The Chinese War on Drugs

No good solutions there either.

Our war on drugs is generally recognized to be a pretty thorough failure.  We have dumped countless billions of dollars and spent hundreds of lives on attempts to prevent illegal drug activity, and after all this time the price of drugs on the street has continued to decrease.

Our government continues with policies which make drug dealing so profitable that drug gangs have the money and armaments to cause problems all over the world.  Many people use this as proof that a war on drugs is inevitably doomed to failure.  However, that's not necessarily the case.  The Chinese government is doing their best to provide an example of how to fight, and to win, a war on drugs.

The Chinese government may not be a complete Communist dictatorship anymore, but they certainly aren't exactly free either.  The Olympics provided a case study of how you can put on an amazing spectacle by keeping your society under rather tight control; with that sort of power, might the Chinese government actually be able to effectively deal with drug smuggling as well?  Reuters reports that they're having trouble:

A court in southern China has sentenced eight African drug smugglers to death, with a two-year reprieve, state media said on Wednesday.

A two-year reprieve means their sentence can be commuted into a life sentence after two years of good behaviour.

Six of the smugglers had drugs found hidden inside their bodies, the report added.  The government has admitted it is facing an uphill struggle dealing with a flood of drugs coming across its borders, mainly from Southeast and central Asia. [emphasis added]

Chinese Experience with Opium

The Chinese have intimate experience with the issues involved in regulating drug use.  Portuguese traders arrived in China in 1517.  In return for helping to suppress some pirates, the Portuguese were given control of Macao in 1557, where they set up opium factories.  Chinese opium consumption increased over time so that 4,000 chests were imported in 1795.

Opium had much the same effect in China as heroin, crack cocaine, and so on have had in America's inner cities.  Writers and pundits of the day talked about the destruction of society, the great crime wave caused by junkies seeking only enough to pay for their next fix, and the devastation wrought to the nation's moral welfare by so many people with no productive purpose in life; many of these writings might seem right at home in our journals of today.

The Chinese government recognized the problem, banning the import of opium in 1795 and reiterating the ban in 1800, but Chinese users were as anxious to buy as the Europeans were to sell.  As our FBI and Justice Department have found out, government officials can always be found who will accept vast bribes in exchange for a blind eye.

An energetic "drug czar" named Lin Tzehsu enforced the ban in 1838.  His troops surrounded the foreign compound.  He forced the foreigners to turn over 20,000 chests of opium and burned it all.

The British responded by opening the "First Opium War."  Although opium was not mentioned in the Treaty of Nanking which followed, the outcome effectively prevented the Chinese from doing anything further to prevent opium imports.

Chinese resentments and European imperialism led to the Second Opium War in 1856-60.  This time, the import of opium was explicitly legalized and Chinese society continued to fall apart.  It was only with the coming to power of the Communists that any serious progress was made - the death by starvation of millions and complete destruction of the economy which China experienced under the grossly misnamed "Great Leap Forward," rendered drug use of any kind an impossible luxury.

What's more, the Red Chinese were not shy about performing mass executions of drug dealers and even ordinary users, under the philosophy that if you killed everyone who had anything to do with drugs, you'd slow down market growth right away and you'd eventually get them all.

And pretty much, they did.  Until recently, China has not had much a problem with drugs, but with China's growing wealth and freedoms, the illegal drug trade is rearing its ugly head once again.

Given this historical background, it's easy to see that the Chinese are intimately aware of the down-side of a legal trade in opium and other addictive drugs.  Laws didn't help much - when opium was illegal, officials were bribed and the trade proceeded pretty much unhindered.  When opium became legal, the profits were still so high that opium addiction became a serious drain on society.  Thus, as Scragged has noted, neither prohibition nor legalization are satisfactory.

Singapore has shown that it is possible to stamp out the drug trade by drying up the market - they execute users and dealers.  This is an effective measure, but for some reason, the Chinese government doesn't appear to want to do that, even though they themselves found it successful in the past.  Although they have sentenced two smugglers to death, it looks like the perpetrators can get time off for good behavior and avoid being executed.  History suggests that jail time is not a sufficient deterrent to stop the drug trade.

What Would Work

Aside from the mass executions that the modern Chinese government, although far from democratic, cannot seem to stomach any more, there is only one other policy prescription that might be effective, which is to have government supply drugs for free.

The trouble with legalization and ordinary commercialization is that even legal drugs such as tobacco and alcohol are sufficiently profitable that marketing tends to increase the user community; Anheuser-Busch sells more beer than Al Capone could even dream of.  Increasing the consumption of drugs, regardless of their legality, is bad for society.  At best, a significant portion of national income will be wasted on slacker potheads; at worst, we see how our inner cities become war zones preyed upon by drug-addled zombies who will gladly commit any crime for the smallest payment.

Absent a willingness to eliminate the market by eliminating users, the only solution is to eliminate profit by having the government give the drugs away for free.

You would want to keep all our anti-drug programs, of course, to try to persuade kids not to smoke or drink, but if anybody absolutely wants to use pot, or coke, or whatever, give it to them for free.  People who really want drugs aren't stopped by high price - they take up crime to support their habits.

Taking the profit out of the industry eliminates drug-related crime and means that nobody has any reason to try to recruit new users.  People who make money selling drugs give away samples to build the market.  If the government gives it away, the bureaucracy will by its very nature build enough hassle into the system that nobody will ask for drugs unless they really want them.

We need the bureaucracy involved to make the process of getting drugs unpleasant enough to keep usage down.  We can't just legalize the stuff as with any other commodity; decent marketing would grow the user community, which nobody wants.  The recent history of the tobacco industry clearly illustrates that even the most intrusive regulation and onerous taxes are ineffective when up against an imaginative and well-funded marketing machine; the last thing we need is for far more harmful drugs to be sold in the same way.

The fact that dealing with the government is extremely unpleasant is an advantage.  Treating customers badly is inherent in the nature of bureaucracy.  Getting drugs from the government will be so unpleasant that nobody will put up with the hassle unless they want it badly.

It will be interesting to see how the Chinese conduct their war on drugs.  Start chopping heads?  Or give it away bureaucratically?  Anything else is a waste of time.

Will Offensicht is a staff writer for and an internationally published author by a different name.  Read other articles by Will Offensicht or other articles on Foreign Affairs.
Reader Comments
You know, when alcohol was illegal, there was a lot of violence associated with the illegal alcohol trade. But I don't really see the same sort of violence associated with acquisition of the now legal product, even if there is a larger base of users.

As for "slackers" wasting their money and lives on drugs - who cares? If someone CHOOSES to throw their life away like that, why should the government prevent it?

If the government gives drugs away for free, the end result will be an increase in the user base, followed by a shortage of government-supplied drugs, followed then by an increase in the illegal drug trade, including profiteers now finding ways to acquire free government-supplied drugs and resell them at the now-inflated black market prices, thus even further reducing the free supply.

Every time something new is proposed, legalization ends up seeming like the best option. Now, I know a bunch of people will tell us how horrible it will be - how more people will start using drugs, there will be more violence, etc. But that is ALL speculation - we won't know the result of legalization UNTIL WE ACTUALLY TRY IT!
November 28, 2008 12:32 PM
Actually, the results of legalization WERE shown in China after the 2nd Opium War and they were pretty bad. Legalization has been tried in Denmark and it's showing its bad effects.

Given human nature, greed, and the profit motive, I think they're right that the only solution is to destroy the profit motive by giving the stuff away for free.

I think Tony's wrong - if addicts could get it for free from the government, the black market price would stay too low to be worth the hassle of smuggling it in.
November 29, 2008 2:55 PM
What, specifically, are the "bad effects" that you mention?

Has re-legalizing alcohol after Prohibition allowed for an increase in the number of alcoholics? Yes. Has it allowed a situation where people can become hopelessly addicted and destroy their lives? Yes. Is there the same level of alcohol-related violence as there was during prohibition? No. Is it the government's responsibility to keep people from harming themselves if they choose to? No.

As for the "bad effects" mentioned, how would free drugs from the government do anything to prevent a rise in the number of addicts? About the only possible way would be if the government restricted the amount any individual could receive - which would result in the creation of a black market to supply those who want more with the additional drugs they want. This is proven by the existing black market for LEGAL pharmaceuticals.

Let's look at the economics of the proposal:

Any drug is a "scarce good" - that is, it is a product with a limited quantity available at any given time. If you give away scarce goods, you will inevitably create a shortage of those goods. When that shortage arrives, the only real answer is rationing - which means that the government will limit how much an individual can receive.

Hmm - weren't we just there?

(By the way, isn't the economics of giving away scarce goods EXACTLY the argument that conservatives use AGAINST universal health care?)

And, while we're at it, can you please tell me where the government is going to get all these free drugs? It will either have to buy them or make them - both of which will cost money. If the drugs are free, who pays these costs?

And just curious - when we see this rise in the number of addicts - how much of that is due to better tracking of drug addiction due to more accurate reporting? (Since, if drugs are legal, you're more likely to get accurate information from the users). And how many of these addicts were formerly productive members of society who became addicted due to legalization, versus how many were already wallowing in other problems before legalization?
November 29, 2008 4:23 PM
Ridiculous! You're forgetting that the government has no money of its own. Even assuming that this IS the right solution, are you suggesting that responsible taxpayers, like you and I, should pay hundreds of millions of dollars per year to buy marijuana, cocaine and heroine for junkies? Good luck prying THOSE tax dollars our of my COLD DEAD HANDS. You think conservatives are pissed about paying taxes now? Wait until you tell them that they have to buy drugs for junkies!
November 29, 2008 9:45 PM
If you give them ENOUGH drugs, you only have to do it once, and I bet that's a much cheaper solution than any other which should appeal to fans of low taxes.

Dunno if that's quite what you had in mind though...
November 29, 2008 9:54 PM

So now we've gone from spending my payroll on drugs for junkies to spending it to purposefully KILL them through premeditated overdosing?
November 30, 2008 8:32 AM
Ben is quite correct that we'd have to pay for the drugs, but we already pay a LOT for druggies. A HUGE fraction of our prison population is in there for drug related crimes. Jail costs $20-30,000 per inmate per year. Not only that, druggies commit a lot of crimes to support their habits. We also pay billions for the drug war money which is spent all over the world scattering plant killer.

We'd pay less just giving the drugs away. If they were legal, we could get them for a lot less money than the street price now.
December 1, 2008 1:12 PM
Sorry, James, but that's a huge Red Herring.

We don't pay for prisons because we WANT people to use them. Prisons are a result of having to enforce the law. We are FORCED to pay for prisons because some people choose to break the law.

The fact that one particular law is broken a lot, and is therefore expensive to enforce, doesn't necessarily mean we should just stop enforcing it. There is no direct causation between the two.

The author's proposal is quite different. Will is saying that we should CHOOSE to support drug habits by distributing free drugs to all who want to use them.

I don't like that part of my payroll goes to paying for cots and soup at the local jail, but I am SIGNIFICANTLY more happy with that than using my payroll to hand out drugs at government offices. Because we would be "paying for either" does not make them equal.

December 1, 2008 1:37 PM
Sorry, James, but that's a huge Red Herring.

We don't pay for prisons because we WANT people to use them. Prisons are a result of having to enforce the law. We are FORCED to pay for prisons because some people choose to break the law.

The fact that one particular law is broken a lot, and is therefore expensive to enforce, doesn't necessarily mean we should just stop enforcing it. There is no direct causation between the two.

The author's proposal is quite different. Will is saying that we should CHOOSE to support drug habits by distributing free drugs to all who want to use them.

I don't like that part of my payroll goes to paying for cots and soup at the local jail, but I am SIGNIFICANTLY more happy with that than using my payroll to hand out drugs at government offices. Because we would be "paying for either" does not make them equal.

December 1, 2008 1:39 PM
"The fact that one particular law is broken a lot, and is therefore expensive to enforce, doesn't necessarily mean we should just stop enforcing it."

But perhaps we should, at least, be reexamining it.

Alcohol, Nicotine, and Caffiene are all DRUGS that are legal. While we may have problems with widespread abuse of these substances, we don't have people getting killed in the cross-fire between suppliers. We also don't have the sort of crime connected with use of those legal substances that exists alongside the use of the illegal ones.

But we once tried making one of them illegal. The result was, well - all sorts of crime connected with the production and distribution of the illegal substance. And try as we might, we could not stop it. In the end, we chose to make it legal again.

Yes, legalizing drugs may bring about a larger number of addicts. But it will also have the benefit of reducing the amount of crime associated with the illegal drug trade.

So, why is more people dealing with the consequences of their own actions, and less crime perpetrated on innocent bystanders such a bad thing?

Well - I suppose it is, since we have all been trained to expect the government to protect us from our own choices. Even the farthest right conservatives seem to think that's a legitimate purpose of government anymore. We've totally forgotten about individual responsibility. When did we give up THAT particular ideal?
December 1, 2008 5:44 PM
I do not necessarily disagree with Tony. His proposal is, at the very least, rational. Legalizing drugs has many advantages.

What I disagree with is the notion of illegal drugs COMBINED with free distribution by the government. Honestly, I can't think of even ONE advantage that that has in the long run.

Scragged missed the mark here.

Absolutely, let's RE-EXAMINE the war on drugs, maybe even legalize them. But have the government give them away? Preposterous!
December 1, 2008 6:19 PM
Look, this may not be the solution, but it's about time that we started thinking outside the box on issues like this one. If we keep doing what we've always done, we'll get what we've always gotten...
December 2, 2008 1:57 PM
First of all, it wouldn't work for marijuana. Marijuana consumption is a lot like the consumption of fine wines. People like their particular flavors and the best marijuana is fresh marijuana. Variety, flavor, and freshness are not things the government does well, so few people would want it even if they gave it away free. Even the people who get it from the government free now report that it is pretty crappy stuff.

The optimal solution with marijuana is to regulate it like alcohol or tobacco. There is no great harm to be suffered even if use of marijuana increases dramatically. Ultimately, it will evolve to a market something like the market for beers and wines, anyway, with some national brands but also a lot of micro-brands.

With marijuana off the table, the choices become clearer.

For further information, see the full text of the collected studies of the marijuana laws at under Major Studies of Drugs and Drug Policy.
December 3, 2008 2:05 PM
With marijuana off the table, there are three main drugs to consider -- heroin (the opiates), cocaine, and meth.

We already have experience with all three drugs being legal and sold over the counter. In short, none of the drugs was a major problem as long as it was legal. The drugs were cheap enough that addicts could afford them without the necessity of giving them away. There was no drug-related crime (except for that related to alcohol) and there were no drug gangs. There were addicts -- about the same percentage as today -- but they weren't criminals and most of them lived otherwise ordinary lives.

The current experience with heroin maintenance clinics in Switzerland proves that most addicts can be productive citizens as long as they receive their regular dose from a clean medical source. This isn't a lot different from pain patients that also need a dose of pain killers on a regular basis. The plan in Switzerland is to give them the drugs they are craving for free, along with counseling and other treatment, until they can get their lives organized and back on track. Once they get their lives organized and get a paying job, they can pay for their medication themselves. In total, about 80 percent of them wind up getting their lives together and getting jobs. The program also reduces drug-related crime by about 80 percent.

The Swiss program is not perfect. No program that includes people can ever be perfect. But the results are significantly better than what we achieve here in the US.

Most significantly perhaps, is the rate of new addicts. Where these programs are implemented, the number of new opiate addicts falls significantly. One of the reasons is that there aren't any addicts out on the streets anymore selling drugs to support their own habit.

December 5, 2008 4:53 PM
As always, if someone wants to really understand this subject, the best book to read is the Consumers Union Report on Licit and Illicit Drugs at It is the best overall review of the subject ever written. It contains a good short history of how the drug laws got started. If you haven't read it, then it is fair to say that you simply don't know the subject.
December 5, 2008 4:54 PM
Why fix something that is working?
December 8, 2008 1:43 PM
Add Your Comment...
4000 characters remaining
Loading question...