Legalized Drug Use

By: 
Al Jacobs

If it’s morphine or opium you wish to use, you’ll need to go back in time over a hundred years. During the 19th century, patent medicines treated America’s ailments. They weren’t regulated as they are today and the substances they contained defied imagination. Combinations of so-called exotic ingredients and drug compounds could be counted upon to cure whatever malady you might suffer from – as the people who manufactured and distributed them claimed.

Even if you didn’t suffer from some pernicious condition, there was a possibility you’d be ingesting something potentially dangerous or addictive. You may not be aware that one of today’s most popular beverages fitted into this category. In the year 1885, an Atlanta, Georgia, pharmacist, John Pemberton, brewed up in his backyard a concoction he described as a “brain tonic and intellectual beverage.” He also claimed it cured headaches, upset stomach and fatigue. The title he gave this substance described it perfectly. He called it Coca-Cola. The Coca was short for cocaine; the Cola came from the kola nut – containing the stimulant caffeine. Not until 1929, the advent of the Prohibition era, did cocaine cease to be included.

During most of the world’s history, drugs were available freely in a variety of forms, with the cultivation and distribution of psychoactive and other forms freely in use from the earliest days of civilization. As late as the mid-19th century, prominent nations actively participated in international drug trafficking. The Opium Wars fought from 1839 to 1860, by Great Britain and France against China, for the sole purpose of conducting opium sales to people in China, demonstrated the international attitude still prevalent.

It was not until the mid-20th century that the U.S. government led a major renewed surge in drug prohibition, called the War on Drugs. Supporters of this movement included religious organizations, civic groups and large numbers of the middle class throughout the nation who viewed drug use of any sort as an abomination. The laws enacted and enforced over the next several decades treated every sort of drug infraction harshly, where lengthy prison sentences for mere possession often became the rule.

Perhaps the epitome of this approach was reflected by the ruling of the 1988 United Nations Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic and Psychotropic Substances, making it mandatory for the signatory countries to “adopt such measures as may be necessary to establish as criminal offenses under its domestic law,” all the activities related to the production, sale, transport, distribution of the substances included in the most restricted lists. This seems to have been the high point of anti-drug activity; the trend since then runs far more permissively.

The initial focus in liberalization centers on drug decriminalization. This calls for reduced controls and penalties. Proponents generally support the use of fines or other punishments to replace prison terms, and often propose systems whereby illegal drug users are merely fined while not receiving a permanent criminal record. A central feature of drug decriminalization is the concept of harm reduction; it is, in some ways, an intermediate between prohibition and legalization. Although criticized as being the worst of both worlds, it has proven to be internationally popular.

In 1994, Germany ruled drug possession is not a crime, nor is possession of small amounts of drugs for personal use. In 2001, Portugal became the first country to abolish all criminal penalties for personal drug possession. In 2017, Ireland’s minister in charge of National Drug Strategy announced that the possession of controlled substances were decriminalized. And closer to home, in 2016 the state of California went a step further when it passed Proposition 64, legalizing private, recreational use of marijuana.

It’s clear the decriminalization of drugs is now a universally accepted doctrine. However, a more recent development indicates we may be in the process of returning to the 19th Century. The headline of an Associated Press article reads: “Oregon decriminalizes most drugs.” The opening line reveals what’s in the works: “Police in Oregon can no longer arrest someone for possession of small amounts of heroin, methamphetamine, LSD, oxycodone and other drugs, as a ballot measure decriminalizing them took effect on Monday [Feb. 1]. Instead, those found in possession would face a $100 fine or a health assessment that could lead to addiction counseling.”

With these new rules, far fewer Oregonians will be convicted of a felony or misdemeanor possession of controlled substances. Under the system, addiction recovery centers will be tasked with “triaging the acute needs of people who use drugs and assessing and addressing any on-going needs through intensive case management and linkage to care and services.” While this approach may be new in the United States, several countries, including Portugal, the Netherlands and Switzerland already decriminalized possessions of small amounts of hard drugs.

Perhaps a far more pertinent question we might ask is whether or not the sort of drug laws we lived with during much of the 20th century are effective. Supporters of prohibition contend those drug laws proved to be successful in suppressing illicit drug use. During the 50-year period following the first 1912 international convention restricting the use of cocaine, opium and heroin, the U. S. use of illicit drugs registered consistently below 0.5% of the population. With the advent of the counter-culture movement from the late 1950s, where such drug use became promoted as mind-expanding and relatively harmless, its use rose sharply.

Another excellent example is Sweden, where drug use is only a third of the European average. For three decades this nation maintained comprehensive drug-control policies, regardless of the dominant political party. Their attitude supports the belief both government and society must maintain their diligence and avoid being swayed by misguided notions of tolerance.

On the other side of the argument are those who claim drug addiction, like prostitution and alcohol abuse, is not a police problem, and can never be solved by the police. It is first and last a medical problem, and if there’s a solution it will be “discovered by scientific and competently trained medical experts whose sole objective will be the reduction and possible eradication of this devastating appetite. There should be intelligent treatment of the incurables in outpatient clinics, hospitalization of those not too far gone to respond to therapeutic measures and application of the prophylactic principles which medicine applies to all scourges of mankind.”

A secondary contention by the anti-enforcement interests is that notwithstanding the vast public resources expended on law abidance measures, contemporary drug policies appear to have failed in a number of notable respects. These include minimal reduction in the consumption of controlled substances, failure to reduce violent crime and failure to markedly reduce drug importation. There’s certainly validity to these accusations, though I can think of no criminal activity of any sort not accompanied by just such side effects, regardless of whether the primary intent of the enforcement approach is successful or not.

A final thought: There’s little doubt in my mind that decriminalization of drug use, followed by its full legalization, will constitute the wave of the future. Perhaps this approach will result in an improvement; perhaps it will not. The only unanswered question still to be asked is: How long will it take before commercial interests – legitimate or otherwise – discover an undeveloped market where a cocaine-laced cola drink can be profitably marketed?

Al Jacobs, a professional investor for nearly a half-century, issues weekly financial articles in which he shares his financial knowledge and experience. Al may be contacted at al@abjacobs.com.

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