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The Chinese War on Drugs

No good solutions there either.

By Will Offensicht  |  November 28, 2008

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.