Unintended Consequences of the War on Drugs

This week in my local newspaper, Florida’s Lieutenant Governor Jeff Kottkamp wrote an op-ed reporting that a drug known as “Spice” is becoming “… a nightmare for law enforcement, because it is sold and used openly as a so-called legal alternative to marijuana.  Currently, there is no way to test for the use of Spice — making it that much more attractive to would-be users.”

Kottkamp reports, “Spice is, in fact, more potent and more dangerous than marijuana.”

I am very out-of-touch with the drug scene, so maybe unsurprisingly, this was the first I’d heard of Spice.  I do have a son who is a senior in high school, so I figured I could ask him and get some information about Spice, but he claimed he’d never heard of it either.  Could be he’s a Spice-head trying to hide his habit, but (parents can be so naive) I think he was telling me the truth.

If any readers know anything about Spice, feel free to speak up and inform the rest of us!  (When I Google “spice drug” some information does pop up.)

Kottkamp goes on to say, “Just two weeks ago, I was speaking with our community anti-drug organizations gathered at the annual drug prevention conference, and they asked for help to stop this new drug from infiltrating their neighborhoods.”

I can give Kottkamp a sure-fire way to stop Spice in its tracks: Legalize marijuana.  Kottkamp claims Spice is more dangerous than marijuana, so surely this would be a step in the right direction.

The issue here is not about Spice; it is about alternatives to marijuana.  Making Spice illegal would simply open the door for drug entrepreneurs to develop other recreational drugs that are “more potent and more dangerous than marijuana.”

We’ve been fighting a war on drugs for 30 years, and the drugs are winning.  There is ample evidence that the harm from illegal drugs comes more from the fact that they are illegal than that they are drugs.

I am no advocate of recreational drug use.  Following Nancy Reagan, if someone offers you some, my advice would be to “Just Say No!”  But there are two strong arguments in favor of legalization.  One is that this used to be a free country, and freedom has to mean the freedom to make what people in the government think are bad choices.  Another more utilitarian argument is that the harm from their illegality is greater than the harm from the drug use itself.

Randall G. Holcombe is Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and DeVoe Moore Professor of Economics at Florida State University. His Independent books include Housing America: Building Out of a Crisis (edited with Benjamin Powell); and Writing Off Ideas: Taxation, Foundations, and Philanthropy in America .
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