Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Why are drugs so unpopular?

Here's a blog for you, yes I stole it from an essay I did but it works pretty well, though I have rejigged it slightly so that it makes sense for people who aren't economists. Actually that sounds like a bit of a pain so I'll use this as a chance to expand your vocabulary, if you don't know what vocabulary means then stop reading now, I don't want your kind reading my blog.

"Utility" here refers to the concept of pleasure acquired through an action. Economists generally use the word utility rather than pleasure, because it sounds fancier and hence makes us seem smarter, but also because its less likely to be confused with a crude innuendo.

"Substitutes" here refers to a similar good that a person could consume instead of the original. For example cider vs beer or the cinema vs watching television.

"Opportunity cost" here refers to the cost of an action in terms of not doing other actions instead. For example if I go to the pub, there is an opportunity cost in the form of time I could have spent working on essays or whatever other fun filled activities the university has deigned to bless me with.

According to an NHS study, in 2006 72% of men and 57% of women reported drinking an alcoholic drink on at least one day in the week prior to the interview. This contrasts with marijuana, which according to a study for the UK drug policy commission in 2007, less than 9% of people in England and Wales had used in the past year, with the figures for stronger drugs such as ecstasy, heroin, and cocaine all being lower than 3%. The reasons for this relative unpopularity can be explained as a simple case of lower demand, but we can also look deeper and assess why demand may be lower for these substances as opposed to legal ones.

Firstly there is the rather obvious case that crack cocaine is a tad worse for you than alchohol, so theres that. But the health effect only applies to the stronger drugs, with weaker ones having health effects that according to some are no worse than legal alternatives. Due to this, looking at the effects of illegalisation may be more insightful.

The illegality of drugs disincentivises people from using them, this effect is boosted by the existence of legal substitutes such as alcohol. This means that when a person makes a decision they not only make it based on whether they will gain utility by consuming illicit drugs but also whether this utility gain is greater than the opportunity cost of using the time and money consuming illicit drugs as opposed to consuming a legal substitute.

Firstly, the illegality means that buying the drugs in the first place is harder. While in the case of alcohol a person can easily walk into a shop, many of which have signs identifying them as places where alcohol can be purchased, with drugs a person has to somehow find a dealer, which is tricky due to their inability to advertise. This adds an extra cost to illicit drug consumption in both terms of time and effort.

Secondly, the illegality adds an extra risk to the activity. A person who desires to relax through recreational drug use, also has to deal with the risk of being caught purchasing, carrying or using the drug. This lowers the utility of consuming drugs.

Thirdly, the utility is limited due to the consumer only being able to consume their illicit drugs in certain places. Due to the fact they need to keep their use relatively hidden, drug users are unable to consume their drugs in many social settings and choosing illicit drugs over legal substitutes may limit their ability to socialise with their non-drug using friends. This restriction limits the net utility of drugs by adding an extra opportunity cost relative to legal substitutes, for example if a person is choosing between cocaine and alcohol, this may also translate into a choice between staying at home or going to the pub with their friends respectively.

Finally, the illegality creates a disincentive in terms of both ethics and the way a person is viewed by society. On the first point, if a person does not think of himself or herself as a criminal and has a strong objection to breaking the law, then they are unlikely to consume illicit drugs while they will have no impediment from consuming alcohol. On the second, a person may fear being perceived by their social circle as either a “junkie” or a “criminal” in general and so may decide against drug use for the sake of maintaining their social standing.

So there is basically a brief analysis of why drugs are so unpopular in the form of a list of what illegalisation does to the demand for the product. Not a complete analysis admittedly, but it was written for an essay that could only be 3000 words and I'm not currently in Manchester so I'm not really in a position to focus and write new material. Also in a continuation of my laziness I do my next blog on the practice of "cutting cocaine" as that's also a bit in my essay. Either way I'll at least try do something original at some point. Not much of a promise that, but you know.

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