Coronavirus and narcotics – geopolitical comparison

One way of stamping upon the scourge of drugs, and the deaths they cause, would be indefinitely to lock everyone in their homes so they could not go outside and consume them. There is a reason why society does not do this. It has something to do with weighing the benefits and harms of extreme governmental coercive behaviour. Are current governments weighing equivalent factors in the balance in their contemporary responses to the Coronavirus crisis? It is far from clear that they are.

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By Matthew Parish

Like Coronavirus, recreational narcotics are a pandemic disease. Indeed they are far more grave a disease in terms of both fatalities, and broader social harm. Nevertheless society does not impose such stringent measures in the war against them as have recently been observed in the global combat against the Coronavirus pandemic. It is worth asking why not, given that millions of people die or have their lives ruined each year as a result either of consuming those narcotics, or in the process of their global distribution and sale.

We must begin our enquiry by defining ‘recreational narcotics’. The emphasis is upon the word recreational. Narcotics are chemical substances that artificially alter the state of the body and the mind. Every such substance has unwanted side effects. We all consume pharmaceuticals throughout our lives. Many of them are narcotics within this definition. All psychiatric medicines are narcotics, as are all pain relievers from aspirin through to morphine. Many common substances are consumed by large proportions or the population without criminality or, necessarily, social stigma, that are narcotics within this definition. These include alcohol and tobacco, the two most common that have damaging side effects.

The distinction between recreational narcotics and others lies in a number of areas. Recreational narcotics, as the expression implies, cause pleasure or reduce pain when they are imbibed. They are used (or it is imagined that they are used) to improve a person’s mental state. Alcohol makes tense people feel relaxed. Tobacco induces a (different) state of calm. Psychiatric medications may also achieve these things, as may pain killers; consider the addiction to opioid medications that has stricken the United States in the last couple of years.

Unhappy or unwell people may consume recreational narcotics to try to feel better about things, just as they may consume anti-depressants or pain killers.

But there the parallels end, and everything become much more vague. Some narcotics are regulated or taxed to varying degrees. Anti-depressants may require the licence of a medical professional. Tobacco is regulated principally only by way of taxation: you are free to smoke yourself to death, as long as you can afford to pay the taxes. Alcohol is similar. Restrictions upon drinking alcohol and smoking tobacco in public are universal. Marijuana, MDMA (developed initially as an anti-depressant until people observed the elation caused by intentional overdose), cocaine and heroin are to varying degrees prohibited on pain of criminal sanction in different countries.

The side effects of narcotics may be substantial. Alcohol makes people violent. Marijuana makes people apathetic. MDMA may encourage sexually promiscuous behaviour. Cocaine and heroin may cause death. Because we like feeling good, recreational narcotics are psychologically addictive; we want to feel good again, recalling our prior elation. Some such narcotics – particularly alcohol, tobacco and heroin – may also be physically addictive. This means that the human body generates feelings of physical pain if it is deprived of them, once used to their effects. All narcotics cost money. That money might better be used spent on something more productive than just feeling good for a limited period of time.

Humans in general are an unhappy lot. We strive to find routes to contentment. Many such routes do not involve chemical augmentation to our body and minds. Some of those include devotion to family; worship of the divine; exploration of friendship and altruism; material success; professional progress; hobbies; and sympathy and altruism towards others. These things are not regulated or criminalised. It is a blessing of contemporary free society that they are not so. Yet for many, for whatever reason, these pursuits are not enough. There is barely a person alive who has not sought artificial elation on a regular basis, whether through alcohol, tobacco, pain killers or other chemicals that change our mental feelings.

Social policy of any kind should be devoted to encouraging people to pursuing less harmful means of elation to the detriment of more harmful ones. All regulated or outlawed narcotics are so because society has determined, usually (but admittedly not always) on the basis of evidence, that the personal and/or social disutility or their use is so substantial that society ought to minimise that harm. Inevitably debates arise about whether the government measures intended to limit the use of recreational narcotics do more harm than good, both to the individual and to society as a whole.

This issue is particularly acute where criminalisation has created distribution networks for narcotics that operate entirely outside the law and lead to widespread violence, as criminal distributors fight for turf in respect of drug distribution networks that become obscenely profitable precisely by reason of the danger premiums inherent in selling unlawful goods.

Ultimately the question of criminalisation versus the treatment of recreational narcotic use as a public health issue should be an empirical one. Which approach causes less social harm in toto? Alcohol and tobacco are merely regulated. A number of other narcotics are criminalised. What would happen if we changed our approach in either such case? Case studies evolve around examining the data associated with the rare cases in which narcotics have been criminalised and then subsequently decriminalised: for example the US policy of Prohibition (of alcohol) in the 1920’s.

All the evidence in that case suggests that the harm caused by criminalisation vastly outweighs the imagined benefits of forced abstinence, and that is no doubt why Prohibition was ultimately repealed. But more recently another test case has emerged for future analysis, namely the state-selective legalisation of marijuana that allows us to undertake comparisons of policies of prohibition versus regulation by way of a statistical tool in econometrics called regression analysis.

What does all this have to do with geopolitics? The consumption of recreational narcotics is a universal feature of every society. The world is full of unhappy people, and it always has been. This is unlikely to change. Therefore drug use is a global pandemic. Wealth does not help; the rich are at least as likely to be as unhappy as the poor, and money permits those unhappy persons switch into more expensive drugs rather than less expensive ones. Relatively few people chew Qat in the United States, because they can afford cocaine.

Different countries may adopt different policy approaches to this narcortics pandemic, just as they have done in light of the Coronavirus pandemic. The economist’s balance between personal risks to the individual as a result of drug regulation versus prohibition, and the broader costs to society and a whole of each potential policy course, are assessed differently by different law enforcement, health and social policy bureaucracies in different countries. Inevitably some countries weigh the two countervailing considerations differently from others. Again, this explains the varying contemporary approaches toward the legalisation of marijuana across the world. The same sorts of divergent approach, and the empirical comparisons between them that thereby become possible, will surely be extended to other narcotic pandemics.

As with social policy reactions to Coronavirus, social policy reactions to the drug pandemic – that has lasted for decades and has caused far more deaths – may be more or less based on empirical evidence, and ultimately more or less wise. It must be emphasised that, as with Coronavirus, the wisest reaction to a pandemic is one based upon evidence and not upon fear. Just because the people demand something, it does not mean that is the best thing for them. They may be irrationally frightened, and the people may demand something that is not the most propitious response to the injury the pandemic is causing.

Countries that respond more empirically and efficiently to pandemics will suffer less in the way of economic dead weight loss as a result of government intervention. The Coronavirus pandemic came out of nowhere, and has already caused huge economic and social harm because nobody is weighing the deaths caused against the damage incurred to society by the measures imagined necessary to prevent its perpetuation. The war on drugs is a war against far more virulent an enemy than the war on Coronavirus, that has been underway for almost eighty years. By reason of the length of the struggle, we have far more empirical evidence in principle at our disposal in fighting this war. Yet we don’t seem to have used it. In comparison with the dangers of drugs, talk of a ‘war’ against Coronavirus seems rather feeble.

Countries that adopt more efficient approaches to the problem of social, economic and personal harm caused by the scourge of recreational narcotics have, and will continue to, accrue competitive advantages over countries that deal with the issue less competently. Because international drug sales are such a monumentally profitable industry, the competitive advantage achieved for any one country in getting its policy right is potentially very high. We need to focus our academics and policymakers upon weighing the enormous quantities of empirical data about drug use at our disposal. I offer no preconceived conclusions. I just suggest that doing this may be far more valuable than locking people in their homes through fear of a pandemic virus that, in comparison, on any analysis will kill a tiny fraction of those killed by heroin in the last eighty years.

One way of stamping upon the scourge of drugs, and the deaths they cause, would be indefinitely to lock everyone in their homes so they could not go outside and consume them. There is a reason why society does not do this. It has something to do with weighing the benefits and harms of extreme governmental coercive behaviour. Are current governments weighing equivalent factors in the balance in their contemporary responses to the Coronavirus crisis? It is far from clear that they are. Those that do so more effectively will inevitably emerge from the Coronavirus crisis, far less an acute peril than drug use, in geopolitical positions of relative strength.

Matthew Parish is an international lawyer and scholar of international relations based in Geneva. He is an Honorary Professor at the University of Leicester; was elected as a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum; and has been named as one of the three hundred most influential people in Switzerland. He is the author of several books and over three hundred articles.


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