Why 80 000 hours should recommend more people become drug lords

Currently, none of 80 000 hours’ high impact careers are directly involved in the upper end of drug redistribution. I think this is a mistake, for reasons that can be summarised as:

  1. Tremendous earning-to-give potential

  2. EAs can out-perform other candidates through superior money laundering

  3. Tremendous capacity for (marginal) lives saved

  4. Very high probability that the counterfactual candidate was worse

  5. Directly increasing happiness through better drugs is a very neglected cause and may reasonably be the lowest-hanging fruit for animal cruelty

Earning to give

Drug lords* make extremely large amounts of money – often far more than they can ever spend. Indeed, one of the chief weaknesses of the drug lord lifestyle is the difficulty in laundering or spending money without attracting the attention of tax inspectors. EA-aligned drug lord can solve this problem by donating colossal wonga to charity. This would also have environmental co-benefits through reducing unnecessary consumption (for instance, tacky cars). It is highly likely that lives saved via these donations vastly exceeds the number killed to earn your place at the top.

Advantages for EAs

EA-aligned foundations derive considerable funds from cryptocurrency exchanges. These are well-known methods for money laundering, so arguably EA derives considerable money from the drugs trade already. But the days of governments turning a blind eye to this are surely numbered, and between regulation and voluntary projects designed to limit this it seems likely this will become more difficult with time. Drug lords who are part of EA would have a considerable advantage over competitors by networking with people who are involved in crypto exchanges and could arrange easy transactions with regulation workarounds when the money is destined for charities. EA drug lords could also trust other EA drug lords who donate this way and make agreements via smart contracts, naturally forming cartels with less fear of backstabbing. It’s therefore possible that EA drug lords can out-compete non-EA drug lords. If they form a monopoly, they can drive up the price of drugs, both generating more revenue for charity and potentially saving many lives directly.

Save lives

Is being a drug lord immoral? Certainly gang violence involves killing people, and many more die through overdoses. However this is true for anyone who becomes a drug lord. While EA-aligned drug lords might well have gallons of blood on their hands, a utilitarian should compare this to the proper counterfactual, in which case they can easily save many lives. For instance, if they only cut their drugs with harmless substances or avoid selling the most damaging drugs while displacing worse drug-dealers. There is also a great opportunity to reduce the DALY lost to gang-related violence through encouraging the use of tasers and minimally-disabling injuries. These could easily overwhelm the one necessary murder of the drug lord replaced. In Mexico, for instance, the level of organised crime homicides rose from around 1000 in 2001 to over 10 000 in 2010. Many argue that a large factor contributing to the increase was the downfall of the Guadalajara cartel following the imprisonment of Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo, leading to more wars between more and more violent cartels. Indeed, such is the number of preventable deaths that can be attributed to drug lords that we may reasonably ask: how can 80 000 hours NOT consider influencing this to be one of their top priorities?


Many of the discussions about career advice on the 80 000 hours podcast take place under the assumption that all the listeners are both intelligent and sensitive and would out-perform the median person in any job. And while the podcast may be a bit dense for people who are a bit dense, tragically listening to Rob Wiblin does not cure psychopathy. I assume 80 000 hours usually directs these people towards the stock markets, where they are unlikely to make things much worse. But what if they’re bad at maths? EA needs to develop a portfolio of influential jobs appealing to utilitarian psychopaths.

Drug development is a neglected area

Finally, it’s not clear that all recreational drugs are bad. Extensive discussion around legalisation can be found elsewhere, but I will highlight two EA-specific points. Firstly, the possibility of making better and safer drugs is very underfunded by the government and is mostly engaged in by people with dubious motives, or who are called David Nutt (a very dubious name). Secondly, the focus of most recreational drug research is on humans and not on animals. Policy advocacy to change this is important, but would be easier if there were more drugs to try. The capacity to relieve animal suffering through drugging all factory farms is enormous and could easily swamp any other short-term issue for a non-speciesist utilitarian. If the drugs are cheap and quickly metabolised before slaughter this could be easy swallowed by the general public; even if not, you will struggle to keep hipsters away after telling them they can microdose on a suffering-free palaeolithic diet. An EA drug lord may command an R&D budget that could investigate these issues, creating an easily-managed farm full of creatures living happily together at great profit. Finally, the drug lord could retire to a tourist attraction based on this: lions would lie down with lambs and eat (modified) grass, while the humans around would smoke it. It could be called ZootOpium, and soon more (Zootopia) would follow, ushering in a world of peace and plenty, with poverty and suffering practically eliminated.

This chance of a better world is only slightly out of reach; out of reach because the best minds of our generation have not been directed towards a life of drugs.

* Drug lords, like Lord Chief Justices, can be of any gender. I hope that 80 000 hours will do its best to help rectify the lamentable gender inequality present in the drug redistribution industry.