“The Iron Law of Prohibition” offers you a powerful argument to help persuade others of the dangers of the War on Drugs.
The term was first used by Richard Cowan, longtime libertarian activist and former director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). Cowan introduced the term and the concept behind it in a 1986 cover article for the conservative magazine National Review.
The idea is simple and powerful — and it undermines some of the major arguments for drug prohibition.
In a nutshell, the Iron Law of Prohibition says that the economics of black markets inevitably creates strong incentives for dealers to sell ever-stronger, ever-more-dangerous drugs. (I’ll explain that further in a moment.) So prohibition, rather than protecting the public, actually makes drugs ever more potent and ever more dangerous for drug users, the public, and law enforcement. Prohibition is thus extremely counterproductive — even by many of the stated goals of those who favor it.
As Cowan wrote in National Review: “The Iron Law of Drug Prohibition is that the more intense the law enforcement, the more potent the drugs will become.”
Why does this happen? It’s simple economics. When drugs are prohibited, they will continue to be produced and sold in black markets. And drug smugglers and drug sellers will invariably move to sell the drugs in the most concentrated and powerful forms possible. That’s because the more potent and concentrated forms use much less space to store and smuggle, and they sell for far more money, pound-for-pound.
It’s really just common sense. If alcohol is prohibited, bootleggers can smuggle bulky low potency beer, which sells for a low price, or high potency hard liquor, which takes up no more space than beer but sells for much more. Which do you think they will choose?
History confirms it. During alcohol Prohibition there was a huge shift from beer to hard liquor, as bootleggers began focusing on the higher profits of hard liquor — exactly as you would expect, given the Iron Law of Prohibition. Even hard liquor became “harder,” more potent. After Prohibition, consumers were again free to choose among competing products, and they resumed their pre-Prohibition move towards less potent (and less dangerous) drinks.
You can see The Iron Law of Prohibition at work in the War on Drugs. When bulky opium was made illegal around the turn of the century, refined high potency heroin quickly took its place. When marijuana was targeted, smugglers turned to other high-potency, less bulky, far easier to smuggle drugs like cocaine. Bulky bags of powder cocaine were in turn replaced by tiny pellets of highly addictive crack. The same process continues to bring such dubious innovations as crystal meth, dangerous and untested “designer drugs,” and other cheaper, more dangerous, more bang-for-the-buck drugs.
Cowan summarizes the Iron Law of Prohibition in bumper sticker form: “The harder the enforcement, the harder the drugs.”
It’s called “The Iron Law” because this effect is so predictable and invariable. It’s as rock-solid as the law of supply and demand. Or even the law of gravity.
Interestingly, the exact opposite tends to happen in legal markets. Consumers tend to prefer ever milder, less potent versions. Thus the popularity of beer over hard liquor.
The Iron Law of Prohibition means that the War on Drugs strategy is futile and fatally flawed. It will inevitably bring us ever stronger and more dangerous drugs, with the concurrent deaths, health problems, crime and so forth, until it is ended.
This argument can open minds. It may not by itself convince someone to turn against the Drug War, but it is a powerful and persuasive addition to your other arguments.
To learn more about The Iron Law of Prohibition, including other negative consequences of it, check out these resources from Mark Thornton, an economist who had done outstanding work in this field:
- “Alcohol Prohibition Was A Failure,” by Mark Thornton, Cato Institute paper.
- The Economics of Prohibition by Mark Thornton (book, free to download), Mises Institute.
- “Interview: Mark Thornton on Prohibition, Marijuana and the Loss of Elite Control,” The Daily Bell, March 2, 2014.