Monday, December 01, 2008

Heroin on prescription

The Swiss have legalised the prescription of heroin to addicted users. The measure apparently has 68% Swiss community support although 63% oppose the legalisation of cannabis.

This move is poor policy since it reduces the user cost of heroin to addicts and therefore reduces their incentives to cease using. To the extent there is any inelasticity in supply of illegal heroin it will reduce the price and increase the incentives to use of new users. It will reduce the heath costs faced by the given pool of addicted users but - to the extent that demand curves slope downwards - will create a larger pool of users who will be exposed to lower risks. Even if supply is perfectly elastic - so Swiss users face an internationally given price - those selling illegal supplies face increased incentives to secure new users. At best new users face no immediate increased incentives not to use but increased incentives by virue of the fact that new users now have a low cost escape into government-provided heroin should they become addicted.

Those in the drug treatment industry will cheer at this legalisation partly because it secures the size of their long-term client base. The policy will fail to resolve the heroin abuse problem since it leaves unaddressed the usage incentives faced by new users. It simply ensures that existing users remain so.

Supporters will say that abolishing these laws reduce health and law enforcement costs. The first point is unclear for reasons advanced above while the second argument applies to any criminal activity. It is only sound if heroin use is considered victimless. I don't.


jdavey said...

Surely the main social cost of heroin is not the harm it does to an individual but rather the crime and violence undertaken to pay for the habit. People can live quite healthily on heroin and a person on a heroin trip is generally sedated.
Arguing that because it is legal more people will take it up is a facile prediction, the Netherlands has one of the most relaxed drug laws and has some of the lowest addiction rates in the world.
If people are desperate enough to escape to drugs they will do so whether the narcotics are available legally or illegally.

Dave Bath said...

Having studied toxicology at uni and having worked for a pharmaceutical manufacturer who put opiates in ampoules:
(1) Heroin is one of the least toxic opiates (methadone certainly isn't).
(2) Cost of high-quality opiate production (even pre-mixed into ampoules) is only a few dollars a shot.
(3) Prescribed heroin avoids the costs of crime, and the treatment costs of dirty drugs, as well as the dangers of under-estimated street drug strength.
(4) Prescribed heroin for addicts is the toughest approach for dealers and smugglers : market shrinkage!
(5) I'm for at least allowing doctors to prescribe heroin for those suffering chronic pain. As it is cheap (so no need for PBS authority restrictions), just let doctors prescribe the drug when they think it appropriate (who cares why) and run statistical tests to find the doctors who are over-prescribing it.

jc said...


In 1900 2% of the population was considered addicted to mind altering drugs.

The rate hasn't changed in the US for the past 100 years.

All that's changed is that 2 million Americans are in jail for non-violent related crimes.

so much for drug laws.

conrad said...

You're so predictable HC -- focusing on factors that only have small effect sizes, especially because Australia has little control over heroin prices, and likely to have even less given the situation in Afghanistan. Why not start thinking about long term cultural problems? This is the only way to get a real reduction in the long term.

Francis Xavier Holden said...

One day into your holidays and all you can think of is heroin.

Harden Up Harry.

jc said...

With what exactly, Conrad.

The illegilty of drugs has certainly helped keep the rate of use down...NOT

hc said...

Most of these comments totally ignore the incentive effects the Swiss measures will have encouraging new use.

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rehab centers said...

The legislation of Heroine is a highly debatable topic. Heroine is a dangerous drug and can caused tremendous damage to person using it and to the society. I agree, legalization of Heroine will only increase the existing users of such drug.
It sounds weird actually, legalizing a drug that is noted to be very dangerous.