Decriminalize and de-governmentize India

If what we believe to be true is in fact false, we could end up making a bad situation worse. Since our deeply held convictions are rarely deliberately scrutinized, we run the risk of behaving like monkeys. A useful generalization that I have arrived at is that the structure of the world imposes truths that are counter-intuitive. Our untutored intuition is at times at odds with what the truth is. There are examples galore but here I will restrict myself to the “drug problem” which I had briefly alluded to in my post yesterday on Drugs, Death and Bad Servers.

We all know that illegal drugs are bad. That is why they are illegal, isn’t it, otherwise why should they be illegal? That’s assumption number 1. Ergo, anyone using illegal drugs is harming society. That’s assumption number 2. Therefore society has an obligation to fight a “drug war” to stop the use of illegal drugs. Assumption number 3. Minor assumptions 1: drug use can be stopped. Minor assumption 2: making criminals out of drug users will stop drug use. Minor assumption 3: a drug war is a good use of society’s limited resources.

As far as I can tell, all the assumptions above are to a large extent false, if not entirely false. Just because something is illegal does not make it harmful. Conversely, the legality of something does not imply that it is harmless. What is legal depends on the time and place. What is declared illegal at a particular time and place may have to do with the power structure of the society.

There are drugs that harm the user. Nicotine is a perfectly legal drug that causes immense harm, for instance. So also, alcohol ingested immoderately and over extended periods of time will definitely cause harm. But should a person who chooses to use alcohol in moderation in the privacy of his own home and does not harm another be prohibited from doing so? If you believe in the sanctity of the principle that a person owns himself, then you cannot support such a prohibition. It boils down to self-ownership. If you deny that, you are on the road to slavery and serfdom where others have the power to dictate what you are allowed to do to yourself. There be dragons.

One can arrive at the conclusions that illegal drugs are not unconditionally harmful, that they can be used without imposing social costs or negative externalities, that the wholesale prohibition will not work, that attempting prohibition will lead to immense costs through increased crime, etc, by simple reasoning alone. The case against criminalizing of drugs and the subsequent “war on drugs” gets really compelling when emprical evidence supports the theoretical conclusions.

We assume certain things to be true, which upon closer examination may turn out to be false, as I said before. Some people have spent a lifetime dealing with the issue of drug use and drug wars. They have had the time and opportunity to actually see what happens on the ground. All we have to do is to examine what they report and perhaps test our own assumptions. I once heard the police chief of (my one-time hometown) San Jose, California, Dr Joseph McNamara lay out the case for de-criminalizing drugs. A good starting point is Cops Against the Drug War. Here is a brief except from an article called Stop the War from another good site, Shaffer Library of Drug Policy, written by McNamara and published in the Washington Post in 1996.

A year ago, some of the nation’s top law enforcement officials gathered at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University for a two day seminar to ponder the drug problem. They concluded that the drug war was a failure and that more education and prevention would be better than more arrests and prisons. They recommended that a national commission be appointed to study the harm that the drug war causes and to consider alternative approaches to discouraging drug use.

. . .

It is difficult enough to motivate youngsters in these areas to stay in school and find jobs in the few legitimate businesses in the inner cities. Easy drug money and glamour associated with the trade are creating well armed and vicious teenaged gangsters just as Prohibition did during the days of Al Capone.

Nobel-winning economist Milton Friedman, doing a comparative analysis with homicide rates during Prohibition, estimated that as many as 10,000 murders a year are caused by the illegality of drugs. In addition, corruption of law enforcement, the legal profession and even the armed forces related to drug money is spreading.

The police chiefs are calling the drug war senseless and have been calling for the de-criminalization of drugs for years. Surely, they must be in league with drug lords, one might ask. Actually, the truth is that only the drug lords will be against the de-criminalization of drugs. Decriminalize drugs and the profits disappear.

By now you may be wondering what the war against drugs in the US has anything to do with the problem of India’s development. I was coming to that.

The reason I took up this issue was to illustrate the point that even reasonable people can hold views that are wrong and harmful if action is based on those views. A nation like the US suffers as a consequence of wrong-headed policies undertaken either out of ignorance or out of greed. But they are rich and they can afford to be stupidly wasteful of their wealth. A poor country, on the other hand, does not have the luxury of being able to afford wrong-headed policies.

Indeed, as I argue elsewhere, it is precisely because of a large set of wrong-headed policies pursued over a sufficiently large span of time that ultimately impoverishes a nation. For over half a century, India has followed an astonishingly stupid set of economic policies. Each individual policy may not have been catastrophic but when undertaken in a concerted fashion all together, has resulted in a rather pathetic nation of extremely poor people.

Is there a litmus test which one can apply to figure out which of our policies are likely to be flawed? Here is what I use. Is the policy being advocated by the communists? If yes, there is a 99 percent probability that it is extremely harmful. Will the policy result in more regulation and increased government intervention? If yes, then it is almost certain to be bad. Is the policy ostensibly “pro-poor”? If yes, then it is 100 percent guaranteed to promote poverty.

Like the people of the US have been brain-washed and scared into supporting a needless and wasteful war against drugs (and recently a war against Iraq), Indians have been brain-washed into believing that the government can create wealth through messing around in all sorts of businesses from running transportation systems to higher education to bakeries. It is time for more of us to understand the situation for what it is and de-governmentize society. And in doing so we will end up de-criminalizing the government as well.

It is all karma, neh?

Author: Atanu Dey


9 thoughts on “Decriminalize and de-governmentize India”

  1. Atanu,
    I’ve been reading your blog for while and almost always agree with you, and in many instances your posts have changed my opinions on matters. But this time I’m having trouble agreeing with your agrument.

    First off I think you can’t lump the entire spectrum of drugs together and say that either you should be for their legalization or agianst. On one end of the spectrum you have things like chocolate, and caffeine. On the other end you have crack and heroin. Some where inbetween you have ciggarettes, alcohol, and weed. Every country has to decide where to set a line, what are the opportunity costs of having and withholding the drugs (most countries seem to come to the same conclusion, primarily only varying on which side weed is on). To argue that just because niccotine while harmful but still legal should allow crack to be legal as well is wrong. Niccotine will not impair your judgement, while crack will. You will not vommit or spasm if you don’t get your daily hit of niccotine crack will do these things to you. Niccotine while addictive is not nearly as addictive as crack. Ask a person to take an IQ test while on nicotine and then have them take that same test using crack. The impact the drug has on society is different and so it must be adressed differently.

    You make 1 very big assumption as well in your argument. That the average person is responsible enough to not abuse or become addicted to drugs (ones that are much stronger than alcohol). Infact, it doesn’t take the average person to be irresponsible, only a small percentage. You pointed out that as many 10,000 deaths occur a year due to the illegality of drugs. Seems like a lot until you compare it with another statistic. In 2003 there were 17,000 deaths due to drunk driving, and this only considers deaths due to alcohol that involve automobiles.

    Another problem is if you legalize drugs such as crack, a clear incentive for any company selling the stuff would be to maximize its addictiveness and minimize its cost to the average person. This will result in more potent inexespensive drugs.

    India has bigger problems than drug use, such as illiteracy, malnutrition, and disease. A country like the US that has solved these problems, and focus on other issues to try and maximize the efficiency of its society, while balancing quality of life (hence alcohol is still legal). While the marginal return on this will be surely be lower, it doesn’t mean it is a waste of money.

    Sorry about the long post. Don’t get many chances to disagree with you.

    Atanu’s response: I agree that there is a range of drugs and de-criminalization of the extreme drugs do pose serious challenges. It is not easy to argue that blanket prohibition is the answer. Should the government take the attitude that citizens are incapable of exercising informed choice? I am against a paternalistic government because even minor acts of paternalism lead to intrusive governments that end up dictating a wide variety of actions that are best left to personal choices.


  2. Atanu,

    I couldnt disagree more with your views on this one.

    Like Patel, my first concern is your equating cigarettes, alcohol and weed (on the border) on the same level as cocaine and heroin…The one problem that legalization of drugs cannot fight is the steady flow of these into schools and into the hands of kids. This is the single, most important reason why the war on drugs is so important for the moral fabric of any soceity.

    How many frat parties have you seen/heard of (or been to) where nobody smoked cigarettes or drank alcohol? These are legal, easily available “drugs” that a minor can buy by simply flashing a fake ID. Legalize cocaine and heroin and we stand to jeopardize not just lives of minors but the future of any civilized society.

    I’ve met people here at Stanford during the last few years…a couple who thank their loved ones who made them quit early and cherish the oppurtunity they got to go to school…some who still frequent methadone clinics at the age of 24 with no skills to get any job and no money to get an education even they become clean.

    Honestly, I think the answer is not legalization…enforcement only is also insufficient. It needs to be complemented by education and strong families!

    On a ligther vein,
    not surprised…after all you went to Berkeley 😉

    (cheap shot..i know…just venting after the recent big game loss)



    PS: Great posts!

    Atanu’s response: Rohit, I welcome all dissenting opinions because it allows us to explore the topic to reach a reasoned stance.

    By de-criminalization is not meant that it should be made as readily available as candy. It means that the use of the drug should not make a person a criminal. Cigarettes are legal but there are sanctions against selling them to minors. A drug can be de-criminalized and yet its supply and use be restricted and sanctioned.

    On the last point about losing the big game, I am sure that the junior university will win the game against Berkeley one of these days soon. Keep up the faith 🙂


  3. Beautiful post, Atanu

    I had myself talked about the issue some time earlier, during the Kate Moss brouhaha. I believe it is incredibly stupid to go about ‘banning’ things when it comes to issues of personal choice (which do not harm others, except the person himself). Secondly, whenever anything is ‘legally’ banned (drugs, prostititution, liqor in ‘prohibition’ states), an alternative black market automatically springs up. And this black market does not pay taxes to the government, it just bribes individuals at a ‘personal level’. Ultimately, the state is the loser


  4. Dear Dey,

    Your article has left me wondering on your purpose. You as an author, have avoided yourself into getting a little deeper into the issues. Do you know how many options (prescribed drugs) were available for an opioid addict to get treated and leave his/her dependence? A couple of years ago, just one. Methadone is as bad as other illegal drugs. It produces same symptoms, is highly addictive and produces neuro-phyiscial disorders. I’m none to tell you how many people suffer from this drug addiction. What’s the option to them? Will your assumptions still hold true? What can you do for a suffering for which you have no cure? Now please, don’t extend your hypotheses and put blame on poor R&D of pharma companies. It took more than 30 years for a huge company to take approval from national authority to manufacture and sell a de-addiction drug. The country was America. You can well impagine the pace at which relief is coming for third world addicts. (Good news is that after America, many countries have approved this new drug, including India). And this is just one class of drug that’s getting abused. The list is huge and sufferings limitless.

    Atanu’s response:I write a blog for my own edification mainly. In any one post, the whole argument cannot be laid out. Over time I may develop the topic, if the mood strikes and if others are willing to engage in the topic. Sometimes, it just does not happen.

    Now about drug addiction and treatment. Yes, there are few treatments available. Prevention of addiction is a better option than treatment. But prohibition is expensive, much more expensive than the cost of treating a small percentage that may become addicted despite best efforts to control the substance.


  5. “Is the policy being advocated by the communists? If yes, there is a 99 percent probability that it is extremely harmful.”

    Not a good test.

    The communist party in India has as much to do with communism as say the Democrats here in the US have to do with democracy, or the Congress has to do with Gandhian values etc.
    The party is simply a place to hang your hat, with some historical baggage.
    I have met quite a few communists & they will beat the autodriver black & blue if he doesn’t give them back 50 paise change…so much for sharing the wealth.

    You will find some commies in Congress, capitalists in RMP, libertarians in BJP, all flavors…

    Many policies of commies in Kerala are actually the sort free market capitalists would design. Like I said, communism in India is just a meaningless tag. Students of economics & liberal arts in the US know more about Marx than hardcore commies in India, despite the fact the latter carry some pro-worker pamphlets in their jholas.

    Atanu’s reponse: I am not arguing whether the communists in India are true communists or not. My claim is that if the policy is supported by the those who call themselves communists, then it is almost certain to make India worse off.


  6. Atanu,
    I agree with you 100% here. If someone wants to destroy his body, that’s his choice and his right. In the process, if s/he imposes a negative externality, the way to deal with it is through some sort of tax mechanism, like they do with tobacco, not be being paternalistic.

    All the war on drugs does is to drive the business underground and make it very lucrative as a business.


  7. Atanu,

    I agree with your position that prohibition does not work. As someone who has worked in healthcare in India and in the US, I have come to the conclusion that the solution the Drug problem is blanket decriminalization coupled with legal taxation, the way we do with alcohol and cigarettes. Of course legalization and taxation will not prevent people from using drugs (neither does “the war on drugs”), but it will dramatically reduce or eliminate the massive illegal profits that drug lords and distributors currently make.

    Currently, since these profits are illegal, they are most easily used to fund more illegal activities such as bigger shipments of drugs and violence in the producing countries and end-markets. When drugs are decriminalized and taxed these profits transform into revenue which can then be used to fund otherwise perenially fiscally starved treatment and rehabilitation programs for those drug abusers volunteering for them. This revenue stream can also fund enforcement programs for those who cannot keep the negative consequences of their drug use to themselves e.g., intoxicated drivers.

    Of course, in countries like the US, where a substantial number of folks have life insurance and health insurance, decriminalization will lead to fairer insurance premiums for those who do not abuse drugs. For instance, in the current state of affairs the insurance companies can legally have and advertise the vast difference in rates for smokers and non-smokers, so that the latter are not subsidizing the former. As India continues to progress she will also find increasing numbers of her citizens using insurance that the same logic would apply.

    Drugs, by themselves, don’t damage society.
    Individual people who use drugs are not evil people. It is the behavior that they engage in and systems they knowingly and unknowingly support (the whole procurement and distribution system, the gangs, the mafias) that damages society. The experience of the US during prohibition is so instructive. It is the only time in US history that alcohol generated such huge illegal profits that it funded other illegal activities including criminal violence on a grand societal scale. Without prohibition, alcohol has never been able to regain the same infamous place. It still ruins individual lives, but it no longer funds violent mafias. Same would be true for all other drugs.


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