Academic journal article Journal of Drug Issues

The Potency of Illegal Drugs

Academic journal article Journal of Drug Issues

The Potency of Illegal Drugs

Article excerpt

The high potency of narcotics is used as a justification for making them illegal. An economic analysis of drug potency shows that public policies such as excise taxes and prohibitions provide the incentives to make and consume more potent drugs and that such policies provide an economic "gateway" for the introduction of new, highly potent drugs. Historical evidence from national alcohol prohibition and the war on drugs supports these findings.


Potency is a critical issue in the policy debate and analysis of illegal drugs. Prohibitionists argue that drugs, such as heroin, should be outlawed because they are highly potent, addictive, and dangerous. From this view, high potency makes these drugs "mind-altering" and causes consumers to become socially irresponsible and criminal.1

Prohibitionists also argue that drugs such as marijuana need to be legally forbidden because they are "gateway" drugs. They argue that many users become accustomed to the marijuana high and seek out more potent substitutes. In this view, marijuana is a gateway drug because users are enticed through a series of progressively more potent and dangerous drugs, culminating in heroin addiction, overdose, and death.2

In the policy debate on illegal drugs, the effects of high potency have become an effective political justification for continuing the war on drugs. Prohibitionists can point to the deaths from cocaine use, the powerful effects that crack cocaine and PCP have on users, overdoses from heroin, and large numbers of crack babies as reasons for maintaining or intensifying prohibition. The strength of this argument is illustrated by the lack of public opposition to such stringent measures as the use of military, foreign eradication programs, property forfeiture laws, minimum mandatory sentences, and increased violations of privacy and personal liberties by law enforcement agencies (Bennett 1992).

The problems that prohibitionists point to are real social problems and are not in dispute here (Thornton 1991b and Staley 1992). Instead, an economic model of product characteristics is employed in the next section to examine the issue of drug potency, explain the existence of hazardous drug products, and determine the impact of public policy on drug potency and quality.3 Although the potency of prohibited drugs will be the major emphasis of this study, the third section of the paper will address the potency of drugs in unregulated markets.4 This will establish a basic economic model of drug potency and provide the baseline environment for understanding the effects of public policies such as prohibition and the potential impact of legalization on drug potency.

The fourth section investigates the impact of government intervention on drug potency. A prominent form of government intervention into legal drug markets, the excise tax, is shown to increase drug potency. The fifth section examines the potency of drugs in prohibited markets. This extreme form of government intervention has the predictable effect of dramatically increasing potency. Prohibition is also shown to increase variability in drug potency and purity and to decrease the dispersion of knowledge about drug potency and purity. The final section reviews the impact of public policy on drug potency and argues that relegalization would create a safer environment for drug consumers and reduce the problems associated with both drug abuse and drug prohibition.5

The Economics of Drug Potency

Every product is composed of many characteristics or attributes. An automobile, for example, has size, shape, color, passenger capacity, cargo capacity, engine size, gas efficiency, and a variety of other features. Even a relatively simple product such as a potato, has a variety of characteristics that distinguish it from other potatoes such as size, color, and type (i.e. baking, Irish, new, sweet, canned, or instant).

Consumers choose brands that offer them the best combination of characteristics relative to the price of the product. …

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