What is The Economist sniffing?
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.”
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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.