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Yet Another Reason to Legalise Doping in Sport: Organised Crime

Unsurprisingly, the Australian Crime Commission has found widespread use of performance enhancing drugs in sport in Australia and the involvement of organized crime in its distribution.

I have given many arguments for why it would be better for athletes, spectators and sport to liberalise laws currently banning performance enhancing drugs. I have also argued that they are likely to be involved in all sports – football, baseball, rugby, soccer, and so on, and not merely in athletics and cycling.

The Australian Crime Commission report suggests another reason to legalise drugs in sport – that would be the most effective way of reducing the involvement of organized crime in the doping market. As experience with recreational drugs has shown, bans inevitably fail, harm the user and invite crime. The way to put drug lords out of business is to legalise the substance.

When prostitution, alcohol, abortion or recreational drugs are banned, organized crime moves in to deliver the desired product or service. The best to deal with these issues is not through some fanatical moralistic war but through legalization, oversight, regulation, monitoring and harm reduction.

When will we learn?

Legalising doping won’t eradicate organized crime – there will still be match fixing. But it would protect an athlete’s health by putting doping under medical supervision, it would reduce unfairness and be a more cost-effective use of limited public resources. It would also remove the doping scandals that are ruining sport. It was done for caffeine – that was banned because it enhances performance but now it is legal. It can be done for other doping agents that can be safely administered and monitored.

It is time to wake up that prohibition always fails. And it provides the ideal breeding ground for organized crime.

The current laws might be fit for angels among a few devils, but not for human beings. Humans will try anything to be better, especially when there are huge rewards at stake, and we have to recognize that fact and frame our laws to deal with the very significant moral and psychological limitations of human beings. How can you make things reasonably fair, reasonably safe, given the very imperfect nature of human beings? The answer is not to absolutely ban all doping, but to form laws that enforceable and protect a wide range of values that are important in sport. Fairness, health, spectacular competition, test of the human spirit, physical and mental perfection are all consistent with a liberal approach to performance enhancing substances. The only barrier is an outdated attachment to the natural and a deep reverence for pure natural talent. Sportspeople enhance themselves in all sorts of ways – by training, diet, food supplementation, equipment, etc. Why should we care so much if they biologically enhance themselves within reasonable limits? The costs of worshipping the natural are significant: ruined careers, ill health, unfairness and now organized crime. Embracing the fruits of their creation is a natural and worthwhile part of the human condition. “Chariots of Fire” might have been a nice film about the past. But it was the past. Human enhancement – the project of making oneself better – is inevitable and it can be done ethically.

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13 Comment on this post

  1. You seem to suggest that whenever organized crime would move in to provide a service, that service should be legalized instead. What about the hiring of assassins? My point is not that we should ignore unintended consequences, but only that other values may also prove relevant and that the path minimizing the scope of organized crime is therefore not ipso facto the “best” approach. That said, use of performance enhancers seems to be pure malum prohibitum and therefore good candidate for legalization in light of any unintended consequences that may come up.

    It seems to me that it would be best to allow competing organizational paradigms with respect to “doping” policy and furthermore to allow the marketplace to choose. You seem intent on a sort of central planning in which the government decides what is within the rules of a sport as defined by a league or other association of players, despite that these are responsible for all the other rules. Why should the rules in question be different from others so that the State must legislate the issue? Repeal laws, remove regulatory and other de jure barriers to competition among sport organization and let people use their own aesthetic judgement about what valuation to assign for such sporting attributes as “natural talent.”

  2. “The only barrier is an outdated attachment to the natural and a deep reverence for pure natural talent. ”
    I so wish more people understood this.
    It’s tempting to believe that without doping and with everyone having the same access to training facilities, contests are truly fair.
    AND YET people also believe in natural talent and some categories of people having a physical advantage/disadvantage over others, and segregate sports by sex/gender, disability status and age.

    Yet it seems fairly obvious to me that if one truly cared about fairness so much, controlled doping of the least naturally talented(assume for a moment that could be measured reliably) would be the option that makes the most sense.
    I would at least expect this idea to be mentioned, even if rarely. But it isn’t, and if it was, I suspect it wouldn’t go well.

    I really agree with the main point of your post, but I wouldn’t be overly optimistic – the ‘natural vs artificial’hangup won’t be easy to deal with for most people.

    Even if you can get them to agree that doping does not make things unfairer, they might still be genuinely less entertained by events knowing the athletes were chemically enhanced. That’s the marketplace competition issue mentioned by Nathan, who I think has a point on that(although I find the assassination comparison is a BIG stretch)

    I don’t think athletes who use banned substances deserve significant sympathy, though.
    They willingly choose to enter a competition knowing that was against the rules.
    Yes, the rules may indeed be bad, but their application is tied to opt-in activities so, unlike recreational drugs laws(for example).

  3. “Fairness, health, spectacular competition, test of the human spirit, physical and mental perfection are all consistent with a liberal approach to performance enhancing substances.”

    Trouble is, it won’t solve the problem. In your approach there would still be rules pertaining to drug use, and there would still be advantages in breaking those rules. And the winners will generally be those who have the most money to spend, as Lance Armstrong vividly demonstrated.

    1. On the other hand, money affects much more than just access to drugs, legal or illegal. For example it enables access to the best team, the best equipment, best trainers, best travel (and therefore best resting between races) and so on. So the playing field will never be level. But opening access to safe enhancements might make it slightly more level- or at least not penalise those few who get caught taking away everything they have worked for when it increasingly appears that they are only doing what they have to to stay in the game.

  4. “or at least not penalise those few who get caught taking away everything they have worked for when it increasingly appears that they are only doing what they have to to stay in the game.”

    If it’s really what they have to do to stay in the game, this demonstrates that drug use detection is currently very inadequate. As I pointed out, allowing “safe” drugs won’t stop players using unsafe drugs (or unsafe levels of supposedly safe drugs), if they give a more marked advantage. So whatever happens, drug use detection ideally needs to become more efficient. Highly efficient detection would mean enough cheating is detected to ensure that avoiding drug use is what players will “have to do to stay in the game”.

    (sorry for the variable spelling of my first name – I’ll leave the c out from now on :-))

    1. I agree there is no perfect answer- but in a resource limited world, it should be more efficient to focus on developing effective detection only of unsafe levels/ methods than just to focus on detecting anything at all. Really they have been trying to do that for ages but even though they have an epo test, it doesn’t seem to work on micro dosing etc (which seems to be quite safe)

    2. I agree. I find the notion of “safe” drugs somewhat bizarre. Most of the drugs Julian would regulate are not safe and I doubt that there will be any new safe drugs developed. Should sports men and women be effectively forced to take unsafe drugs to stay in the game? I think the vast majority would say no, so that should be the end of the matter.

      1. A blood transfusion of one’s own blood is not really unsafe if stored properly and carried out under proper medical supervision, yet it is banned. It would certainly be more safe than riding down a mountain at 100km per hour alongside 100s of other riders at the same speed…

        And, according to a lot of the riders who have talked openly about doping, they are already effectively forced to take unsafe drugs to stay in the game. But blood transfusions are one example where the very fact it is illegal makes it unsafe. Since it is effective and virtually untraceable it is clearly very popular- forcing more people to use it to keep up. But because it is illegal and must be carried out under cover, it is hard to store the blood properly or re-insert it in proper conditions- introdcing a risk to health that would not be there in open conditions.

  5. Hi, I find your various outlines of the issues very helpful in thinking through the issue of doping. Especially the domains which are important to think through (enforceability, effects of prohibition, the fairness of what is being preserved etc). Pragmatic judgements in these domains strike me as far more useful than a rather arbitrary morality where athletes are simply “dirty” and “clean”.

    However I think it is possible to make judgements about these domains without ending up in a some what libertarian stance which, while internally consistent, may bring it’s own set of problems. Just because prohibitions are relaxed dangers don’t simply go away and new ones arise. I know the existing situation is problematic but I think you often downplay the difficulties of the alternative.

  6. The issue of use of doping is so much more complex in society than the use among a few elite athletes. If we could limit the use of performance enhancing drugs to the elite, well fine, let them take risks with their lifes. The problem is that it spreads to non-elite, or to younger athletes with ambition to be elite, and what happens then? Will they all have the best available medical expertise to help them or should they be banned from use? Well, no one can be prohibited, then they could never become elite, so it must be legalized, with a resulting wide-spread use, in unsafe doses, readily available for kids, with terrifying results.
    Or do you advocate just the use of “safe” performance enhancing like blood-doping and/or epo? The effect would be none, since there are other stuff, medically dangerous, that have important effects too, which would still be used, still supplied by criminals, and then you would have gained nothing.

  7. I agree that simply removing a prohibition does not always help improve matters (in my mind usually if the reason the prohibition exists is to control the supply of a dangerous and/or addictive product, such as the potential issue with decriminalising some illicit drugs.) However, in the case of drugs for sports it seems like the motivations behind the drug-taking are unlikely to attract a customer base other than the athletes (excluding drugs which increase muscle mass) and since taking the drugs has become almost an essential requirement to competing in these sports professionally, prohibition is probably hurting more than it is helping. If it is supposed to protect the athletes, they are commonly trying to circumvent it while being fully aware of the risks and while probably not being addicted. If it is supposed to protect the sport, it clearly is failing.

  8. The idea behind the ban on using performance enhancement drugs in sport is based on the principle of a level plain field.
    However, this principle is basically unachievable as people have different biological/genetic make up combined with different availabilities of training facilities, support teams, etc.
    So in any case the field is not level to begin with.
    Even if doping would be made legal and monitored there would always be people pushing the boundaries and taking drugs which are not monitored / approved to get an edge over all the others.
    So, while I see an improvement on lifting the ban, doesn’t it just move the barrier further without solving the issue?

    For me, the main question still remains what it means to do it reasonably and responsibly. It must be accompanied by an ethical framework that will include a change of mind set and not just legal rules.

  9. “O.K. organized crime…. You won. You’re bigger and more powerful than a government. Let’s make a deal.”
    That is basically what you are suggesting here.
    After this we could legalize kidnapping, sexual abuse on children and murder, because “prohibition always fails”. Come on…
    I don’t know the solution, but this is definitely not it. When all athletes are under equal circumstances, they will find another way to perform better than the average and so on…
    What needs to be done is punish more severely athletes who cheat and use enhancing drugs.
    We cannot just give in to crime. This would be only the start and it will definitely send a message to “organized” criminals.

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