The Anti-Terror Argument for Drug Legalization

Stumbled across this column in the Financial Times. The author, Willem Buiter, is a professor at the London School of Economics. He has two arguments for drug legalization, which he describes as “principled” and “pragmatic.” I’ll reverse their order and start with one of the more compelling pragmatic arguments:

Another important argument for legalising, in particular, all cultivation of poppy and of coca (and their illegal derivatives) is that this would take away a vital source of income and political support for terrorist move- ments, including the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, and Colom- -bia’s Revolutionary Armed Forces (Farc) and various paramilitary groups.

The United Nations estimates that opium production in Afghanistan grew to more than 6,000 metric tonnes last year with a value exceeding $3bn (£1.5bn). It is the origin of more than 90 per cent of the world’s illegally consumed opiates.

A significant portion of the profits flows to the Taliban, who act as middlemen in the opium business. They combine extortion and threats of violence towards the poppy farmers with the sale of protection to these same farmers against those who would destroy their livelihood, mainly the Nato allies and the Afghan central government.

Following legalisation, theallies in Afghanistan could further undermine the financial strength of the Taliban and al-Qaeda by buying up the entire poppy harvest. If a sufficient premium over the prevailing market price were offered, the Taliban/al-Qaeda middle- man could be cut out altogether, and thus would lose his tax base. Winning the hearts and minds of poppy growers and coca growers is a lot easier when you are not seen as intent on destroying their livelihood.


If opium and heroin were legalised, the allies’ stash could be sold to regulated producers/distributors of opium, heroin and other formerly illegal poppy derivatives. Our chemical and pharmaceutical industries, and indeed our cigarette manufacturers, would be well-positioned to enter this trade. The profits made by the allies on the sale of the stash could be turned over to the Afghan government. It surely makes more sense for the government to tax the poppy harvest than for the Taliban to do so.

Buiter’s “principled” argument is familiar, but no less persuasive.

The principle-based argument for legalisation is that behaviour that harms others ought to be criminalised, not behaviour that hurts only the person engaged in it. It is not the government’s job to protect adults of sound mind from the predictable consequences of their actions.

If the public is ill-informed about the consequences of drug taking, there is an educational role for the state. Children should be protected from drugs, as they are from tobacco and alcohol. So should the mentally ill and mentally incapacitated. Parents should be paternalistic, but when it comes to mentally competent grown-ups the state should not be. It is not the responsibility of the state to ensure our “happiness” – whatever that is. That is the road to a Brave New World.

The argument that countries with publicly funded or subsidised healthcare have the right to proscribe the use of drugs likely to cause harm to the user is a ludicrous misuse of the concept of an externality. Should we ban rugby because it is more danger- ous than tiddlywinks? If it is con- sidered unfair that those who do not use drugs end up subsidising the care of those who do, this is an argument for the National Health Service to deve- lop a policy of discriminating among patients on the basis of how they have contributed to their illnesses.

Or we could keep doing what we’re doing, expending billions in taxpayers money on a futile effort, and randomly targeting a small percentage of drug abusers for draconian punishment while offering very little to the addicts who need help. In other words, the positions of all the major Republican and Democratic presidential candidates.


One thought on “The Anti-Terror Argument for Drug Legalization

  1. I am not a big proponent of legalization. But given the alternative of continuing the “war on drugs” (and all of the costs that go along with it – from enforcment to incarceration), I would opt for some form of legalization. This nation has wasted countless dollars on a “war” that cannot be won – does this sound familiar??? (i.e. Iraq – for you dittoheads)

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