Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Prohibitionist axioms don't hold water

Associate Professor Stephen Jurd has kindly responded to the post below -- via comment under the post and by email. [It turns out he and I went to the same school in another life].

But Dr Jurd's response does not address the points made in that post.

He writes via email (my responses interweaved):
Even the prohibitionists may have some evidence.
Of course, but how sound is it? Given that nearly all the research is funded by governments on condition that it looks for harms, and further funding for such research depends on getting the 'right' result, it's not surprising that  a lot of research demonstrates the harms of drugs. But this is not the point. If you researched anything on that basis you would show harms (research the harms of cars for instance, or rock fishing, or Rugby League). And law reformers do not dispute that drugs have side-effects. What they question is prohibition, and there is no convincing evidence that it works.  Indeed, 28,000 deaths in one country alone is a stark argument against.
A soundbite is not the place to present evidence.

All drugs have side effects. More drugs more side effects. Legalising drugs may eradicate some, but certainly not all of the side effects - see cirrhosis, lung cancer and sedative overdose deaths.

There is little evidence that drug law reform would increase use -- as my post below explains: "Portugal's 2001 decriminalisation of all drugs was followed by an overall decrease in use and a huge reduction in the transmission of the HIV virus. Dr Jurd also ignores that the highest drug usage rates globally tend to be in the countries with the strictest prohibition."

Re side-effects, we know about the harms of alcohol. But the harms caused by its prohibition in the 1920s were worse, including people dying from bad quality illegal hooch and open gang warfare on the streets. The murder rate in the US skyrocketed during prohibition.
My views are not monochromatic. I am not immune to the tragedy of 28,000 deaths. But are they killing over cannabis? And are they killing over the Mexican market? More likely they are killing over white powders and US dollars.
Yes they are killing over cannabis as well as cocaine. US dollars are indeed the main driver of this carnage, but those dollars are made available by prohibition. So it's inconsistent to support prohibition in one country when it's prohibition in the next country that fuels the problem.

Cannabis law reformers in California argue that regulated supply would put the cartels in their state out of business. Some prohibitionists reply that the cartels would simply move on to other forms of crime but this again is an assertion that ignores certain facts: that other forms of crime are far less reliable and more risky than drug dealing. Under prohibition, kids deal drugs in every high school every day. That's a far cry from robbing a bank.
As a psychiatrist I felt it was necessary to say that cannabis causes a variety of psychiatric side effects, some of them very serious indeed
That message is amply broadcast by governments and media. But a causal link between cannabis and schizophrenia is not  absolutely established despite the overwhelming bias of the research.

And this ignores another point I made: "the awkward fact that Schizophrenia has not increased per capita during the decades that cannabis use indeed did explode (under prohibition!) since the 1960s."

Even assuming a causal link, there is no evidence that punishing the 99% or so of users who are not badly harmed is an effective way of preventing harm to the unfortunate 1%. Indeed, proof-of-age and rationing under controlled supply may reduce use by teenagers, who are most vulnerable to harmful side-effects.

As I wrote to Associate Professor Jurd, this is not personal, just a plea for sound public debate. Dr Jurd's work on addiction seems to be very creditable. But his qualifications do not include work on the effectiveness of prohibition, so I ask him to really examine his belief that: "It is a well recognised public health axiom that the higher the availability of any drug, the more the drug will be used."

It's not an axiom, Dr Jurd, it's an ideological belief. As Arthur Miller wrote: "Ideology: a principled denial of the facts".

For more on the price and demand elasticity of drugs, see the lower part of this recent post.

And an analysis of cannabis use in The Netherlands, where cannabis is legally sold in shops, challenges US Drug Czar Gil Kerlikowske who is spreading another prohibitionist assertion, claiming that an explosion of cannabis use in that country is leading to the closure of many of the coffee shops. Kerlikowske also denies that crime increased during alcohol prohibition in the US. He has no evidence for this, and I wonder how he explains the Boston University graphs posted here? Maybe, like most prohibitionists, he simply ignores facts that challenge his ideology.

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