Ending The War on Drugs—A New Cause For Effective Altruists?

Link post

Peter Singer and I argue for drug legalisation in an article that was published in the New Statesman earlier this week (link to my tweet). In short, we argue ‘War on Drugs’ has failed and it’s time that governments, not gangsters, run the drug market.

I posted what follows below in the EA facebook group and was encouraged to do so here too (as the discussion is often better).

The aim of the article wasn’t to make an argument in ‘EA terms’: we merely claimed that moving from drug prohibition to drug legalisation would be a good thing, not that putting money or time put towards this would be (for someone) the most good they could do.

However, I would like to elaborate on the article and say why effective altruists might be interested in this cause area—not least because it’s not really been discussed before, conversations about psychedelics and my 2017 EA forum posts on the topic aside, and it seems important to ‘keep EA weird’ and continue to keep the proverbial eyes peeled for ways to, well, do good better!

The thrust of the article is that drug legalisation would do quite a bit of good. I suspect the largest part of this is that those in drug-producing and trafficking countries would no longer be affected by the corruption and violence that drug cartels, and the War of Drugs, bring. One well-known example is the Mexican Drug War where over 100,000 are estimated to have died since 2006. Such conflict is destabilising and hinders the economic development of many of the world’s poorer citizens. Hence, it might look good solely as a poverty alleviation policy.

It would also benefit those people who are currently criminalised for drug offenses—in the US, 1/​5th of the prison population—as well as reduce harms to users, raise money states could spend elsewhere, and some other things besides.

Determining the scale of the problem isn’t straightforward and I haven’t yet really tried, but my hot take is that, on a global scale, it’s not trivial. Certainly, it’s not so trivial it should be dismissed out of hand. As one indication, the UN estimates the illicit drug trade is worth 1.5% of world GDP.

The natural EA question is “okay, but how cost-effective is it vs other things?”

If you’re thinking as a citizen, this question isn’t so relevant: it doesn’t really cost you anything to support this policy change, talk to your friends about it, etc., and it’s not as if supporting this would take public money from anything else you might value—indeed, it’s a revenue raiser. I leave it open how valuable it is to spend extra ‘citizen time’ on this vs some other policy. Drug policy reform could be one item in a potential basket of ‘no-cost’ policies an effective altruist might support alongside, say, improved animal welfare. (I previously posted about a policy platform back in 2019, but nothing much happened.)

If you’re thinking as a donor, then you really would wonder how drug policy reform efforts, e.g. advocacy organisations, compare to other things. This is pretty complicated as both the scale of the problem is unclear (as noted) *and* it’s really tricky to model the effectiveness of systemic change interventions anyway. I don’t have the capacity to look at this anytime soon, nor will it be a priority for the Happier Lives Institute, but I would be really enthusiastic for someone else to take a stab at this and would be happy to chat to them about it.

If you’re wondering what to do with your career, I think it’s very possible, given the importance of personal fit, that this could be a priority path for someone with suitable skills and interests. At least, it’s worth considering.

Finally, it’s worth noting that, if someone objects to the effective altruism community on the grounds it ignores (1) systemic changes and (2) social justice, this would be something to point to on both counts. Not only is drug policy reform a society-wide intervention, but drug prohibition disproportionately affects the marginalised groups who use or supply drugs—America’s drug policies often described as racist. I don’t think aspiring effective altruists should prioritise it solely for this reason, but seems something to bear in mind.