– October 25, 2017

Every morning as I check my Twitter feed, like clockwork, there are 140-character proclamations of the miracles that blockchain technology will work for our society. But one of those headlines particularly caught my eye this morning: “Betting On Blockchain As A Miracle Cure For The $78 Billion Opioid Crisis.” To be fair, the article from September by Susan Galer is far more reasoned than the headline, but it largely ignores the law of unintended consequences we encounter in our nation’s “war on drugs.”

The article says all the right things about blockchain technology. Historically, the leakage of prescription opioid pills at many stages of the supply chain, from warehousing to over-prescription by doctors, has contributed to the epidemic now on our hands. And blockchains tend to do well with keeping detailed records of supply chains, even if it would take a lot to get doctors and medical professionals to adopt seemingly opaque technology.

But we’ve seen this movie already in the past few years, not using blockchain technology but through other means of cracking down on prescription narcotics entering the black market. The result has been one of the more tragic examples of the law of unintended consequences. Rather than alleviate the problems opioid dependence has caused, it has led to a near-doubling in some places of heroin use. Overdoses are significantly higher because it’s not possible to predict the strength of the substance procured on the black market as it is with prescription pills.

Better tracking of prescription drugs would certainly have benefits, but in the end it represents a central fallacy in our drug policy: that authorities can successfully keep drugs away from potential users. Instead, it pushes those mostly likely to abuse drugs to more dangerous substances, while perhaps making it harder for those who actually need the medication for pain.

We’re more likely to make headway when we decriminalize less harmful substances, such as marijuana. To be fair, this is far from a silver bullet, but at least increases rather than reduces one’s freedom of choice. There’s currently robust debate about where blockchain technology will and won’t make a difference, but unfortunately, I think it’s safe to say it won’t be a “miracle cure” for the opioid epidemic.

Max Gulker

Max Gulker is an economist and writer who joined AIER in 2015. His research focuses on two main areas: policy and technology. On the policy side, Gulker looks at how issues like poverty and access to education can be addressed with voluntary, decentralized approaches that don’t interfere with free markets. On technology, Gulker is interested in emerging fields like blockchain and cryptocurrencies, competitive issues raised by tech giants such as Facebook and Google, and the sharing economy. Gulker frequently appears at conferences, on podcasts, and on television. Gulker holds a PhD in economics from Stanford University and a BA in economics from the University of Michigan. Prior to AIER, Max spent time in the private sector, consulting with large technology and financial firms on antitrust and other litigation. Follow @maxgAIER.
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