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Padraic P. McGuinness, “Time to legalise heroin,”
The Australian Financial Review, November 8, 1988, pp. 76-75.

It had to come. At last there are signs of a rational discussion emerging in official circles on the need to legalise heroin and other hard drugs.

This is an area in which there is an enormous amount of misinformation and prejudice, as well as propaganda. But the debate is not helped by those whose emotional feelings about drugs, their use, and the harm they do, prevent any rational thought on the subject.

Unhappily, as has long been the case with gambling and prostitution, there is a de facto alliance to protect the profits of heroin between the dealers on the one hand, and the churches and other moralists who refuse to accept legalisation on the other. No-one opposes legalisation of heroin more strongly than Mr Big, whoever he might be.

It ought by now to be becoming apparent that the costs of not legalising hard drugs are escalating.

The economic cost (including household insurance) of illegality of heroin (let us confine the discussion to this drug for the time being) is high and rising, as are the social costs. The illegality of heroin has not substantially reduced its availability in the black market, but it has caused its price to soar. And the higher the price goes, the more it becomes associated with criminal activity — on the part of sellers and the users (theft and associated violence) and the corruption of the police. How far corruption spreads into politics and the law can only be guessed at.

The social costs of heroin’s high price are obvious also in the numbers of prostitutes of both sexes who sell their bodies to buy it.

The spread of AIDS has made the illegality of heroin even more costly, since it is the high cost of heroin and its illegality and difficulty of use which leads to the sharing of needles and hence the increasingly rapid spread of this disease in the heterosexual as well as the homosexual community.

Already the provision of free, clean needles is permitted, even though they can only be used illegally. Why not take the step from the provision of empty needles to the provision of full ones?

There is a good deal of argument about the facts which might affect such proposals. One criticism is that in England when addicts could obtain heroin on prescription they had an incentive to demand more than they needed, and sell the difference.

But such “facts” have rarely been firmly established. Often, they are little more than gossip.

Happily, a useful guide to what reliable information is available is contained in a paper by an economist, Robert Marks [no relation], of the Australian Graduate School of Management. This is entitled A freer market for heroin in Australia: alternatives to subsidising organised crime [PDF].

Essentially, Marks argues that the evidence does not support the belief that heroin when available legally at a price is socially harmful in an uncontrollable way. The clinical evidence simply does not support this view. Rather, he concludes that to make heroin freely available (preferably with a substantial price differential over methadone, the less harmful substitute) is the only alternative to a continued corruption and criminalisation of our society.

It is important to note that the evidence that pure, uncut heroin is harmful is very limited. It may be hopelessly addictive, but this is true only of a minority of the population.

It is a hard thing to suggest that heroin should be able to be purchased freely, even at a price that would discourage casual consumption. No-one who has children would lightly make such a suggestion. But then, it is inevitable that a percentage of children will grow up to become hopeless alcoholics — and we know that prohibition is no solution to that. Indeed, it may make the problem worse, as well as creating attendant social ills.

Many critics of this position argue that the social cost of making heroin legal would be greater than the social costs of the present worsening criminal black market in it. Marks writes:

But although freer availability of heroin may be necessary for a large growth in its use, it may not be sufficient for this to occur. Up to a point we are a victim of our own myth-making … use does not necessarily lead to addiction. A policy of easier access to heroin for all adults — not only for those habituated to its use — raises the issue of new patterns of use: the number of subsequent new users and the extent to which some of these people would become problem users, with regular and heavy habits. So long as the demand for heroin is not completely inelastic, relaxation of the prohibition will increase the number of users, although many might be expected to be moderate, infrequent users …

… such as already exist in considerable numbers. Marks adds that:

although the rate of opiate addiction is much higher (20 times) among US physicians than in the population as a whole, it is not a problem, despite their greater easy access to pharmaceutical-quality morphine.

Marks cites a study on US servicemen in Vietnam which …

… reports that up to 14 per cent of servicemen became “severely addicted” — a high figure perhaps resulting from the high levels of boredom, alienation and fear of the war zone. Of those actively addicted just before departure from Vietnam, 50 per cent used no opiates after returning to the USA, and only 14 per cent became re-addicted.

Most servicemen in Vietnam (where the heroin was good, plentiful, and cheap) preferred smoking or sniffing the drug to injecting it. It was only when the Army’s anti-heroin campaign raised prices from $2-3 to $12 per 250mg that injecting increased as users administered their supplies for the same cost-effectiveness.

Marks concludes his paper:

In Australia in 1988 the prohibition against heroin use has failed, despite our society’s best endeavours. There is no escaping the trade-off: any restrictions on the market for legal heroin will result in stimulation of the demand for illegal heroin on the black market. And this demand will be met, at a cost, not only to the user, but to society at large. In utilitarian terms the costs of the prohibition far outweigh the costs of a policy of free heroin.

The time has come for a radical reassessment of the Australian drug laws by academics, by politicians, by the media and by the public. Almost one Australian in 10 already sees the wisdom of providing free heroin or methadone to registered addicts; the debate must continue.

It needs also to be added that there is already an overwhelming case for making heroin available to terminal cancer patients and others in extreme pain. They, too, are the victims of an unworkable social policy which has as its primary effects, whether we like it or not, putting money into the pockets of criminals, corrupting our police and politicians, and threatening our children with prostitution and destruction. It is the illegality of heroin which does this, not the drug itself.

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