Prohibition and Potency

by Jonathan H. Adler

I don’t want to open a full-scale debate on drug legalization on The Corner (at least not today), but I found one of Jonah’s comments a bit curious. Below he suggests that legalization would mean that drugs would not only be cheaper and easier to get, but more potent as well. The former are obviously true. The latter, however, seems quite unlikely, at least if history is any guide. The trend with all mind-altering substances has been to become more potent when made illegal. Thus, during prohibition, alcohol consumption shifted from beer, wine, and weaker spirits to moonshine, grain, and the like. After prohibition, the trend reversed. The experience confirms what economists would predict, namely that Illegality creates incentives to deliver greater potency in a smaller dose. This appears to be occurring with illegal narcotics as well. Indeed, it could be argued that without drug prohibition, no one would have bothered to create crack.

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