Academic journal article Economic Inquiry

What's Legal and What's Not: The Regulation of Opiates in 1912

Academic journal article Economic Inquiry

What's Legal and What's Not: The Regulation of Opiates in 1912

Article excerpt

This paper develops a model to explain state-level opiate regulation in 1912. The personal choice of whether to engage in mainstream or deviant activity is determined by consumption technology and market prices, and voting determines the legality of deviant behavior. Voting outcomes depend on population characteristics including diversity, tolerance, visiblilty of deviance, and the distribution of consumption efficiencies. A logit equation whose dependent variable is the presence of a state opiate prescription law is estimated. Results broadly support the collective choice model and disconfirm the role of interest groups, particularly physicians, in determining prescription regulation.


Alcohol and nicotine may be the most dangerous drugs sold today. Considering their effects on health and accidents, legal restrictions on the sale and private use of tobacco and alcohol are minor. Some currently illegal substances, including marijuana and opiates, might in fact be less harmful than alcohol and tobacco ff used in moderation. Why are some commodities legal and others not? Economists should be interested in the question for two reasons. The first is that the work of non-economists often uses economic metaphors. A number of historians have described the prohibition of alcohol and opiates in America in terms of interest-group politics.(1) Economists, however, have yet to explain these episodes using their own models of regulation and collective choice. The second reason is that the historical facts are dramatic enough to tax the explanatory power of economics. Between 1890 and 1920, private transactions in alcohol and opiates went from being virtually unregulated by the federal government to complete illegality.(2) This change in legal status was not a response to new scientific knowledge about the substances.

Becker's model of household production |1981, chs. 1 and 2~ formalizes the questions at issue. lannaccone |1988~ has recently used Becker's model to analyze the sociological distinction between mainstream churches and religious sects. Assuming individuals have differing consumption technologies, he derives propositions about the characteristics of religious sects and their members. Iannaccone |1988, $242-45~ notes that churches are characterized by inclusivity, and sects by exclusivity. Church members have more heterogeneous beliefs, socialize mainly with people from outside their church, and place few demands on their church for non-religious support services. Churches are more tolerant of diverse behavior and place fewer restrictions on the conduct of members. Church members span a wider range of demographics than do sect members. They are on average economically better off than sect members, but sect members contribute more funds to their institutions.

The distinction between churches and sects is analogous to that between licit and illicit drug use. Drug users are demographically more homogeneous than nonusers, more poorly socialized, and more likely to spend a major portion of their time in drug-related activity.(3) They have lower productivity than alcohol or tobacco users, both at work and in household consumption,(4) and are more likely to restrict themselves to companions with similar consumption patterns. Kandel and Maloff |1983~ suggest that learning to use drugs in the subculture resembles an initiation into the rites and beliefs of a deviant sect. According to Winick |1974~, the exit from drug-taking, like that from a sect, is often a total "burnout" to zero use which occurs at a predictable time. The church-sect model yields such predictions about drug use and generalizes individualistic models of that activity.(5)

In the next section, I model an individual who receives utility from consumption itself and from the attitude or state of mind in which consumption takes place. Consumption and attitude are the outputs of household production functions. After deriving the optimum in a two-activity model I analyze the choice between mainstream and deviant attitudinal activities. …

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