” cough syrup in 2014 and almost all of them involved other drugs, too. It’s not clear that DXM killed any of these people. It’s cheap. It’s legal. It’s safe even in fairly large quantities. (See some of the testimonials on for the enormous quantities consumed by some users.) So why aren’t people just using it all the time?

Because the cost of a DXM trip is something like “a day out of my life that I won’t ever get back.” That’s fine if you’re unemployed or marginally employed and nobody will miss you for a day and a half while you’re tripping and recovering. But if you have a place to be every day, plus kids to pick up after work, plus the obligation to watch those same kids on the weekend when you’re *not* at work, it would be pretty impossible to indulge such a habit. Now, some people *do* indulge the habit anyway and screw up their lives, and this is certainly terrible. But most people foresee such terrible consequences and decide against a DXM habit. It’s not even that they “decide against” it; the thought is almost ruled out of the question before any actual thinking happens. In fact, forget about a DXM habit; doing it even once would be hard to pull off for someone with normal daily obligations. The real opportunity cost of DXM isn't just the day you spend incapacitated; it's the meaningful life and career you could have had if you weren't regularly incapacitating yourself for 24+ hours.

This concept needs to be injected into every conversation on drug prohibition. The legal status of a drug is not the limiting factor when people are deciding whether or not to use it. Making a drug illegal can raise the cost, but only relative to other costs that are (in almost all cases) much, much greater. There is usually some other cost that overwhelms the black market mark-up and the threat of legal sanctions that comes with drug prohibition.

With DXM, the bulk of the cost is the opportunity cost of losing a day of your life, which may entail losing a job or alienating family if you’re like most normal people. Most of the cost of a cigarette comes from the health consequences, not the literal dollar price tag when you purchase a pack . Similar for alcohol. Heroin users appear to face overdose death rates of 1.5 to 2.5% or so, an enormous risk that no reasonable person tolerates from any routine activity. (One economist’s reaction to this figure when I showed it to him was: “It blew me away.”) For people who are willing to pay such costs to indulge a drug habit, the legal status is no deterrent at all. 

You can be much more rigorous about this argument if you use some math and some formal theory. You can show cool results, like that it's impossible for prohibition to make the users better off if demand is inelastic. Or that a punitive tax is strictly superior to prohibition. Or a bunch of other stuff in the same vein. It's important to get the details right. But it's far more important to keep in mind this underlying intuition that prohibition does little to change the overall cost faced by a drug user. The pathetically small risk of arrest and the black market markup are trivial compared to other costs, so it's a little absurd to think these things have a major impact on drug use. 

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