Black market, black heart

Another reader asks my opinion of Hilzoy's piece on Cambodian destruction of the environment to produce ecstasy.

Apparently, the workers who distill the sassafras oil also eat and sell endangered species. Great.

Back in the day, when I was more attuned to these things, people didn't seem to think much about the social and environmental effects of illicit drug use. That always seemed to me to be an odd blind spot: I knew plenty of people who worked for various good causes by day, and supported organizations that helped to destroy inner-city neighborhoods by night, for instance, without noticing the conflict between their principles and their use of cocaine. I suspect that that has changed. I hope so.

Well, I recommend that you not buy Thai ecstasy, which is apparently where the questionable sassafrass oil is going.  Luckily, I am under the impression that most American ecstasy is prepared in illegal Mexican facilities, which make their ecstasy the old fashioned way--with toxic chemicals.

More to the point, it's not enough to note that this is bad; you need a reasonable picture of the world absent the drug trade.  And it's not clear to me that it's better.  First of all, the high profitability of the sassafrass oil is undoubtedly making some Cambodians richer.  I've been to Cambodia.  They live in dire, appalling poverty, and making them richer is something we should all be trying to do by whatever means come to hand.  So I'd say you have to weigh their welfare against that of the rare trees.  My instinct is to side with the poverty-stricken humans.

As to whether one should trade in US black markets for drugs, knowing that those markets create violence--well, I'm somewhat skeptical that Hilzoy is acquainted with many of the people who frequent the really violence-prone drug markets, which tend to specialize in crystal meth and crack.  I know people who have done both, but not more than once or twice, because they had plans that didn't involve sleeping in a squat in West Baltimore.  The market for marijuana, the drug of choice for most well meaning young leftists, is not quite the same as the drug markets in The Wire.

Most people who smoke crack and/or crystal meth regularly are not going to worry about the social implications, because they're too worried about their teeth falling out or their boss firing them.  My understanding is that the violence in the powder cocaine market tends to happen further up the supply chain, like in Colombia, where the trade is in kilos and hundredweights, not grams.  The marginal contribution of cocaine purchased the way most poor young leftie larvae buy it--a gram or two for special occasions*--is probably not worth worrying about, any more than you worry about your beach vacation's contribution to coastline erosion.

The pernicious effects of the drug trade, both at home and abroad, are a very good reason to support legalization--they're mostly side effects of the black market profits.  And there are some markets, like that for crystal meth, that I'd recommend you stay out of for all sorts of reasons.  But as for more anodyne drugs . . . well, I'm not going to tell you to take drugs.  But if you decide to, I wouldn't worry too much about the sassafrass trees.

* I mean, those who do.  Most such people of my acquaintance don't.  But a propos of nothing, isn't it nice that our young people have such an attractive way to learn the metric system?