the iron law of prohibition

June 21st, 2012

(read the book free online – get a copy for your Kindle – read the Reddit AMA)

Much like pinatas, there are a plethora of reasons to legalize marijuana.  There’s the fact that it’s easier for American teens to buy than alcohol anyways, the fact that legalizing marijuana alone would raise nearly $20 billion in taxes and savings, the fact that its illegality helps directly fund the muderous multi-billion dollar international drug trade, the fact that scientifically it’s markedly less harmful than either alcohol or tobacco:

But if you’re at all interested in the issue, you’ve likely heard all of the above arguments before. After all, our drug laws have never really been about public safety, but instead “on the belief that there is a class in society that can control themselves, and there is a class in society which cannot.”  However, one argument you may not have heard applied to America’s ongoing War on Drugs is the the Iron Law of Prohibition:

The law says that the more you try to enforce prohibition (bigger budgets, larger penalties, etc.) the more potent and dangerous prohibited drugs become. This is based on the premise that when drugs or alcohol are prohibited, they will be produced only in black markets in their most concentrated and powerful forms. If all alcohol beverages are prohibited, a bootlegger will be more profitable if he smuggles highly potent distilled liquors than if he smuggles the same volume of small beer. In addition, the black-market goods are more likely to be adulterated with unknown or dangerous substances. The government cannot regulate and inspect the production process, and harmed consumers have no recourse in law. When applied to rum-running, drug smuggling, and blockade running the more potent products become the sole focus of the suppliers.

The Iron Law is the reason bootleggers in the 1920s chose to smuggle barrels of whiskey across state borders instead of kegs of beer – much more bang for your buck, or more precisely your ounce.  And the very same way that the Prohibition of the 1920’s gave birth to our first wave of organized crime and black market profits, our modern War on Drugs has been fueling epidemics of crime and illicit profit since the seventies:

“Not only did the number of serious crimes increase, but crime became organized. Criminal groups organized around the steady source of income provided by laws against victimless crimes. In the process of providing goods and services those criminal organizations resort to real crimes in defense of sales territories, brand names, and labor contracts. That is true of extensive crime syndicates as well as street gangs.” 

Oops, that quote was actually describing alcohol Prohibition of the 1920’s – but it’s a perfectly apt description of the criminal realities created by the War on Drugs.  And not only has organized crime been given a dark hole to glean profits from, but legalizing marijuana would also indirectly help combat the virulent spread of HIV, since half of all drug arrests are marijuana-related and the War on Drugs has created a massive prison system which accelerates “the spread of the HIV pandemic by driving drug users underground, and away from healthcare, and into high risk environments like prison.” But the most obviously sign that the Iron Law is at work becomes viable when you examine the potency and popularity of the drugs being abused:

Opiate production has grown 380% in recent decades, and in the US, drugs have become more cheaper and more potent since the drug war started — despite the rising expenditure by the US government on the drug war.”

And it’s not just heroin. The Iron Law is also the reason other truly dangerous and concentrated drugs like crystal meth and oxycodone are becoming so prolific and prevalent – when illegality is an issue, drug dealers are going to be sure they’re moving the most valuable product, pound-for-pound.  In our modern American case, the Iron Law applies to drug dealers as a whole – if they’re going to sell illegal drugs, they’re going to focus on selling the more concentrated drugs that turn the largest profit, and so the use of harder more dangerous drugs explodes as soon as they’re introduced to the market .

Depending on where you are, a pound of weed will generally run you somewhere around $1,500, whereas a pound of crystal meth will put you back close to $15,000 in most states.  Pricing oxy is a bit trickier, but if “1,123 pills of oxycodone have a street value of around $48,000” – assuming we’re dealing with the standard 30mg pill, then an even pound would be worth right around $64,5000. In pricing illegal narcotics, the Iron Law of Prohibition is quite clearly alive and well.

Now don’t get me wrong here, Breaking Bad is a terrific freaking show, but it’s about the only way crystal meth has made any sort of a positive cultural contribution – meth has been ripping the poorest and most desperate elements of our society apart at the seams for well-over a decade now.

Whereas marijuana isn’t actually physically addictive at all (it’s only psychologically addictive, which puts it in the same category as dangerous substances such as milk chocolate), meth addiction is one of the toughest physical addictions to kick – full withdrawal can take up to a year.  And while cocaine and heroine require the support of multi-billion dollar international cartels that stretch from Columbia to Afghanistan, you can crank out crystal meth in the nearest garage or trailer home.

Which is exactly what millions in America’s heartland have been doing, it rose to prominence as the USA’s top drug problem according to law enforcement in 2005, just about tripling the percentage of the second most problematic drug:

 The survey received responses from 500 county law enforcement agencies in 45 states. 58% of counties in the survey said that methamphetamine was their largest drug problem followed by cocaine (19%), marijuana (17%) and heroin (3%) as the most problematic drug for each county.

Stricter laws around the sale of Sudafed, a precursor for meth’s main ingredient, caused its usage to drop over the next few years before rebounding throughout the nation, especially the Midwest.  States from Michigan to Missouri have seen a sharp increase in crystal meth abuse since 2008.

Oxycodone, often referred to by its brand name “OxyContin,” has also been ravaging the American heartland since the turn of the century, although its users are often unintentional addicts who get hooked after first getting through a legitimate prescription:

According to a study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, there was a fourfold increase nationally in treatment admissions for prescription pain pill abuse during the past decade. The increase spans every age, gender, race, ethnicity, education, employment level and region.

“You could leave a bag of cocaine on the street and no one would touch it, but leave one OxyContin in the back of an armored car and they’ll blow it up to get at it.”

Incredibly physically addictive, in a sense oxy is much worse than meth in that it’s much deadlier. In the state of Kentucky alone the rate of overdose-related death tripled for women and doubled for men over the past decade. Often riding their way up from Florida along the I-75 ” Oxy Express,” the tiny pills  caused 11,000 American overdose deaths in 2007, triple the number of corpses it produced in 2000 and more than either heroin or cocaine.  In case it hasn’t been mentioned yet, marijuana overdoses have yet to kill a single American, ever.

When our original Prohibition finally ended, the national homicide rate dropped off dramatically, and the organized crime syndicates which had used illicit sales to fund their vast empires finally began to wither and die.  To battle its growing epidemics of crack and freebase cocaine, Uruguay recently unveiled plans to nationalize marijuana– effectively legalizing it and selling it through national dispensaries. And according to the Iron Law, doing the same here in America would help curtail our lethal growing epidemics of crystal meth and oxy abuse.

It’s easy to pretend that the War on Drugs isn’t affecting everyday life too much here in America, that is unless you’re in an innercity like Chicago which over the last three weekends saw 20 shooting deaths on top of 113 injuries, many of them gang-related and all of them tied to the disintegration of our innercity communities which began in tandem with the War on Drugs.

But American hasn’t seen anything close to the drug related violence that’s been our second prohibition’s dark passenger since its inception. Over 50,000 Mexicans have been murdered in the past six-years in acts of drug-related violence, during which time Mexico’s per-capita murder rate has doubled.

In the same way that alcohol Prohibition of the 1920’s created the classy fedora and Tommy Gun toting gangsters and wanton violence of that era, the modern War on Drugs created the modern gangsta’ – who may be lookin’ like a fool with his pants on the ground, but probably also has few other economic options in front of him.  And the stereotype of the black gangsta’ is now so strong, that just being brown means that in the past year you likely would’ve been stopped and frisked by the police whether or not you’re engaging in any illicit activities:

Last year, NYPD stopped nearly 700,000 people. Shockingly, 87 percent of those stopped were black or Latino. Of those stopped, more than half were also frisked.

During the ten years of the Bloomberg administration, police have performed 4,356,927 stops. Of African-American males between the ages 14 to 24, the number of stops last year was greater than their total population — meaning that if you’re a part of this demographic, the odds were that you were stopped more than once just this past year. 

Marijuana is far and away the least dangerous Schedule I controlled substance, its categorization there as a drug with a high potential for abuse and no accepted medical use is beyond asinine.  And all the science aside, Portugal’s decriminalization of all drugs was unarguably a success:

In the five years after personal possession was decriminalized, illegal drug use among teens in Portugal declined and rates of new HIV infections caused by sharing of dirty needles dropped, while the number of people seeking treatment for drug addiction more than doubled.  “Judging by every metric, decriminalization in Portugal has been a resounding success,” says Glenn Greenwald, an attorney, author and fluent Portuguese speaker, who conducted the research. “It has enabled the Portuguese government to manage and control the drug problem far better than virtually every other Western country does.”

Jumping right in to all-out decriminalization of all drugs will probably remain politically unpalatable, but starting with legalizing marijuana could serve as an incredibly useful and viable case study.  Legalizing weed would provide a safe and regulated alternative to Americans who are looking to get high, provide billions of dollars of revenue, and it could save quite literally thousands of lives every year.

But odds are, until the disastrous socioeconomic realities caused directly by the War on Drugs become impossible to ignore for every wealthy middle-class American, we’ll continue to try and smoke, snort, or inject away the quiet desperation of so many of our lives, as hundreds of thousands are slaughtered south of our border and millions of our neighbors are judicially ushered behind bars that lock their families permanently out of the American Dream.


Category: Breaking Bad, controlled substance, crystal meth, drug violence, gangsters, legalize marijuana, legalize weed, marijuana, news, organized crime, oxycodone abuse, oxycontin, politics, prison system, Prohibition, racial inequality, reform, war on drugs | Tags: , , , , , , 14 comments »

14 Responses to “the iron law of prohibition”

  1. Ryan

    Love the article, though when I read the line ” a pound of weed will generally run you somewhere under a grand” I wasn’t very pleased. That’s prices for terrible cannabis. Those are mexican brick prices. Even in northern california prices of good indoor are much more then that. 62 dollars for an ounce of bud, even in the weed mecca of california, is what one would pay for brick or really, really crappy outdoor. Possibly even bud that has been contaminated with mites, mold, etc that someone is trying to move.

    Great article, I just think that it does some people a disservice to say that cannabis goes for 1000 a pound when good indoor will sell extremely fast at 3000 a pound! If people are selling it in quantaties of 3.5 and 7 grams you can sell a pound for 6-7k of quality indoor.

    I’ve seen high quality greenhouse go for 1600 a pound, but that was straight from the grower prices.

    TtD: I’ve never actually bought or used the ganj so I really had no idea and just eyeballed the numbers from that site, it seems to be fairly cost-of-living state dependent, but I’ll go ahead and bump it up to $1,500 in the article. Thanks for taking the time to comment!!

  2. ian

    Please tell me where I can buy a pound of good weed for under a grand. I need to get in touch with your guy.

    TtD: Just follow the link for the state-by-state pricing guide, probably gonna require a bit of a field trip… and I have no idea how accurate those numbers are, I’m open to corrections

  3. Luke

    Great article. However, I will echo what these guys are saying. Even $1,500 is schwag price. A GREAT deal I used to get on a green quarter pound was $900, and that price held across multiple states.

    The lowest price on a pound of good stuff would be about $3,200. You’d only see that during times of very high volume.

    TtD: Alright alright, I’ll see what else the drug-dealing cat drags in and possibly clarify “schwag” in the article or raise the price range… but again at least from that site it seems like the price varies a lot from state to state, so it seems like it’d be hard to pin down exactly.

  4. Dulst

    I’m shocked that the graph lists solvents as less harmful than weed.

    TtD: Yeah it was from the BBC so seemed pretty legit and all, I think the scale factors in social harm done as well and since solvents are so rarely used it’s hard to get a good measure – but I’m not sure. However it’s been pretty well established elsewhere that weed is a lot less damaging and dangerous than either nicotine or alcohol

  5. Ananonymouspothead

    Its true, :3

  6. Ian

    Very good article. Where does this quote come from?

    “You could leave a bag of cocaine on the street and no one would touch it, but leave one OxyContin in the back of an armored car and they’ll blow it up to get at it.”

    I find it hard to believe that this is from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration, and for me it weakened the article because it is an obvious exaggeration.

    TtD: The quote was from the same article that was linked just above the big block-quote I believe, unless I got mixed up somehow. You should be able to google it either way… yeah I just checked, both quotes in the box are from the McClatchy article that’s linked in the red above

  7. Riddel

    Here is an ironbound truth 🙁 if your local liquor were selling crack along with alcohol there would be alot more crackheads. This is true with a pot dealer I have seen most push the harder more profitable drugs.

  8. ttam

    Great article. Well written and some good quotes. I must echo some of the other comments regard the price of green though. I’m from South Western Ontario, Canada and between the years 2004-2012 the price of shit weed was between $1400-$2100 and the price of good stuff was $2800-$4200 and as far as I know, we paid significantly less than Michigan, Ohio, New York and many other states.

    TtD: This is awesome, apparently the internet sucks at pricing bud

  9. “Legalizing marijuana would help fight the lethal and growing epidemics of crystal meth and oxycodone abuse, according to the Iron Law of Prohibition” « InvestmentWatch

    […] Be Sociable, Share! Tweet June 25th, 2012 | […]

  10. Derek

    If you a regular smoker of marijuana in the United States I think it is crazy to want legalization at this point.

    For one, it’s relatively easy to smoke weed with impunity as it is. If you are caught it is generally because you were doing something stupid (e.g. driving, drawing attention to yourself). The penalties for being caught with weed for a first time offender are a smack on the wrist and far less punitive than a DUI (which involves a legal substance). As evidenced by recent declarations the trend is for law enforcement to increasingly ignore possession of small amounts (or in the case of NY – 28 grams!).

    The only potential for trouble is the possession of large amounts for intent to distribute. This is a separate issue as it involves making a large amount of income tax-free (when the government starts to care).

    Finally, why would any user of marijuana want the government involved in pricing and taxing of it? Right now, the market sets the price (I know it is inflated because of it illegality). Some of you will say that legalization will increase supply and thus lower price accordingly. I don’t see any possible way a politician would be able to sell legalization if the consequence were to make marijuana any cheaper than it already is. In fact, I see it going the way of tobacco, facing consistent raises in both state and federal taxes to make up for revenue shortfalls. We’ll all be paying $150/gram or higher if this happens.

  11. Fried2

    Try Manitoba…$230-320/ounce…you got it good

  12. JdC

    For all you complaining about his estimated cost for a pound of weed being low, you should know I have purchased pounds for $300 and no it isn’t mexican brick.

  13. Brandt Hardin

    The War on Drugs failed $1 Trillion ago! This money could have been used for outreach programs to clean up the bad end of drug abuse by providing free HIV testing, free rehab, and clean needles. Harmless drugs like marijuana could be legalized to help boost our damaged economy. Cannabis can provide hemp for countless natural resources and the tax revenue from sales alone would pull every state in our country out of the red! Vote Teapot, PASS IT, and legalize it. Voice you opinion with the movement and read more on my artist’s blog at

  14. peterparker656

    Why would America want to decriminalization/legalize weed?

    Everything you can make with Crude oil you can make with Hemp oil, and it just so happens that Crude oil is worth alot more then Hemp oil… oh and look how fast hemp grows compared to 700 year old trees that are being cut down for paper use… did you know that the Declaration of Independence was written on Hemp Paper?


    22YO from UK

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