In the spirit of “taking away baseball bats” from the State, the first specific policy proposal I want to put forth on this blog is to end drug prohibition in New Hampshire and, for a limited period of time, redirect funding that would have gone to enforcing prohibition to instead provide direct cash assistance to the people who have been directly harmed by prohibition.
Drug prohibition, as a policy for reducing the harms that drugs cause in society, is a failure. Judging by the experience of alcohol prohibition in the early 20th century, this should come as no surprise. Sadly, drug prohibition has gone on for far longer and caused far more harm. Drug prohibition’s track record in New Hampshire is no different. Nearly 50 years into the “war on drugs” as declared by President Richard Nixon, and the residents of New Hampshire are still learning the hard way that you cannot arrest your way out of a health crisis. While NH government officials have begun to come around to the idea of treating drug abuse as a health issue rather than a criminal issue, the drug war still rages on in tandem. Thousands of people are arrested and convicted of drug crimes every year in New Hampshire, and the cost of drug prohibition to taxpayers in the state is over $180 million per year.
The costs extend beyond the costs to taxpayers, however. The costs imposed on the victims of prohibition are far greater than any individual New Hampshire resident has to bear. Lost money due to legal costs, lost freedom due to imprisonment, lost jobs, lost housing, lost families, lost opportunities… victims of drug prohibition can lose nearly everything due to a drug conviction. This ultimately becomes a great “hidden loss” to society as thousands of people are set back in their lives each year, impairing their ability to live their best life and bring the most value to the world.
Recognizing the failure of drug prohibition and the great harms caused to its victims and society at large, the only sane drug policy is full decriminalization. The entire supply chain from production to consumer should be decriminalized to bring peace and sanity to the market. That doesn’t mean no rules at all. Children should be restricted from accessing drugs, to protect against addiction, overdose, and other harms, unless a parent or legal guardian decides the benefits of a drug outweighs the risks. And other commonsense restrictions — such as requiring manufacturing facilities to operate away from other people’s homes — would likewise be reasonable. But there should no longer be criminal penalties associated with personal drug use and responsible production and distribution operations.
As we consider the specifics of what a post-prohibition drug policy regime looks like, we should be careful not to fall into the “legalization” trap. Legalization is the policy that has been adopted by all states so far when allowing the sale of recreational cannabis. It entails a system of licensing and regulation run by the state, which puts up artificial barriers to entry and and creates a maze of red tape through which both failed and successful navigation are extremely costly. The policies that are implemented, while generally well-intentioned, can often be counter-productive or even harmful, such as packaging requirements or production standards that lock-in bad practices and hold back innovation.
I have seen how legalization works in practice when I lived in California, and the most succinct way I can describe it is “Prohibition 2.0”. Yes, under legalization, in a limited set of circumstances, people can maybe avoid having their lives ruined by the state for their involvement in the cannabis industry. But if someone fails to dot their ‘i’s and cross their ‘t’s and get permission to grow a plant, law enforcement will pick right up where Prohibition 1.0 left off. When we say “decriminalize” and “end prohibition” we have to really mean it and commit to it, for the sake of the people we are trying to help and save from the negative consequences of bad policy.
In ending the war on drugs in New Hampshire, we must not forget about justice for those who have suffered direct harm as a result of prohibition. The costs that have been imposed on the victims of drug prohibition – people convicted of drug crimes in particular – should be paid back. While it would be impossible to calculate their full loss, especially accounting for opportunity costs and other hidden costs, we can make a good faith effort to provide some kind of direct cash assistance to compensate the victims of drug prohibition for the harm that has been done to them. To prevent further harm due to drug prohibition, all drug arrests and convictions should also be immediately wiped from the criminal record.
With drugs decriminalized and a just, peaceful transition accounted for, the people of New Hampshire can begin to heal from decades of trauma caused by prohibition and finally have the freedom to properly address the issues of drug abuse and addiction without fear of criminal sanction.
Read the draft Drug Decriminalization Act of 2020, an initial proposal for how we could end drug prohibition in New Hampshire.