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August 20, 2013

We’re taught that illegal drugs are a scourge on humanity, that their use is immoral and that legalization is out of the question. Yet far more of us, our friends, and our loved ones have been intimate with the destructive effects of alcohol and dependency on legal drugs than on illegal drugs. Pharmacologically, the “worst effects” of illegal drugs are no worse than the well-known effects of alcohol abuse. In fact, the “worst effects” have more to do with prohibition than with the illegal drugs themselves.

Rules are codified into law successfully when widespread agreement exists among the citizenry that a rule is sensible. This should trouble drug prohibitionists: a substantial proportion of the population has used illegal drugs as adults, indicating a strong lack of consensus that recreational drugs should be illegal. For this reason alone, drug prohibition is and always will be ineffectual.

The great economist Milton Friedman was a long-time critic of the drug war. Several of his articles on the topic are linked at this site. One of the links is this interview from 1992, which is lengthy but sticks primarily to the issue of the drug war. I’m not sure that all of the facts Friedman cites have held up over time, especially with respect to trends in alcohol consumption. Nevertheless, it is a great interview:

There are [sic] an enormous number of innocent victims now. You’ve got the people whose purses are stolen, who are bashed over the head by people trying to get enough money for their next fix. You’ve got the people killed in the random drug wars. You’ve got the corruption of the legal establishment. You’ve got the innocent victims who are taxpayers who have to pay for more and more prisons, and more and more prisoners, and more and more police. You’ve got the rest of us who don’t get decent law enforcement because all the law enforcement officials are busy trying to do the impossible.

Here is a brief list of the pernicious effects of drug prohibition:

  • Prices are driven upward by the legal risk inherent in black market trade;
  • High prices lead to more crime as heavy users seek means of payment;
  • Impure and more dangerous variants are traded in attempts to stretch quantities and increase potency;
  • Dealers advance “samples” to gain trust and cultivate dependency among users;
  • Addiction is stubbornly resistant to legal barriers;
  • Unnecessary deaths from impure and excessively potent drug varieties;
  • Black market trade leads to violent crime as underworld elements seek to control markets and enforce discipline in their organizations;
  • Unnecessary deaths from gangland violence;
  • Arrest, imprisonment and ruined lives for victimless crimes;
  • A huge burden on taxpayers;
  • A huge burden on the criminal justice system;
  • Inevitable corruption in law enforcement as officials face hefty rewards for protecting the drug trade;
  • Innocent people become casualties of violence instigated by gangs and sometimes by police actions.

A fascinating dynamic of the black market in drugs is the tendency toward monopolization at the top: Large cartels dominate the importation of supplies due to the risk and expense of such operations. As Friedman noted, the war on drugs contributes to the difficulty of entering into competition with established players. At the same time, the drug war guarantees huge rewards to the cartels by inflating drug prices:

What more could a monopolist want? He’s got a government who makes it very hard for all his competitors and who keeps the price of his products high.

The drug war creates greater danger for users. In “Prohibition Kills“, Jacob Sullum discusses four recent examples of more dangerous and even deadly drug variants that have been developed as a direct consequence of prohibition. Friedman is often quoted as saying that crack cocaine was a direct consequence of the drug war. Sullum asks whether this could be an intentional strategy by drug warriors for discouraging consumption. I’m not convinced they are quite so nefarious, but it’s something to ponder.

More dangerous varieties of drugs would not vanish overnight if drugs were legalized, though the incentive to develop them would diminish. Of course, if legalization brings prices and risks down, as we’d expect, it would encourage greater recreational use. That should not be viewed as a “bad” any more than better access to cocktails at happy hour. Abuse is unlikely to increase because problem users tend to be undeterred by prohibition. And as unsavory as an increase in recreational drug use might seem to the temperance faction, it would still represent only a small fraction of the real costs of ruined lives imposed by prohibition and the drug war.

Legalization would bring other complexities, as Colorado’s experience with marijuana shows. For example, rules with respect to driving under the influence must be updated, as well as laws prohibiting possession by minors. Colorado went so far as to regulate packaging, and tax treatment of the drug trade will stoke debate, as governments will hope for something of a tax bonanza. But the more that government attempts to regulate and tax drugs, the more that problems similar to those associated with drug prohibition will persist, albeit on a smaller scale.

Economically, legalization should eliminate a burden on taxpayers. It would free up law enforcement resources to battle real crime and should make more funds available for treatment programs. It would also help to improve lives and safety in inner cities and other areas ravaged by black market drug trade and the violence it foments. And of course, legalization would put an end to the ruin of lives caused by the arrest of individuals for victimless crimes.

Prohibition of drugs belongs to a larger class of social problems brought on by efforts to bring the police power of government to bear on private behavior. I already mentioned that alcohol prohibition had similar consequences. To lesser degrees, similar harmful consequences are associated with laws against prostitution, large soft drink containers, sugary foods, and practicing almost any commercial art without a license. The same can be said for price regulations like rent control and the minimum wage. The former has led to the destruction of vast quantities of housing; the latter harms low-skilled workers along non-wage dimensions and makes it difficult for unskilled workers to gain valuable experience in the job market. Government interference with individual liberty might well restrain certain activities deemed “undesirable” by busybodies, but it it also leads to higher prices, greater risk, black market activity, violence, unnecessary legal actions against individuals, and greater expense for society.