Let’s assume there is a risky product, of which the government wants to discourage consumption. The good is dangerous, not infrequently killing people accidentally. The substance is of dubious quality, highly regulated yet poorly made and inconsistent. The products within this category are mislabeled, misbranded and often adulterated with harmful chemicals and other additives. Yet, these goods are popular among some people, becoming habit forming both psychological and physiological. The goods are blamed for social ills, including crime, homelessness, shiftlessness, poor health and even death.
How should government discourage consumption of products like this? I’m talking about illegal drugs of course. Governments around the world have tried all manner of ways to curb drug use. Sellers are jailed, often for decades. Suspected buyers are sometimes stopped and searched. Borders are sealed and imports inspected. I read where one man commented on being stopped while kayaking in the ocean because the Coast Guard wanted to make sure he wasn’t a courier, bringing in drugs from ships anchored offshore. In some countries drug offenses are punishable by death. Quite a few countries, actually. According to Amnesty International:
Drug-related offences, which can include different charges of drug trafficking and/or drug possession, are punished or punishable by death in Bahrain, Bangladesh, Brunei Darussalam, China, Cuba, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Laos, Libya, Malaysia, Myanmar, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Republic of Korea, South Sudan, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Syria, Thailand, United Arab Emirates, United States of America, Viet Nam and Yemen.
It may surprise you then that among the latest ideas to curb drug use in the United States is to decriminalize hard drugs and facilitate their use in a safer environment. I wrote the following earlier this year:
There is an odd theory that making illicit drugs easier to use will make them safer, such as needle exchanges and safe injection sites.
There is another theory, one that is grounded in reason, common sense as well as backed by empirical testing, that demand curves are downward sloping. Similar there is an economic truism that posits if governments wish to encourage some activity, then subsidize it.
At first glance the above two paragraphs have nothing in common, but they do. By reducing the risk (and therefore the cost) of illegal drug consumption, local governments are encouraging drug consumption.
Whether you are in favor of the War on Drugs or support outside-the-box interventions, it is hard to dispute that making drug easier to use is unlikely to make drug use go away and could encourage more people to experiment with drugs. The following headline ran in the New York Times, “To Combat the Opioid Epidemic, Cities Ponder Facilities for Drug Use,” saying:
Public health experts have long endorsed a controversial strategy to blunt the opioid epidemic that has been sweeping cities like Philadelphia: supervised drug consumption sites, in which people are allowed to take illicit drugs under professional supervision.
Safe drug consumption facilities have reversed thousands of overdoses in the United States and abroad, helping people who use potent synthetic opioids like fentanyl avoid the worst consequences of a volatile drug supply.
In the United States, the sites represent a novel form of “harm reduction,” which aims not to make drug users sober or abstinent but to prevent disease, overdose and death.
Some potential problems with this strategy are that safe injection sites became a growth industry that outgrows local government’s ability to manage them. Another is that these sites may attract people from outlying areas, concentrating addiction in communities around the sites. If facilities are only staffed during the day addicts may go home and self-medicate at night. And then there is moral hazard. That’s when you increase risky behavior because your perceived risk has been lowered.
How will this work in practice? Is it like a bar, where everybody knows your name? Would facilities offer their own top shelf products that are presumably safer than street drugs? Would experienced drug users even bother to travel to the facility? There would need to be multiple locations, like gas stations on every corner. Community meetings to discuss where to locate the facilities would be acrimonious. This concept sounds more like an academic exercise than a well thought out program.
Read more at The New York Times.