Sunday, October 18, 2015

Meth isn’t an argument for drug prohibition. It demonstrates prohibition’s failure.

WaPo |  The Economist highlights an interesting new study that claims a connection between meth labs and “dry counties.”
The authors argue that local prohibitions lower the price of drugs such as meth relative to alcohol. This is hard to prove, because dry counties share many traits with counties that have meth problems. The authors claim that after controlling for factors including income, poverty, population density and race, legalising the sale of alcohol would result in a 37% drop in meth production in dry counties in Kentucky, or by 25% in the state overall.
Since no one knows exactly how many meth labs there are in America, the paper uses those discovered by the police as a proxy for meth production (see map). They provide further evidence for their argument by noting that lifting the ban on selling alcohol would also reduce the number of emergency-room visits for burns from hot substances and chemicals (amateur meth-producers have a habit of setting themselves alight).
Of course, our maddeningly repetitive response to evidence that prohibition of an intoxicating substance is causing people to turn to more potent and dangerous intoxicating substances has always been to then crack down on those substances too. Imagine for a minute if instead of fighting meth addiction by punishing cold and allergy sufferers, these dry counties lifted their ban on alcohol sales. Better yet, imagine we made it easy to obtain legal amphetamines, which we did for a long time in this country. Now imagine that we spent, say, even a fourth of the money we spend on the drug war on facilitating treatment for addicts. The Portugal example suggests we’d have less addiction, less crime and fewer overdoses.

Meth is often the example prohibitionists pull out when someone points to an example like Portugal. “So you’d legalize meth, too?” But as the Economist piece suggests, meth is a product of prohibition (in this case alcohol, but also restrictions on amphetamines more generally), not an argument in favor it. We have a meth problem because we have drug prohibition. Without it, meth wouldn’t go away, but it almost certainly wouldn’t be as prevalent as it is today.