What U.S. Drug Policy Might Look Like In A Perfect World

Photo Credit: Mathew Sumner

Say you were emperor for a day and granted the power to create a new, fully rational policy for regulating alcohol and marijuana. What would that policy look like?

That’s the question a team of 13 drug policy experts set out to answer over the course of several conferences held in 2015 and 2016, the results of which have just been published in the International Journal of Drug Policy. The group included economists, criminologists, addiction experts and drug policy researchers, and was supported by the Research Council of Norway, a division of the Norwegian government.

For the project, the group first identified four general regulatory regimes that could be applied to a wide range of psychoactive substances:

1. Absolute prohibition, where the use and possession of the drug is illegal for all purposes

2. Decriminalization, where use and possession are a civil, not criminal offense, but the drug is otherwise illegal

3. State control of the market, which can encompass everything from age limits on drug purchases to government control of production and sales

4. Unfettered free market, where drugs are treated no differently than any other consumer good.

The United States, for instance, maintains an absolute federal prohibition on the possession and use of marijuana and other drugs like LSD. Certain states, however, have decriminalized the possession and use of marijuana under state law, or created a regulated legal market. A truly unfettered free market approach to either marijuana or alcohol does not exist in the United States — for both drugs there are age limits for purchase or possession, excise taxes on sales, limits on driving under the influence of the drugs, and licensing requirements for producers and sellers, among other limitations.

For both alcohol and marijuana, the researchers evaluated each of the four regulatory approaches on how well they supported a wide range of desirable policy outcomes: minimizing health risks to users and others, promoting medical applications where appropriate, protecting human rights and individual liberty, reducing the influence of profit-seeking industries, reducing crime and incarceration and generating economic revenue, to name a few.

They then used those assessments to come up with a score of 0 (least desirable) to 100 (most desirable) for each regulatory approach and each drug.

In the case of alcohol, state control stands head and shoulders above the other approaches. The researchers gave it high marks for avoiding the criminalization of users, generating tax revenue for the government and avoiding the creation of a black market in booze (like the one we saw during Prohibition, for instance).

For any regulatory regime there are trade-offs. Relative to absolute prohibition, for instance, state-regulated alcohol markets create more alcohol consumption, which in turn creates increased risks to health and safety of drinkers and those around them. There’s also the question of an alcohol industry profiting off addiction.

However, the researchers felt that those harms were outweighed by the benefits of state control, particularly if even stricter regulations were applied: higher taxes, limitations on marketing, even complete state control over certain aspects of retail sales, as in the case of some U.S. states.

Turning to marijuana, the striking thing here is the vast gulf in desirability between state control and the current regime of absolute prohibition, as practiced by the federal government and many states. Decriminalization, often touted as a middle-ground approach to dealing with marijuana use, is slightly desirable to complete prohibition but not by much. The researchers even felt that an unfettered free market in marijuana would be preferable to either prohibition or decriminalization.

The big factors in the researchers’ evaluation of marijuana regulation included potential medical applications, the avoidance of the use of more dangerous substances, and the promotion of family and community cohesion (e.g., putting an end to the drug war that has torn so many families and communities apart).

Tradeoff-wise, the only significant downside to a state-regulated marijuana market would be the influence of private industry — this, for instance, is the chief concern of many opponents of full marijuana legalization. But the researchers felt this was significantly outweighed by the benefits of regulated legalization.

While state control comes off looking quite good in the analysis of both alcohol and marijuana, it’s worth noting that there’s a lot of gray area in this regulatory category. It theoretically includes everything from modest restrictions on age to a complete government takeover of the production, distribution and sales of the drug.

No regulatory scheme is a panacea. In the case of alcohol, for instance, the drug still contributes to nearly 90,000 deaths each year. This analysis suggests that more lives could be saved via even tighter alcohol regulations, but the researchers agreed that banning booze completely would make things even worse.

For marijuana, on the other hand, the striking finding is that the researchers ranked the current federal regime of complete prohibition as quite literally the worst-case scenario. You don’t have to look far to see why: each year, hundreds of thousands of Americans are arrested for simple marijuana possession. Civil liberties are violated, sometimes egregiously, in the interest of policing a plant. Users often opt to experiment with dangerous “synthetic” marijuana substitutes, which have led to mass hospitalizations and some fatalities. Medical use is fraught with legal worries.

No drug policy is perfect. But for marijuana in particular, this report strongly suggests that few regulatory approaches could be as harmful as our current policy.