Last month two young men tragically died after taking ecstasy (MDMA) during an event at Alexandra Palace in North London. Over the next few days the newspapers were flooded with commentary on the shocking dangers of the drug. This is why, they said, drugs are illegal. Goodness, how wrong were those who called for a liberalisation of drugs policy?
Yet, not for the first time, they spectacularly missed the point. Drugs prohibition in Britain is dangerously counterproductive from an economic, practical and moral perspective.
The economic argument was famously and quite brilliantly outlined by Milton Friedman. By restricting market forces, denying free choice and overruling consumer sovereignty, the state creates a perverse protectionist situation where only large organised cartels can afford to import drugs. It doesn’t take an economic genius to understand the huge inflationary effect on prices; as Friedman says, ‘what more could a monopolist want?’
Furthermore, prohibition directly results in massive government expenditure. Jeffrey Miron and Katherine Waldock have outlined the tremendous cost evident in the United States, but even in Britain over £4 billion of taxpayer’s money is spent each year on the enforcement of laws relating to Class A drugs alone. In times of austerity the economic implications are clear; yet Friedman raises an important ethical consideration as well, convincingly arguing that ‘I believe it is immoral to impose heavy costs upon people to protect other people from their own choices’.
Now let us take a more practical viewpoint and look at the specific case of those terrible deaths at Alexandra Palace. It was reported that the adverse effects suffered by the victims were the result of them taking a new and more potent form of MDMA. They did not take the stuff that thousands of people across the country do every weekend, but something different, up to six times stronger, and considerably more dangerous.
Therein the problem lies. Due to its illegality and the consequential covert and unofficial nature of its sale, it is impossible for MDMA users to ascertain the purity of the powder they are purchasing. For all they know it could contain all manner of harmful substances with which the MDMA they actually want has been cut. Alternatively it could be a relatively safe product unlikely to cause the user any harm whatsoever. Or, as those two men found out last month, it could be a new and untested form of the drug.
MDMA has its dangers, but so does alcohol, tobacco, even coffee. The difference is the customer knows what he is getting with the last three, so knows how much to consume safely. The illegal nature of MDMA means he has no idea. Legalisation would solve that problem.
Even if you hate the thought of drugs, a more liberal policy – starting with the legalisation of MDMA – is common sense from an economic, practical and moral point of view. Tragically, it may have saved the lives of those two young men at Alexandra Palace last month.