Carte Blanche: The Opioid Epidemic And Prohibition Fallacies

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Public choice theory explains the tragedy of contrasting goals between individual citizens and elected representatives. Individuals have various objectives in their private lives and subjective preferences, while politicians and bureaucrats differ. Regardless of emotional attachment any of us may have for the state, or the fairytale version of U.S. civics we learn in sixth grade, the objective of an elected representative is generally reelection and an increase in power and wealth. Switching from the private to the public market does not reverse human action or the profit motive, whether monetary or psychological profits. One of the best mechanisms for reelection in American politics consists of large, gargantuan problems that government has often created in the first place, to which politicians can offer big-spending solutions for, each one “one-upping” the last. In this case, government-constructed problems always have government enforced solutions, according to most politicians. At the end of the day, these politicians love problem “x,” because if it did not exist, they would not be able to propose their government-expansive “solutions” to fix the problem and convince the public to vote for their reelection.

The opioid epidemic is the perfect “problem x,” as an obvious crisis killing 47,000 Americans in 2017. The problem has various causes, while politicians can come up with only one solution: increased funding and power for the state. Senator Elizabeth Warren recently introduced the Comprehensive Addiction Resources Emergency (CARE) Act “to provide resources needed to begin treating the opioid crisis like the critical public health emergency it is.” All the bill does is direct $800 million in taxpayer money to states’ local communities, particularly Warren’s state of Massachusetts. What a perfect point for Warren’s resume in her bid for the White House, of “taking action” on the opioid crisis. That is until another Democrat comes along to funnel $900 million, or another that promises $1 billion and “knows someone that died of an overdose.” The opioid epidemic is not a problem that will be solved with more luxurious government rehab facilities and healthcare programs, and these proposals bear only the purpose of redirecting wealth to bureaucrats and bolstering election hopes.

As Democrats and Republicans both want to pour other people’s money into communities to fix this problem, neither side is willing to stomp out the actual issue of government expansion in the first place. Statists will often cite the lack of law enforcement as the cause, or as Tom Woods has often put it, they believe if only the state could bash a few more skulls the problem would be solved. However, before the opioid epidemic existed individuals had increased liberty and the problem did not exist, so how can lack of government be the culprit now? Before examining causes further, we know from criminal experience that the rapid increase in opioid-related deaths is linked to an increase in opioid painkiller prescriptions. But why is addiction to painkillers leading to so many deaths?

Mark Thorton writes an article deducing four causes of the crisis with arguments from economic reasoning. The first cause is the potency, impurity, and uncertainty of drugs produced on the black market. Producers are not bound by the law and have no objective to produce quality and consistency in their product. The second cause is the increase in the power of law enforcement that creates a market with more potent drugs, a phenomenon known as the Iron Law of Prohibition. Third, Thorton describes the overall inequality in the economy created by general government intervention. The final cause is well known by the public, and that is the recent marketing of opioid painkillers to doctors, that later prescribe them to patients with only minor injuries.

Based on the causes of this crisis, it should be clear that more force, spending and control will not end the epidemic. The government does not need an expansion in this field, but rather a rollback. Big spending solutions like Warren’s bill will not help, and the public should be aware of it. The state should decentralize healthcare and remove barriers to entry, creating more choice and competition in the pharmaceutical industry and among doctors writing prescriptions. The state should end prohibition, bringing drugs out of the danger of the black market, allowing addicts to seek medical care and treatment without the threat of arrest. Legalization of drugs is a libertarian cliche covered heavily. For this reason, those concerned with the issue should focus on four fallacies average people believe relating to prohibition. These are very simple mistakes that create an extremely clouded vision of the issue.

1. The Drug Potency Fallacy

When people are confronted with the idea of drug legalization, it is getting very old to hear the excuse of the difference in the potency of drugs now versus the past. They hear what we believe and their eyes grow wide with the terror. “But don’t you know that marijuana is so much stronger now than when I was your age?” However, as the Iron Law of Prohibition points out, drugs increase in potency because of prohibition in the first place. This is true for the prohibition of any drug. When producers and sellers of substances are forced into the black market they are met with an expensive new production cost: the risk of being arrested. This is a production cost that is not equal for all new production though. It is dependent on the number of transactions the seller makes as well as other subjective factors. A drug dealer can reduce this cost by engaging in less individual transactions. If this is a necessity to maintain the business, then how does the black market industry maintain profits? They maintain profits by increasing the potency of the drug, to make an increased profit with less individual transactions. As enforcement of prohibition increases and the market is less safe for producers, this production cost increases, and in turn, so does potency. Individuals that commit this fallacy are rejecting legalization because of a problem caused by prohibition in the first place. As Mark Thorton points out, during the prohibition of alcohol, many former producers of wine and beer switched to hard liquor on the black market for exactly this reason.

2. Lack of Imagination Fallacy

When we commit fallacies of overlooking the effects a black market has on an industry, we often lack imagination of how that industry would appear on a hypothetical legal market. Drugs on the black market do not display exact percentages of active ingredients, they are often low in quality, and can contain substances unknown to the user. They are not sold in controlled stores with clear information, they are sold in lucrative deals under the eye of law enforcement, which often turns violent. Statists try to convince the public that in the legal market, all these factors would be identical to the existing black market and go rogue in a community. This idea is absurd. Do they think there could be any reason illegal drugs are sold in this manner while alcohol is sold in safe liquor stores with a clean product that displays the exact alcohol content? This is a lack of imagination of how a market can innovate if allowed to exist on a free and legal market. It is more than likely that a legal market for opioids would contain clean and safe paraphernalia, more pure products that display active ingredients with the exact potency, and offer more innovative rehab options that allow addicts to gradually use the product rather than be forced to go cold turkey. Addicts could also safely seek medical care without the disincentive of arrest and a criminal record. The idea of using the characteristics of an existing black market to make judgments on a hypothetical black market is nonsensical.

3. The Perfect World Fallacy

Although this is a simple fallacy, almost all proponents of prohibition slip it under the radar into their rhetoric. They imagine another dimension where prohibition actually prohibits drug use, and use it in their argument in comparison with a hypothetical society with legal drugs. Prohibition of drugs has existed for almost a century and addicts still exist. The objective of prohibition is to prohibit drug use, yet the opioid epidemic still exists in the real world, and they want to lay the burden of proof on proponents of legalization! It must be understood that the alternate reality where prohibition works does not exist. It is their system that has been tried and their system that has utterly failed. Hard drugs are already extremely illegal, and a heroin epidemic exists regardless. The point is that prohibitionists want you to believe the debate is between world with drugs and a world without drugs, when in reality, the only debate is between a world with legal-market drugs and a world with black market drugs.

4. The Scary Drug Fallacy

The epiphany of overcoming the Perfect World Fallacy is a milestone for many, as a legal market is obviously the safer option for society, especially after understanding the distortions caused by a black market. The next step is to understand that the laws of human action apply to drugs other than marijuana. The Scary Drug Fallacy is the most simple, where individuals understand all of this reasoning but tend to deny it for “scary drugs.” Emotion makes us ignore logic when we do not wish to see it, but when lives are at stake, it is important to be as open-minded and rational as possible. Government action carries unintended negative consequences for prohibition, and these laws do not “go away” for hard drugs.

Conclusion

Before delving into the case against the War on Drugs, it is important to free our minds of these toxic fallacies. Black markets carry severe economic distortions, and when judging the well being of society, it is imperative to imagine how the market would otherwise appear. The choice of government is not drugs verses non-drugs as they would lead you to believe, but black market verses legal-market. Lastly, apply this logic to all banned substances, especially those like opioids that are causing the epidemic we know today. Reject the false promises of politicians like Elizabeth Warren that propose a funnel of money into the hands of bureaucrats to solve a problem that the government created. How can the problem be solved if federal grants for rehab facilities are doubled if the factors that lead individuals to addiction and overdose are still existing? Politicians have no idea how, but it is clearly not their real concern.