In a recent article in Mises Daily, Benjamin Wiegold argues:

The Drug War Makes Drugs Less Safe

Is his argument right that legalising recreational drugs would improve the quality of supply and reduce the harms they cause?

  • The argument is that legally selling drugs allows control. – Sklivvz Jan 2 '14 at 18:31
  • @EbenezerSklivvze actually I think the argument is more nuanced. In an open (i.e. not illegal) market there are incentives to guarantee product quality and legal recourse if quality goods are not provided. When drugs are illegal neither of those mechanisms exist. – matt_black Jan 2 '14 at 18:38
  • Your question makes assumption that harm caused by drugs is caused by impurities. Which might be true in extreme cases such as krokodril, but that doesn't mean that pure heroin is harmless. – vartec Jan 3 '14 at 14:25
  • Well, that same argument was (I'll refrain from stipulating on correctly or incorrectly) used related to prohibition on both alcohol (in US and USSR) and abortion. – user5341 Jan 4 '14 at 0:28

Decreased quality is a well studied effect of prohibition:

Still another effect of prohibition is increased uncertainty about product quality. Government quality regulation does not exist for illegal commodities, and buyers cannot complain about quality without incriminating themselves.

The Economic Case Against Drug Prohibition
Author(s): Jeffrey A. Miron and Jeffrey Zwiebel
Source: The Journal of Economic Perspectives, Vol. 9, No. 4 (Autumn, 1995), pp. 175-192
Published by: American Economic Association
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2138396

  • otoh the potential consequences of having a pissed off customer are far more severe than being hit with a fine by some government agency... – jwenting Jan 3 '14 at 17:42
  • @jwenting If you read the source, it does address that point. – Sklivvz Jan 3 '14 at 17:44
  • it does warrant mention that it's a factor, especially as your claim is that it's irrelevant as quoted. – jwenting Jan 3 '14 at 17:47
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    @jwenting it's not a determining factor, and I am not making any claim. The paper is, and it's well referenced. – Sklivvz Jan 3 '14 at 17:48

If he is right I can not say, but from what I've read on the topic here are a few points that further argue for the validity of his argument.

It seems to be valid in the limited evidence we've seen in countries where soft-drugs such as cannabis have been decriminalized or legalized. One of these cases which has been considered highly successful is the legalization of cannabis in the Netherlands.

Global drug prohibition’s most glaring weakness and greatest vulnerability is cannabis. As UN experts point out, cannabis is by far the most widely used illegal drug in the world. Cannabis grows wild throughout the world, and is commercially cultivated in remote areas, in backyard gardens, and in technologically sophisticated indoor farms. Just as it was impossible for prohibitionists to prevent alcohol from being produced and used in the US in the 1920s, so too it is now impossible to prevent cannabis from being produced and widely used, especially in democratic countries. As a result of this enormous and unstoppable production and use, global cannabis prohibition faces a growing crisis of legitimacy (Zimmer, 1997). Since the 1980s, the Netherlands has successfully administered its system of regulated, decriminalised cannabis sales. [1]

Although there are cases such as Portugal and the Czech Republic where hard drugs have been decriminalized as well I am not aware of any papers analyzing the success of these policies.

The text below is a collection of arguments often made in conjunction with the one made in the article linked in the question. It has been added solely for your insight into the argument made.

If drugs were legal, it would open up for public debate. Today people in countries where drugs are illegal people cannot openly discuss quality of suppliers as their identity must remain concealed to prevent their arrest. Another issue is that certain drugs are easier to produce/smuggle with little to no regard for whether that drug is significantly less safe for use, this includes among many other things ecstasy tablets which rarely contain what is advertised (MDMA) exclusively and sometimes not at all. Further is there a common argument from libertarians that regulation is not necessarily needed as legalization would be sufficient for improved competition, especially where market share is controlled with violence and not with quality/price of product.

References for similar reasoning can be found in the answers of both @Articuno and @Ebenezer.

[1] - Levine, Harry G. "Global drug prohibition: its uses and crises." (PDF) International Journal of Drug Policy 14.2 (2003): 145-153.

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    You need to make more than an argument to be a good answer. You also need to reference your sources and evidence. – matt_black Jan 2 '14 at 19:20
  • Sorry about not answering the question directly and not citing any papers, was trying to add a few points made by similar arguments and I now realize that this is not the content you are looking for here in sceptics. Thanks for the feedback :) – erb Jan 2 '14 at 19:31
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    It isn't that we don't want the content. It is just that the rules here specify that arguments must be validated by external evidence. It is sometimes hard to get used to this, but worth it. So if you showed sources for your key claims, you would get up votes. – matt_black Jan 2 '14 at 19:42
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    Changed things a little, still not used to the standards set here but should be slighty better. Thanks again for the feedback, greatly appreciated. – erb Jan 2 '14 at 19:52
  • "the legalization of cannabis in the Netherlands" cannabis is not truly legal in the Netherlands, it's not even truly decriminalized. It's "legal" per non-enforcement policies and local by-laws. Coffee-shops are in legal limbo, because they can sell, but they cannot legally buy nor grow. – vartec Jan 3 '14 at 15:58

(Thornton 1998) makes this prediction:

Legalizing drugs does not simply reduce the price and increase consumption and addition; instead, it completely transforms these drugs and their markets and results in drug products of lower potency, higher quality, and greater safety for the consumer. The economic model of potency predicts that the re-legalization of drugs would reverse the trends in drug potency, perhaps resulting in significant improvement in the health and safety of consumers.

(MacCoun 2011) predicts a deilemma:

full legalization will probably reduce average harm per use but increase total consumption; the net effect of these two changes is difficult to project.

What actually is the case is something we'll have to wait and see.


MacCoun, Robert J., and Peter Reuter. "Assessing drug prohibition and its alternatives: A guide for agnostics." Annual Review of Law and Social Science 7 (2011): 61-78.

Thornton, Mark. "The potency of illegal drugs." Journal of Drug Issues 28 (1998): 725-740.

  • Not a bad reference. But I'd question whether their claim that consumption will surely increase, as there are at least some cases where even that is known not to be true. – matt_black Jan 2 '14 at 19:18
  • @matt_black It's only a prediction. And they say "probably", not "surely". – user5582 Jan 2 '14 at 19:19
  • If the sale is legal, then you can control the advertisement. If you sell cocaine legally under the brand name "idiot powder" then I can see consumption going down. Nobody buys it illegally if you can get it legally cheaper and in better quality, and nobody wants to buy it legally if everyone who knows calls you an idiot. – gnasher729 Nov 10 '15 at 22:48

Yes, and here is a known case of the war on drugs making illegal use of legal-as-regulated drugs less safe.

In the USA, Legal pain killers can be illegal if abused, i.e. taken by persons not suffering from a genuine medical condition, or taken in excess of the amount directed by the prescribing physician. Pain killer abuse is well known and an issue of government interest: http://www.samhsa.gov/newsroom/advisories/1308215815.aspx

The liver toxic acetaminophen -- more commonly known from the brand name Tylenol -- is a mild pain killer and in the USA, is required to be added to pills containing stronger pain killers. The combined formula is supposed to limit abuse among addicts who seem to be presumed to know that the acetaminophen component could be deadly at the larger dosages in seeking a high from the stronger opioid component of the combined pill. Problem is, who said drug addicts were rational or knowledgeable about this issue?

From: Tylenol and the War On Drugs: Are you better off dead than high?

I remember being annoyed that in order to get effective pain relief I was being forced to take a liver toxin that added little to the pain relieving efficacy of the opiate. I speculated to my wife that there was probably more injury and death occurring from the acetaminophen than the "dangerous narcotic" in the Vicodin.

Now it looks like the FDA has recognized the same thing that was casually obvious to a radiologist more than 10 years ago. As recreational drug users and addicts seek Vicodin for it's narcotic benefits, and regular folks have acute pain, they are increasingly suffering inadvertent liver toxicity from acetaminophen, contributing to the 40,000 Emergency room visits per year related to acute liver injury.

Somewhat earlier in the same article...

Currently some 38% of cases of acute liver failure are due to acetaminophen

  • This took me several minutes to understand your claim - that opiate addicts are abusing prescription drugs which have added acetaminophen (a.k.a. paracetamol in Australia). Acute acetaminophen overdose is dangerous to the liver. If opioids were not restricted, addicts would buy recreational versions without acetaminophen, and thus be safer. This is based on a anti-Drug War opinion piece in Psychology Today. Why you needed to drag the Limbaugh case into this isn't entirely clear. – Oddthinking Jan 5 '14 at 6:58
  • @Oddthinking I decided that mentioning a specific case is not necessary. If someone faults me for it, I'll add back links to more than one since this sort of thing is not exactly rare or confined to one person. – Paul Jan 5 '14 at 7:14

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