Could drug legalization give the global economy a shot in the arm?

This is the just the start…

For many of us, the last few weeks have felt like a stinging slap in the face followed by a period of becalmed confusion. As the corona virus ripped through China, Europe and the US; markets crashed at 2008 rates, millions of people filed for welfare support, and conservative governments injected a dose of socialist economic policy through furloughed wage guarantees and business loans. As the lock-down has become the new normal, markets have crept upwards as hospital and mortality rates have leveled off, and there is an air of cautious optimism. However, what we are not seeing is the rapid corrosion happening under our feet as global production and supply chains grind to a halt.

As the sting of the slap fades, we’re about to feel the force of a pile driving body blow which will be much harder to bounce back from. The Office for Budget Responsibility in the UK is predicting Quarter 2 economic output to be anywhere from 15 – 35% down on 2019, with other countries likely to feel similar pain. This is a devastating economic hit, the worst year on year comparison from the global crash of 2008-2009 in the UK was negative 4 – 5%. Most governments lack a coherent plan for moving out of lock-down (this is not a criticism, just an observation that socially and economically they find themselves in a fiendishly difficult bind), the US has over 24 million new unemployed, and thousands of small businesses around the world have already folded. So far, so bad.

From crisis comes opportunity…

Out of the rubble, there may however be some unique opportunities to re-think our socio-economic constructs. At the end of WW2 the exhausted (soon to be former) colonial powers of Europe built comprehensive welfare structures to recognize the contribution played by all, not just the wealthy. As then, we are now seeing a shift in who should be considered the most valuable in our society. Manufacturing and supply chain workers, along with the millions of health workers who have faced corona, often unprotected, have kept our countries running and our people alive. Less so hedge fund owners, making $billions while shorting the markets.

Along with re-appraising the ‘money before humanity’ doctrine of the last 40 years, this is a time for creative thinking and to look at ways to revitalize our economies – and to unblock some of those conservative arteries. The stand-out poor performers of the last 2 months have been populist-conservative leaders such as Boris Johnson (I’ll continue to shake hands until I get corona and almost die), Donald Trump (maybe inject yourself with bleach?!) or Brazil’s Bolsonaro (head not so much in the sand as quick-setting concrete).

One of the features of populist-conservative leaders and their lap-dog / attack dog media, is that they confidently paint specific narratives as ‘obvious’. ‘Obviously’ sex education in schools leads to more teen pregnancies (except in the countries that actually do it), ‘obviously’ fewer immigrants will relieve pressure on our health service (unless they’re literally saving our lives on the NHS frontline), ‘obviously’ deregulating drug laws will lead to a junkie paradise (again, except the in the countries who have actually had the balls to try). This over confidence in the face of a pandemic has been deadly, and in a wider social context has stifled intelligent debate – especially with regard to having a science based drugs policy.

Economy & public health…

The global illegal drugs market is estimated to be worth at least $400bn, for reference the global alcoholic drinks industry is valued at approximately $1.5tn. Before getting into ethical questions (and misconceptions) that plague this debate, let’s focus on the economic potential; millions of new jobs and $billions in taxation, which could help to plug the widening chasm in most countries’ public finances. Controlled legalization of the the vast majority of currently illegal drugs also has two other massive economic positives: the cost of prohibition is vast, around $40bn per year in the US alone. Secondly, decriminalization starts to remove the above mentioned $400bn+ from crime syndicates who absolutely love the current legislative situation. Mass legalization might seem like a drastic measure for some, but lets take a reality check…

 As I covered in more detail in a previous piece, drug laws have been based on politics rather than science for generations, with Nixonian policy in the 1970’s driving an epic distortion of the facts. Millions have been incarcerated and millions deprived of life-changing medicines due to a prejudiced conservative agenda. Legal opioids such as codeine and morphine have their uses, but opioid over-prescription killed in excess of 47,000 Americans in 2017 alone. Conversely there are no recorded cannabis overdoses…ever…in human history, and psychedelics such as MDMA, LSD and Psilocybin are well tolerated by the body (i.e. very hard to take a toxic dose).

Initial research is producing highly effective, non-addictive medicinal cannabis products, while MDMA for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and the micro-dosing of LSD for depression show great promise. All drugs have positives and negatives (excessive use of strong cannabis is linked with paranoia for example), and therefore all should be on a sliding scale. Gentler products such as low THC cannabis oil and milder pain killers available over the counter, with stronger formulations requiring either a prescription or sign off from a senior physician. This would be a progressive and sensible way to move forward, while not running a totally uncontrolled social experiment.

Imagination & experimentation…

Times such as those we find ourselves in now should be an opportunity to unleash our imaginations. With some of the daily workload removed, this is a unique time to think of a transparent ‘brave new world’ supported by science fact, not the decades of opaque political smoke screens that have blighted sensible debate.

Simply watch one of Donald Trump’s corona press conferences while completely sober and you’ll realize things are definitely not as they should be. With accurate understanding and sensible guidelines, many currently illegal drugs could be safely used, both recreationally and medically. This could enhance our imaginations, improve health & well-being, while also breathing life into deflated economies – at a time when we re-assess what it means to be alive in the post-corona era.

For a more detailed analysis of how current drug legislation drives the the organized crime economy, take a look at Misha Glenny’s excellent book McMafia, on which the BBC series of the same name was loosely based.

Disclaimer: my primary business promotes a transparent and legalized cannabis economy, and sells premium CBD products.