by Charles Fain Lehman
Friday, 14
October 2022
Response
10:15

Joe Biden should not legalise cocaine

What is The Economist sniffing?
by Charles Fain Lehman
Hopefully Joe Biden is not an Economist reader. Credit: Getty

Though it attracts fewer headlines these days than opioids, cocaine overdose deaths remain a serious and pressing problem in the United States. In 2021, nearly 25,000 overdose deaths involved cocaine — a 25% increase on 2020 alone. These deaths are concentrated among black Americans, part of the reason why in 2020 the black overdose death rate overtook the white rate for the first time in almost two decades. 

It is thus remarkable, and peculiar, to see The Economist push for the next stage in drug liberalisation, pronouncing “Joe Biden is too timid. It is time to legalise cocaine.”


Like what you’re reading? Get the free UnHerd daily email

Already registered? Sign in


The article recapitulates the standard tropes of the legalisation lobby. “Prohibition is not working,” it claims. Legalisation, meanwhile, will reduce the potency and thereby dangerousness of the drug, all while disempowering the criminal cartels who profit off of it.

Though it hardly needs to be said, this is of course not true. Legal cocaine would dramatically increase, rather than reduce, suffering. The renewed vogue for legalisation is just another kind of misplaced idealism — a belief that the real problem is stopping people from taking poison, rather than the poison itself. 

Cocaine legalisation is not actually a new concept. The drug was both legal and widely marketed from its isolation in the mid-19th century up through its prohibition in the early 20th. In 1906, historian Jill Jonnes writes, Americans consumed about 11 tons of cocaine in total. The drug had many defenders, including Sigmund Freud and a former Surgeon General of the U.S. Army.  

But spreading addiction — at the turn of the century roughly 200,000 Americans were hooked — turned public sentiment. President William Howard Taft called cocaine “more appalling in its effects than any other habit-forming drug in the United States.” When Congress essentially banned it, under the 1914 Harrison Narcotics Act, Jonnes notes that it received almost no pushback — a stark contrast to the vicious battle over alcohol prohibition several years later. 

The Americans of the past were not stupid: they tried cocaine legalisation, decided its costs outweighed its benefits, and banned it. That contemporary reformers choose not to remember this does not mean we should. 

The Economist, though, insists the cure is worse than the disease. Legal cocaine, it argues, would be less likely to be adulterated with fentanyl, which is driving the surge in overdose deaths. 

This is certainly possible, though by no means guaranteed. After all, producers in the illegal market have the same incentive not to kill their customers as those in the legal one would, yet they do it all the same. Regulatory oversight would likely help, though it seems somewhat contradictory to propose regulating the sale and consumption of poison. 

More to the point, cocaine legalisation would expand the availability, and therefore consumption, of cocaine, meaning an increase in the using, addicted, and eventually dying population. A hypothetical decrease in risk could well be offset by a guaranteed increase in total consumption. This is particularly true if cocaine is sold by big, modern, efficient firms: imagine what Amazon could do if they were allowed to sell coke. 

Further, there is no reason to believe that legalisation will put Colombian drug lords out of business: the example of marijuana suggests the opposite. Since states began the legalisation process in 2012, large quantities of illegal marijuana continue to be smuggled across or seized at the border, indicating that traffickers are still profiting off of illegal pot despite the legal environment across much of the United States. Average marijuana potency has actually increased, exploding the old canard that it is prohibition which makes drugs dangerous. 

The same almost certainly would apply for cocaine — more so, indeed, because the smaller market for cocaine is more dominated by the drug trafficking organisations. Contra The Economist, the evidence suggests that, if producing the stuff is legal, it will still be criminals who produce it. 

This cuts to the root of the issue: the harms of the cocaine market are essential, not incidental, to its viciousness. It is both a particularly harmful substance and creates particularly pliant consumers. Legalising it will not change these basic facts, no matter how much libertines would protest otherwise.

Join the discussion


To join the discussion, get the free daily email and read more articles like this, sign up.

It's simple, quick and free.

Sign me up
Subscribe
Notify of
guest
45 Comments
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
J Bryant
J Bryant
1 month ago

Sadly, the Economist, once a highly respected publication, went woke in 2020. Legalizing cocaine certainly won’t decrease its harm, as noted by the author. Legalization will, however, instantly decrease the amount of arrests/convictions of many non-white people. Dogma triumphs over common sense.

Alphonse Pfarti
Alphonse Pfarti
1 month ago
Reply to  J Bryant

It was going that way for a while. I binned my subscription some time before after they repeatedly bungled renewing it when I moved house. Pal of mine works for the wider FT group and informs me that the new staff writers are all over tattooed muppets in their 20s, straight out of university.

ryan8240
ryan8240
1 month ago
Reply to  J Bryant

If you don’t think legalization will reduce harm then you clearly have no idea how legalization/regulation works. Reducing harm is literally the main effect and outcome of regulating dangerous drugs. The more dangerous a drug is the more reason for it to be REGULATED. Duh..

Aaron James
Aaron James
1 month ago
Reply to  ryan8240

If you think legalizing hard drugs is good you have never lived on the dark side of life – I have been down with the street addicts and high functioning addicts, and the rest of the hard fringe – it is not a good idea….I have seen how it goes. I am totally against legalizing marijuana – it is also a Bad drug if you keep using it… and really harms a lot of youth mental health – and basically takes the soul out of pot-heads. A habitual marijuana user is a useless thing –

Because I have seen that world…Sure, from a middle class side maybe…. but even then…..

Last edited 1 month ago by Aaron James
John Riordan
John Riordan
1 month ago
Reply to  Aaron James

The problem with this argument is that because alcohol, gambling, tobacco, sugar and junk food also can have catastrophic effects upon those unfortunate enough to occupy the bottom rungs of the socio-economic ladder, there’s an argument for prohibition of all those too.

On its own, it simply isn’t enough to prove that some people will do very badly from a proposition such as this. You have to go further and prove that the effects are so bad that confiscating the liberties in question from everyone else too is justified.

It may seem callous that I’m suggesting that a purely recreational pleasure for many should be bought at the expense of catastrophic danger to an unlucky few, but my point is that we live in a world where we’re already acted on exactly that principle.

Last edited 1 month ago by John Riordan
Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
1 month ago
Reply to  John Riordan

Exactly this. Too few people understand the tradeoffs that freedom requires us to make. To quote Captain America, “the cost of freedom is high, but it’s a price I’m willing to pay.”

Last edited 1 month ago by Steve Jolly
Richard Craven
Richard Craven
1 month ago
Reply to  Aaron James

Exceedingly well said. Cannabis is a carcinogen which makes people boring, angry, depressed, listless, boring, slow, boring, apathetic, stupid, paranoid, boring, and boring.

Richard Craven
Richard Craven
1 month ago
Reply to  ryan8240

Quiet when the grown-ups are talking, boy.

Stu B
Stu B
1 month ago

As someone who used it regularly for 15+ years before eventually phasing it out, all I can say is it’s fantastically stupid idea.
Decriminalise end users: Yes. Legalise: Absolutely not

Alphonse Pfarti
Alphonse Pfarti
1 month ago
Reply to  Stu B

For one thing, legalising it in countries where it is consumed but not produced will hardly turn latter day Pablo Escobars into pillars of their societies.

ryan8240
ryan8240
1 month ago
Reply to  Stu B

That’s pure nonsense. Decriminalization solves basically nothing whereas legalization solves everything. You sound like children.

Emre S
Emre S
1 month ago
Reply to  ryan8240

You on the other hand sound like you’re suffering from cocaine withdrawal.

Richard Craven
Richard Craven
1 month ago
Reply to  ryan8240

You’re obviously a stoner who can’t sustain an argument.

Matt Hindman
Matt Hindman
1 month ago

Just thought I should point out, Joe Biden was instrumental in getting stiffer sentencing penalties for crack cocaine over powdered cocaine.

John Riordan
John Riordan
1 month ago

This article demonstrates an equivalent degree of bias on the prohibitionist side of the debate as it accuses its opponents of. The use of the word “poison” for instance – silly, because you can apply the same description to anything in sufficient doses which differ significantly from the that for the intended effect, and cocaine is no different. Yes it can kill you if you take too much, but so does alcohol, salt, sugar, chocolate and even water, as the tragic case of Leah Betts proves.

It is not a “trope” to point out that prohibition of cocaine has not worked. It emphatically has not worked, it is one of the worst public policy failures of modern times. So we’re not going to dismiss this as a trope, we’re going to recognise it as a problem, one to which prohibitionists have no serious answer (especially not people like Peter Hitchens, who would introduce a police state to eradicate drug use and therefore consider that liberty itself is dispensable in the pursuit of mass obedience over a matter of personal choice).

However, there are certain things I accept in the above article, such as the fact that legalisation will not reduce the problem of cocaine addiction in terms of the number of people affected or the severity of their experiences. However that is because addiction is a more intractable problem than the law is capable of defeating: as we can readily see, prohibition does not prevent addiction to controlled substances either. Would we see an increase in addiction with legalisation? This is more difficult to answer, but I would predict probably not for the reasons relating to addiction already given: addictive cocaine demand is one of those inelastic demands in economic terms whereby the legal “price” does not significantly change consumption.

However let’s say for the sake of argument that I am wrong and legalisation would indeed lead to, say, a doubling of cocaine addictions. Surely this is something we would need to balance against the fact that society is relieved of the need to police imports, to jail dealers, to criminalise users, to tolerate the enrichment of a black market class of criminals, to lose billions of pounds of missed tax revenues, with the colossal costs that all this entails? It’s an economic calculation that has to form the basis of any decision about this, and fortunately we’ve just had two pandemic-era years in which the value of human life has been consistently evaluated in economic terms in public policy, so we’re in a good position to have this out in a more informed manner.

Last edited 1 month ago by John Riordan
Brett H
Brett H
1 month ago
Reply to  John Riordan

“Would we see an increase in addiction with legislation ,,, I would predict probably not for the reasons relating to addiction already given”
Im not sure of your reason for thinking there would be no increase in addiction. The legal price may not change consumption, but the availability may well do so.
A doubling of addiction numbers: you think this is acceptable, balanced against the criminal aspect. But addiction is still going to have detrimental side effects: who can know with certainty what they might be, though we have some idea because alcohol and gambling are legal and yet they damage families and communities. Those who play a criminal part in drugs are not suddenly going to go straight. They’ll still be going through the courts and prison. The police will still be dealing with their crime. The dealers will move into another illegal drug. There may be less criminal charges for possession, less involvement of the courts, less criminal costs, but this is offset by the increase in addiction. I think we’re a long way from fully understanding the legality of cocaine.

John Riordan
John Riordan
1 month ago
Reply to  Brett H

Increased availability will increase usage. That is not the same as saying it will increase addiction. Addiction is so powerful that it drives habits irrespective of the costs and risks. This ought to be an uncontroversial idea: people who are willing to risk their lives to do something are already beyond the point where the law is a significant deterrent.

However, like I say, I would want the question settled by reference to an economic analysis in which harm-reduction is the principle guiding measure. If such a study is done properly and can persuade me that it would increase overall harm, then I am willing to be persuaded.

Last edited 1 month ago by John Riordan
Brett H
Brett H
1 month ago
Reply to  John Riordan

Then what does cause addiction? It is possible wider use may not cause more addiction. There may be a level of addiction we’ve already reached and that won’t increase just because cocaine is more available. So we really need to know what causes addiction. It seems to me that the more you indulge the more your body wants, and so the spiral begins.

Last edited 1 month ago by Brett H
John Riordan
John Riordan
1 month ago
Reply to  Brett H

The causes of addiction are complex and still highly debated, but one thing that is NOT a cause is simply exposing a person to substances or behaviours to which they subsequently become addicted. Addiction is a neurological tendency possessed by a minority of people that exists independently of the various mechanisms by which it becomes apparent.

There is a proviso here: there are classes of substances such as opiates and benzodiazepines which are physically addictive for almost everyone if they take them for long enough. However, the process of physical withdrawal from them is relatively fast (though admittedly extremely unpleasant), and what tends to happen after that is that most people stay off them, but some people are revealed as addicts whose behaviour is permanently altered and tend to seek out the substance again. That is what defines the addict: the ongoing compulsion to use and keep using, not the temporary state of dependency on the substance.

This became a case study during the Vietnam War where thousands of American soldiers became morphine/heroin users during the war. After they went back to the USA most of them coped with withdrawal and stopped, but about 10% ended up with chronic, intractable and destructive dependency. This subset is what characterises an addict, not all of them.

Last edited 1 month ago by John Riordan
chris sullivan
chris sullivan
1 month ago
Reply to  John Riordan

that 10% is a lot of people whose lives became very grim obtaining the illegal substance – if they had been allowed to access legally a maintenance dose based on body size/type etc they would have gotten on with their lives OK as did keith richard and others who could afford pharmacutical grade which has almost zero health risk !!

joe hardy
joe hardy
1 month ago

Legalizing cocaine is a very bad idea. I lost my best friend to a cocaine addiction. My non sexual life partner will never be forgiven for choosing a drug over his family, though my son got his name. It’s not a simple party favor. There is no benefit to society to legalize cocaine.

joe hardy
joe hardy
1 month ago

Look no further than Portland, Oregon to see how well decriminalization works out.

John Riordan
John Riordan
1 month ago
Reply to  joe hardy

Why don’t you mention Portugal?

Richard Craven
Richard Craven
1 month ago
Reply to  John Riordan

Why don’t you mention Singapore?

Alphonse Pfarti
Alphonse Pfarti
1 month ago

Legalisation would decrease potency? Does this mean it will be cut with even more toilet cleaner and talcum powder if you buy it over the counter? The fentanyl argument is fair enough to a degree, but then people might just find other sources for fentanyl.

My own view is that the Half Man Half Biscuit song ‘What Made Columbia Famous’ remains the last word on why you don’t legalise the stuff.

ryan8240
ryan8240
1 month ago

Says the clown who can’t even spell Colombia right. We literally have no choice but to legalize. Whether or not you agree with its usage is completely irrelevant to the question of legalization which is a no brainer.

Brett H
Brett H
1 month ago
Reply to  ryan8240

Incredibly, given the opportunity, you end up saying nothing of benefit. You jump on someone’s spelling (irrelevant to the issue), you insist we have no choice without explanation, then you dismiss another opinion as irrelevant to the question, even though you must be aware that legislation requires a reasoned discussion, then declare the answer is so obvious it requires no discussion at all. You need to come up with persuasive evidence or point us in the direction.

Alphonse Pfarti
Alphonse Pfarti
1 month ago
Reply to  ryan8240

Thank you for alerting me to my spelling mistake. As to whether or not you prohibit a substance that turns otherwise perfectly pleasant people into verbally incontinent blowhards purely on that basis, I’ll stand by that, but consider any reasoned arguments otherwise.

To address remainder of your post, and others on this thread, I’m reminded as to how shrewd are the observations of the aforementioned songwriters.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
1 month ago
Reply to  ryan8240

You don’t like debate then Ryan? Why are you on this forum?

John Riordan
John Riordan
1 month ago

No, it means it would be cut properly with harmless substances that would eradicate the subset of dangers of consumption that stem from impurities as opposed to the more common problem of overdose.

The “alcohol” we buy across the counter in all its forms is actually a solution of ethanol, complex chain alcohols and associated esters in water with whatever flavourings result from the production process. We don’t find people buying pure ethanol to make it stronger, do we?

Last edited 1 month ago by John Riordan
Alphonse Pfarti
Alphonse Pfarti
1 month ago
Reply to  John Riordan

Yes, I do appreciate that government approved cocaine would not be diluted with toilet cleaner. Apologies for being facetious. I was questioning the argument around potency and whether it meant the strength of the drug or the effects of other drugs or toxins. Weak, but non-adulterated cocaine would not, I imagine be of much interest to consumers and addicts would just consume the amount they need.

As for alcohol, buying pure ethanol isn’t easy and drinking it is likely to kill you pretty quickly. Alcoholics often aim for drinks that hit the optimum ABV for absorption, such as ‘super lager’ or ‘bum-wine’ Pure cocaine is also rather easily converted into smokeable forms which are much more potent and addictive.

John Riordan
John Riordan
1 month ago

My point is that the dilution of cocaine with harmless substances would not make its users lose interest. Most of them are used to white powder that has as little as 20% coke in it anyway, so I’d guess that most of them would be pleasantly surprised by a powder that’s more like 60% pure and contains a variety of helpful harmless additives that stops it going clumpy and wet in a your pocket in a nightclub.
I’m going on numbers from personal experience that are 20 years out of date here by the way, so it maybe things are different with the stuff these days.
Anyway, the argument is academic: we are not going to be voting on any such proposition in our lifetimes, and even if we did I for one would still have to avoid the stuff like the plague even if we reach a point where it becomes possible to ask the nearest policeman where the nearest cocaine shop is.

Alphonse Pfarti
Alphonse Pfarti
1 month ago
Reply to  John Riordan

Yes, that’s a reasonable point about purchasing something that actually does have cocaine in it and at a reasonable strength. I expect what is sold is often the narcotic equivalent of what was often sold as Burgundy in the years before AOC came in. I should probably read the Economist article and see what it says.

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
1 month ago

“Regulatory oversight would likely help, though it seems somewhat contradictory to propose regulating the sale and consumption of poison. ”
As I’ve always argued with father, searching for moral/ethical consistency in the drug debate is a fool’s game. We already had this argument with tobacco, and though it makes no rational sense and is blatantly self-contradictory from a moral/ethical standpoint, the current model of taxing tobacco heavily, restricting advertising, and extorting even more money from tobacco companies to advertise against their own product has worked to accomplish the goal of minimizing levels of smoking, thereby limiting the costs of smoking to society and the healthcare system, while also avoiding the costs of policing and enforcing an outright prohibition. It is, admittedly, a nonsensical solution, but human beings are often irrational, and irrational people call for irrational solutions.

Last edited 1 month ago by Steve Jolly
Brett H
Brett H
1 month ago
Reply to  Steve Jolly

So why even legalise cocaine in the first place if you’re then going to introduce all these measures to minimise the level of use?

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
1 month ago
Reply to  Brett H

Because it transfers more of the cost from the government in the form of prisons/police/health care to the users themselves, who have to pay much higher prices on a heavily taxed product, and the high price further discourages use. I admit it’s a cheap cop-out from any moral perspective. It is the government basically saying ‘this substance is bad and you shouldn’t use it’, while at the same time turning around and making a bunch of money off the same product. It’s almost absurd, but that’s the solution that seems to minimize social/governmental costs. That’s the argument I’m sure the Economist wanted to make, given that their publication’s usual MO is to explore the economic side of political/social issues.

John Robertson
John Robertson
1 month ago

There is that connection of Italys’ Angelli families billion dollar family firm and the economist and political interference.

Richard Craven
Richard Craven
1 month ago

Cocaine is merely a tool for rendering people obnoxious, as we see in the case of Ryan8240.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
1 month ago

Excellent piece in The Spectator explaining how legalising cannabis in USA/Canada hasn’t had the expected impact on the criminal trade:
https://www.spectator.co.uk/article/why-americas-cannabis-experiment-failed

Last edited 1 month ago by Ian Stewart
Andrew Wise
Andrew Wise
1 month ago

Yawn … more refer madness

ryan8240
ryan8240
1 month ago

Wtf kind of stupid response article is this… Regulation and quality control would drastically decrease the harm seen in cocaine use while barley affecting actual usage rates. If anything high quality coke will even take away some of the demand from junk like meth and fentanyl while costing organized crime BILLIONS. Coke is a normal out-on-the-night drinking/social drug and is literally the second most commonly used street drug right after weed. Ya’ll need to grow up. The upsides to legalizing cocaine have never before been more obvious than they are now in 2022. Legalization for cocaine is an absolute must. More so than any other substance I can think of and yes I’m educated on the realities of all this as well as drug legalization.

Charles, you’re as ignorant as they come. If one seriously makes it past the age of 30 and still think drugs should remain illegal and unregulated you’ve failed yourself intellectually. This response article is embarrassing.

Brett H
Brett H
1 month ago
Reply to  ryan8240

Cocaine is still an addictive drug though, right? Whether it’s legal or not. Does it seem like it might still be a problem if it was legalised?

Last edited 1 month ago by Brett H
John Riordan
John Riordan
1 month ago
Reply to  Brett H

No. You do not create addicts by legalising things to which they can get addicted. They (or I should say “we” since I am one myself) exist as addicts prior to becoming dependent on whatever it turns out to be. Alcohol, drugs, gambling etc.

The fact remains that most people who use cocaine, alcohol etc do not become dependent upon it and are able to self-regulate its use. This won’t change if the law changes.

Last edited 1 month ago by John Riordan
Njt755
Njt755
1 month ago
Reply to  ryan8240

People who routinely imbibe harmful, habit forming drugs – alcohol, coke or whatever are killing themselves. Legalisation doesn’t change that.

John Riordan
John Riordan
1 month ago
Reply to  Njt755

That is simply not true and can be readily perceived as such from even even a brief look around you. The vast majority of people who drink “routinely” will die old of something unrelated to the habit. The same applies, to a lesser extent, to the majority of people who use cocaine. The commonest pattern of cocaine use is by twenty-somethings who give it up as they get a bit older.

I’m not saying there aren’t also problems with cocaine and alcohol or that those problems are not significant and in many cases cost the lives of those involved. But the simplistic notion you have presented here just isn’t supported by the facts.