Blanket legalization and Occam’s Razor

A good is called price inelastic when the revenue of the seller goes up with an increase in price. The natural tendency of a consumer is to reduce consumption of a good when it’s price increases, unless the good is necessary for the consumer. Such goods are non-elastic. An example of such a good is cocaine, as identified by a NCBI report.

Cocaine is an example of a hard drug, unlike cannabis, which is a soft one. For most countries, a hard drug is one that poses a higher degree of danger to both the individual and the social order. Soft drugs, on the other hand, have lesser risks associated with them, but are still deemed harmful. The distinction between soft and hard drugs was made for judiciary convenience. 

Legalization of drugs is often sought as a solution to reduce drug trafficking and related organised crime. The tabled agenda for the 128th session of the United Nations Office of Drug Control was legalization Of Drugs, and whether it would curb organised crime. In the compiled document for this session, there was no  demarcation on what drugs were being put into context.

In the 128th UNODC session, India’s stance on blanket legalization was laced with concern. The Indian delegate expressed reservations towards blanket legalization, and was of the view that work should be done on a ground level. The Indian delegate favoured law enforcement and countering the demand for drugs by improving regional rehabilitation facilities. In the 2020 UN vote, India was one of the 27 countries that voted in favour of removing cannabis and cannabis resin as dangerous narcotic substances from the Schedule IV of the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs . This led to speculation about whether India will legalise Cannabis.

The solution to countering the problem of drugs relies heavily on whether we are targeting soft drugs or hard drugs. However, India is not the only country apprehensive of blanket legalization of drugs, be it soft drugs or hard drugs. Countries like Algeria, Singapore, Congo and Haiti also supported a ground level solution over legalization of drugs. In fact, while they opposed conducting the drug “issue” as a political one, these countries were walking along the economic principles of Occam’s Razor of Public Policy.

Simply put, Ajay Shah’s take on Occam’s Razor of Public Policy  favours the idea that when there are two policies to solve a social issue, the government should go with:

  1. The solution that utilises the least amount of state coercion. 
  2. The solution that tackles the root issues to the problem. 

Legislation allows the government to treat drug addiction as a medical issue, instead of a punishable crime. It also effectively reduces the use of coercion by the State. In the Indian State, the legal punishment for low level drug abuse is waived if the person agrees to medical treatment to cure their addiction. However, the sentence is extremely rigorous  for hard drug consumption.

When looking at the problem head-on, it would seem  that India is not going for the optimal solution. Wanting better law enforcement and not letting market forces control the supply and demand requires the state to use force and coercion.  One might say that letting the free market regulate drugs would be more beneficial. It would:

  1. Ensure that the drugs sold in the market undergo quality checks;
  2. Curb the creation of cartels;
  3. Generate tax and remove the black market;
  4. Reduce addiction levels by showcasing drug addiction as a medical problem over criminal offense;
  5. Discourage drug abuse if the government uses price floors;

However, this may not necessarily be the case. Take this cannabis addiction case study for example. The subject was addicted to a soft drug, which is shown to have less addiction potential than hard drugs . Until treatment, the subject would feel the urge to steal just to satiate his cannabis cravings. For a drug like Heroin, a 1% increase in price reduces  consumption by a feeble 0.51-0.73%. Such case studies are not present for a multitude of drugs. Absence of information on the inelasticity of a particular drug or how addictive it can be, is  disadvantageous when making laws pertaining to those drugs. If we consider having a market for drugs, putting price floors or increasing its price might backfire. Creation of counterfeit markets, or creation of cheaper substitutes of drugs might be possible or even illegal trade. In order to obtain drugs at high prices, crime rates might also flare up. Furthermore, if we move for blanket legalization of drugs, the next question will be- what can be legalised? ? Examples of legalization of a certain drug in a state in the United States of America cannot be contextualised for India. The poverty level, demography, and strength of the Indian law implementation is a far cry from an American State. Blanket legalization may not even be able to ensure whether the drugs sold over the counter are safe for consumption or not.

“India has the technology and capacity to produce quality generics, as our medicines are exported to developed countries like the US, but quality-control is an issue….”

Health Ministry official

And this was spoken in context to generic drugs. 

My last concern comes from the fact that the failure of alcohol prohibition can be precedent to reconsider Drug legalization. While both alcohol and drug abuse cause harm to the human body, and prolonged excessive consumption can lead up to severe ailments, the immediate risk of consuming drugs is much higher. Consider overdosing. A person under heavy influence of drugs would not be able to realise whether they are overdosing or not. And overdosing on drugs can be fatal. Introducing recreational drugs as an open market commodity is extremely different than introducing alcohol as one. 

While blanket legalization might seem easier, a simple analysis of it shows that it might not be optimal. When we talk about blanket legalisation, we need to consider all drugs in context. This ranges from marijuana, a soft drug, to cocaine or crystal meth. Legalisation will allow for a market that would be dictated by the public demand. We cannot know what would be the response of the general Indian public when legalization is implemented. But there are certain benefits, such as creation of rehabilitation centres. Institutional reformation on the other hand, is difficult, and takes decades into making, but by my analysis fits Occam’s Razor better. It touches on the root issue for the violence associated with drug cartels, by reducing its demand through medical pathways while dealing with possession and sale of drugs as a criminal offence. It aims to reduce levels of inter-department corruption that allows drugs to sift through the Indian drug regulatory bodies. It allows the creation of better medical infrastructure. This would help in capacity building for medical treatment of addicts. Furthermore, once such a pipeline is created, in cases of new drugs being developed, we would have an existing system that should be able to combat addiction. Finally, drug consumption should ideally be treated as a social issue. When the Indian state shows apprehension towards blanket legalization, the issue of drugs moves away from becoming an economic issue. Thus allowing it to be viewed under the social and medical lens. 

~Anshi Pandey

SY BSc (20-23)

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