“The uncertainties associated with the precise nature of legalization regimes and with their expected outcomes sometimes are used to justify the maintenance of drug prohibition. This paper details the role that buyer licensing and exclusion might play in implementing a low-risk, post-prohibition drug regulatory regime. Buyer licencing and exclusion provide assistance to those who exhibit or are worried about self-control problems with drugs, while not being significantly constraining upon those who are informed and satisfied drug consumers. Relative to prohibition, licensing and self-exclusion can be part of a drug regulatory structure that is much more finely tuned to the risks of harms stemming from drug use.”

That’s the abstract from James Leitzel’s (University of Chicago) paper on approaches on drug re-legalization. He bases his approach on a certain degree of agnosticism with respect to the rationality of drug consumption:

“At what point does a drug habit or addiction stop representing a rational choice, and instead signify a diseased brain? My claim is that I don’t know at what point a habit becomes less-than-rational–not even with respect to my own habits–and further, that no one knows. The conclusion that I draw from this ignorance is one of harm reduction: public policy aimed at drugs should work tolerably well irrespective of the degree of rationality involved in adult drug decisions. That is, the drug control system should be reasonably effective at promoting human flourishing if all drug choices are fully rational, and should also work fairly well if drug decisions frequently implicate disease or serious self-control shortcomings. This notion is what I have termed the ”robustness principle”: drug policy should be robust with respect to the extent of rationality displayed by adult drug-related decisions.”

His main discussion focuses on ways in which buyers could be required to opt-in to obtain a license to use (currently) controlled substances. Consumers may be able to set limits on how much they use in a given period, need to pass tests on the potential dangers of using particular drugs, meet with a counsellor before receiving a license, set renewal periods for the length of their license, and many innovative limitations. One advantage of buyer licensing is that it avoids the near-universal prohibition that currently exists.

Leitzel’s focus on harm reduction has the potential to resonate in future public policy debates. The Johns Hopkins-Lancet Commission on Drug Policy and Health recently released a report that is a marked departure from national and international strict prohibition stances. “The idea that all drug use is dangerous and evil has led to enforcement-heavy policies and has made it difficult to see potentially dangerous drugs in the same light as potentially dangerous foods, tobacco, and alcohol, for which the goal of social policy is to reduce potential harms.”

What’s interesting about his approach is the clear recognition that there is no single way to end drug prohibition. In tackling the legalization of cocaine, Leitzel suggests utilizing a double default method that makes it costly for people to obtain the licence without knowing the risks associated with the drug. The approach, however, is not without problems. Sin taxes are generally regressive in nature, and I would be concerned that an approach to legalization that involved taxing and licencing drugs would be similarly relatively more punitive to low-income consumers. In my opinion, any departure from prohibition is a welcome advance towards a free society. Re-focusing the debate on buyer licencing does put the decision back in the hands of the individual and would significantly reduce the violence, health risks, and the human/family costs of incarceration associated with current prohibition.

Less outright coercion and more freedom of choice should strongly appeal to libertarians, but licencing also raises important concerns of paternalism. Either way, his book on the topic, Regulating Vice: Misguided Prohibitions and Realistic Controls, looks to offer a treasure trove of provocative ideas. What do you think?

HT: John Alcorn