Professor Leitzel and his economic argument for drug legalization

Today, I am going to link to an interview by Michael Dumke of the Chicago Reader with professor James Leitzel, who has a Ph.D in economics and teaches economics and public policy at the University of Chicago.  The interview is about his economic argument against drug prohibition.

The professor is advocating a version of drug legalization, with some “conservative defaults built into the system” to try to limit the damage caused by drug addiction, such as requiring that people obtain a license before being able to purchase hard drugs.  This license, he suggests, would only be available to people over the age of 21 who have passed a test demonstrating that they are aware of the dangers of narcotics.

Many moons ago, I attended the University of Chicago, and when I first arrived as an undergraduate, I was strongly considering majoring in economics.  But I was turned off by the assumptions that economists make that people are “rational actors” and that absent governmental intrusion, the “invisible hand of the free market” will self-regulate and benefit everyone. To the contrary, my experience is that people make decisions based on a number of conscious and unconscious reasons, often, not very rationally.

Leitzel does acknowledge that drugs are a little different, because of their addictive power.  He says “[y]ou’ve probably heard the story: people start using heroin to feel good, and they end up taking heroin to feel normal.”  So he backs away from a complete free market by proposing some governmental regulations designed to minimize the likelihood of addiction.

In fact, he says: “So what we want is some sort of policy that would work pretty well no matter how much of the behavior is rational. It shouldn’t be something that only makes sense if everybody is rational, like laissez-faire, and it shouldn’t be something that only makes sense if everybody’s irrational, which is to lock up everybody who’s using it.”

I just don’t see how to draw these lines without still creating a black market for whoever is unable to legally obtain their drug of choice.  To see a real life example, just look at Oxycontin, which is a legal pain medication, available through prescription.  Because it is so addictive, we require that doctors only prescribe this medication in limited quantities.  Because of this, a vibrant black market for these pills has emerged.

Further, I have no doubt that legalization of hard drugs will, over time, lead to a vast increase in the number of addicts.  For all the problems that drug prohibition have caused, don’t they pale in comparison to damage caused by heroin and other narcotics?

I think that the “economic” argument ignores the moral argument.  When a government says that it is illegal to possess heroin, it is sending a strong message that we condemn heroin use.  Do we want to throw that away?

Yet, on the other hand, I tend to agree with Leitzel’s statement that “I wouldn’t recommend [heroin]. But I don’t like the idea of putting people in prison for wanting to consume a drug.”

The answer for me, and I think for people like Professor Leitzel, is that we need a new paradigm for how we deal with narcotics and addicts.  I don’t necessarily agree with a lot of what he has to say, but I like that he is trying to think critically and is not censoring himself for fear of not being politically correct.  If we all did that, then we could have a healthy dialogue and maybe change things for the better.

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