I have long favored the legalization of drugs – and the “opioid crisis” has done nothing to change my mind.  The right to do what you want with your own body is not absolute, but it sacred nonetheless.  Since I oppose any legal punishment for consenting adults who use or sell drugs, I obviously oppose the death penalty for drug offenses.  Still, I was perplexed by Adam Minter’s recent piece on the failure of this maximally punitive approach. 

Minter begins:

Unlike in the West, where addiction has long been treated as a
medical condition, Asian governments have typically viewed any drug use
as a criminal issue. China, for example, has focused on imprisonment and
executions since the 1950s. Others followed the same path. Starting in
the 1970s, countries ranging from Singapore to Vietnam created criminal
codes with low thresholds for executing traffickers, dealers and users.
Yet, even as the region’s drug enforcement apparatus developed, so did
drug addiction. By the early 1990s, 40 years after Mao’s eradication
campaigns, Chinese officials were forced to concede that entire villages were once again addicted to opiates arriving from Myanmar.

than question their focus on harsh punishments, China and Southeast
Asian nations, including Malaysia and Singapore, doubled down through
the mid-2000s.

Then Minter makes a series of odd claims:

Yet, evidence that executions serve to deter drug use or crimes in Asia (or anywhere else) is virtually nonexistent. For example, the Chinese government reported that the number of registered Chinese drug addicts increased 6.8 percent in 2016, to 2.51 million (the government concedes such numbers are massive undercounts), up from 901,000 in 2001. The growth has been fueled by new synthetic drugs like methamphetamine, seizures of which surged 106 percent in 2016.

In Singapore, 3,089 “drug abusers” were arrested in 2016 (40 percent of whom were identified as new abusers), compared with 1,127
arrested in 2006. In Malaysia, the number of newly registered drug
addicts rose from 10,301 in 2012 to 22,923 in 2016. And in Indonesia,
which has unapologetically executed local and foreign drug traffickers
in recent years, the number of addicts increased from 3.6 million in
2011 to 5.9 million in 2015, according to the government.

What’s so odd here?

First, Minter totally ignores common sense.  In the absence of any specific evidence, we should have extremely high confidence that credibly threatening death for X would sharply reduce X.  Why?  Because almost everyone has a strong desire to stay alive.  If you think that alcohol taxes significantly cut alcohol consumption, how can you not expect the death penalty for drugs to significantly cut drug use?  Yes, it’s an empirical question.  But if you don’t start with a strong Bayesian prior in favor of the efficacy of the death penalty, you lack good judgment.

Second, the evidence Minter cites is utterly irrelevant.  Suppose the death penalty cut drug use by 90% at every point in time.  We could easily still see enormous shifts in drug use.  Both demand and supply move in response to many factors besides drug policy.  Indeed, you could use exactly the same specious reasoning to argue that treatment programs don’t work: “If treatment works, I dare you to explain the doubling of addiction rates.”  The reply is straightforward: “If we abolished treatment programs, addiction rates could grow even more.”

Minter then makes a slightly better argument:

The most compelling evidence that executions have failed as an anti-drug
strategy is the fact that many Asian governments have begun to retreat
from them. The trend can take modest form, such as Singapore’s 2012 decision to reduce the number of drug crimes eligible for mandatory executions, or China’s quiet, decade-long effort to open methadone clinics and voluntary rehabilitation facilities.

Question: If Asian governments were sharply ramping up executions, that would be “compelling evidence” that execution does deter?  Hardly.  If there’s any tendency for governments to move toward more effective policies, it’s weak.  Politicians often don’t know what works.  Without careful social experiments, definitive answers are hard to come by.  More importantly, politicians often don’t care what works.  If they seek popularity – and what leader doesn’t? – they just have to pander to public opinion.  If the most effective policies horrify the public, leaders will avoid them despite their efficacy.  To quote the murderous Octavian in HBO’s Rome, “Agrippa
has a point. We should proceed more slowly. We do not want to appear butchers.”

To repeat, I’m not advocating the death penalty for drug offenses.  In fact, I consider drug prohibition to be a heinous crime against humanity.  But in the absence of overwhelming contrary evidence, we should still believe that the death penalty heavily deters drug use.  And the contrary evidence that Minter presents is underwhelming indeed.