You would think that speaking to a ballroom full of libertarians about ending the war on drugs would be like trying to talk the AARP into senior discounts. Even as she dipped into her pear-cinnamon-chocolate mousse parfait, The Free Agent mentally donned her choir robe and prepared to be preached to. But the speaker, The FA’s friend, linguist John McWhorter, found a way to wake up the wine-becalmed gathering by shooting at the target from behind that tree way, way over there—he said we will never move beyond racial division in this country until you can buy heroin at Duane Reade.
To summarize John’s argument would do him an injustice; you can read his excellent article here. He got The Free Agent thinking though, about what a heroin-vending Duane Reade world would look like.
A question that has come up more than once since the speech has been should heroin (and for simplicity’s sake, let’s use heroin to represent any drug for which there is currently a black market) be given out free or sold. One way to answer is if that’s the only sticking point, let’s repeal prohibition and settle the details later. But The Free Agent’s challenge is to think of heroin as any other consumer good. If we want the tastiest, most satisfying, and safest heroin to be produced, the best model we have is a competitive free market.
First of all, why would Duane Reade get into the heroin biz in the first place if not for the potential profits? Sure, they profit from munchie sales, but there’s more where that came from. Secondly, who else but junkies should pay the cost of their drug? Even libertarians might choose mass incarceration over tax-sponsored addiction. In lieu of private sponsorship, and please invite The Free Agent to your fund-raiser, High Times Foundation!, justice requires consumers pay for what they consume, as The FA does her drug, Sauvignon Blanc. (McWhorter’s answer to the profit question was that the shopping experience at Duane Reade has to be so good/inexpensive that the black market couldn’t compete. Something to keep in mind for those who advocate high taxes for OPD—other people’s drugs.) At least at the pharmacy, heroinistas could use debit cards and earn FlexRewards points. And there is no reason to remove a natural barrier to entry for the casual lookie loo.
As the market develops, competitors will be attracted. Across the street from Duane Reade’s deLish house brand smack, you might find Target’s Bullseye, and over at Walgreens, well, Walgreens brand. These establishments also care about not selling adult products to children. Poppy Joe on the corner has a much more liberal view of his market. Branding, profits, and liability laws will make drug stores the most responsible pushers imaginable.
Or maybe none of those brands will exist. In a competitive market, safer products could be developed, effective addiction treatments popularized, or heroin might fall out of favor. You can’t sell heroin to any adult who wants it but continue to require a prescription for oxycontin, for example. That’s the imbalance between supply and demand the black market lives to solve.
We don’t really know what ending the drug war would look like. (Here’s where the alcohol prohibition example isn’t helpful; repeal was a return to the normality of routine consumption.) But it’s reasonable to expect that starving the black market will also starve the pipeline that has channeled at least half a million people into American prisons for drug offenses. Or rather, for the offense of choosing the wrong drugs.