Does caffeine lead to cocaine use? Obviously not. But what would happen if caffeine was outlawed? Naturally, a black market would emerge. Drug gangs, which are highly skilled at operating outside of the law, and have pre-existing distribution channels, would begin trafficking illegal caffeine pills. If people were forced to use black market distribution chains to obtain a mild stimulant such as caffeine, would they be more likely to opt for a stronger stimulant such as cocaine? Almost certainly.
Dealing with drug dealers is a binary. Either you do it, or you don’t. And if you do, they will likely try to upsell you. Drug dealers are like any other sales people, minus the legal sanction (meaning they are more likely to rip you off or assault you). They want to obtain the highest profit margin possible. Cocaine sells at a much higher margin than caffeine pills would, even if caffeine was outlawed. Even if most people resisted the dealers’ insistence that cocaine would provide a better experience, some non-drug users would try it out; some would even become addicted. Caffeine use would likely decline, while use of cocaine and other illicit drugs would increase. The above hypothetical is analogous to the prohibition of marijuana. People often refer to marijuana as a gateway drug that leads to usage of stronger drugs. There is no intrinsic gateway effect from marijuana. However, once you’re buying marijuana on the black market, it isn’t much of a step to purchase psychedelic mushrooms, or cocaine, or ecstasy. Once you have a dealer, he/she will try to upsell you. Marijuana isn’t a gateway drug: black market marijuana is a gateway drug.
Legalizing marijuana would erode gang profits. It provides around half of global drug gang profits. One might argue that they would simply make up for this by pushing drugs that remain illegal. This is certainly what they’d try to do. However, legalized marijuana would disrupt the entire black market. Since dealers would no longer be able to lure customers in by selling them marijuana, only to later upsell them, they would have a much more difficult time engaging customers to begin with – and if dealing isn’t profitable, gangs will have a hard time finding dealers to buy their wholesale products. While marijuana use would likely increase (though it actually decreased in Portugal after decriminalization), gang profits would decrease and other drug availability would consequently decrease.
One might argue from the above logic that all drugs should be legalized. That would be simplistic. Some drugs may pose such a threat to users and society that the trade-off of allowing gangs to profit off of them from selling a small amount is preferable to legalizing them, even if that only means a marginal increase in usage. Drugs such as crystal meth fall into that category. A true harm reduction approach to drugs would weigh both the costs of drug usage, and the cost of prohibition. Both can be substantial. We need a rational approach to making these calculations.
One approach would be creating three legal categories. The first would be milder substances that while harmful, are widely used. Hard liquors, cigarettes, and marijuana are substances that would occupy that category. The harm from the substances is less than the destruction resulting from prohibition. These drugs should be restricted to adult usage, and should carry specific excise taxes. The second category would include drugs that can be very harmful to users, but rarely fatal, and rarely causing significant externalities. The prime example is cocaine. The harm rarely extends beyond users and their families. These drugs should be decriminalized so that problem users can seek treatment without fear of legal repercussions. The third category is drugs that are extremely harmful to the users, and society as a whole. Drugs such as crystal meth should likely remain illegal. While they would continue to line the pockets of drug gangs, the harm from even a modest increase in usage would be substantial.
Gangs will always exist. But strangling their most benign revenue sources would reduce their ability to finance distribution of the worst drugs, as well as other evils such as human trafficking. .
Drug policy is often considered the domain of morality. It shouldn’t be. Issues of personal morality should not be legislated. But when public safety is at stake, it can make sense to crack down on certain drugs. A utilitarian, harm reduction approach to drug policy would be a vast improvement over our reckless, moralistic approach.