Pharmaceutical Prohibition: as Successful as Ever

An item on Sky news the other day caught my attention.  It concerned a new wave of legal highs being manufactured in China.  The thrust of the report is that, in the wake of mephedrone having been banned a few weeks ago, enterprising Chinese chemists are working on a new set of chemicals designed to get around the legislation.

These new drugs are, as even the manufacturers admit, of dubious safety.  Not necessarily unsafe – but of dubious safety.  That, it seems to me, is bad enough.

But it’s a nice illustration of how the desire to ban pharmaceuticals is clearly not a good idea.  It doesn’t make the demand for highs disappear; and, for as long as there’s a demand, there’ll be someone to meet it.  Some of the demand will be met illegally – even my own parents had been known to drink absinthe from an illegal still when it was still illegal in France, and they’re about as middle-class as you can get; some of it will be met in a way that’s outside the spirit of the law, even if not its letter; some of it will be met straightforwardly legally.  Imposing a ban, that is, seems pretty pointless.  (The same applies to abortions, and to just about anything else that governments have, over the years, tried to ban.)

It’s also a nice illustration of the manner in which the desire to ban pharmaceuticals is deeply counterproductive.  Again, this has to do with the fact that the demand remains.  The bans on heroin, cocaine, MDMA and so on all meant than users faced a dilemma: either go underground, with the attendant risks – from the unregulated drugs themselves, and from the circumstances in which they’re obtained and used* – the stigma and the alienation that that brings; or stay legal, and use drugs that are likely to be less and less safe as the driving force is simply to stay one step ahead of the law.  (Ecstasy is, probably, safer than a lot of the stuff in your medicine cupboard at home; mephedrone probably isn’t; the new post-mephedrone drugs almost certainly aren’t.)  That is to say: successive waves of prohibition simply mean that people will turn to dodgier and dodgier sources of their drug of choice.  We might be talking about white powders here, or about make-you-blind moonshine made in a bathtub in Prohibition-era America.  It’s the same principle.

(*On this point, there was a good report in the Independent in March about the impact of the cross-border drugs trade in Mexico; there was a similar story on the Today programme, too, about the pernicious unforeseen consequences of prohibition.)

There would be no need for these tailor-made new drugs if the prohibition on mephedrone and other such drugs didn’t exist.  There’d be no need for mephedrone at all if the ban on other drugs wasn’t there.  Bans simply don’t work.  All they do is make the risks of drug-use bigger, and they do so by ignoring the demand side.  Sort that out, and the market will simply move on.

Of course, you’re never going to eliminate people’s desire to get off their chops now and again – and I don’t think you should.  But you can make it as safe as possible, with proper certification from the government for disco-biscuits, and you can have a frank public health campaign that isn’t laced with prohibitionary subtexts – the kind of campaign that is currently just about impossible.

The current situation is a bit like one in which we’re trying to reduce road accidents by banning brakes, and then banning headlights, and then banning driving lessons.  Not gonna work.  Far better to enforce decent lessons, lights and brakes, and at the same time to encourage cycling.  The same goes for pharmaceuticals.  Discourage their use by all means – but at least do everything to ensure that what use there is stays as safe for everyone as possible.

This is not some wild-eyed notion that the use of currently-illegal drugs is perfectly OK.  Fewer heroin users is good in anyone’s book, I think.  Fewer mephedrone users, too.  But – at risk of getting boring – bans won’t get you there.

(One last point: at around 1:55, the reporter states that

In China, business often comes before ethics

I don’t see the conflict between business and ethics – making money is good.  No – if there’s a question here about ethics, it has to do with the wisdom and desirability of prohibitionary policies in relation to drugs.  And they’re neither wise nor desirable.)

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