Britigne Shaffer, CATO Institute, Controlled Substances Act, Dan Kahan, DEA, Donald Trump, Drug War, Jeff Sessions, Jeffrey Miron, Mandatory Minimum Sentences, Michael Owen, Milton Friedman, On the Banks, Prohibition, Scott Sumner
Drug prohibition and the war on drugs are destructive policies and most burdensome to communities that can least afford it: impoverished and often minority neighborhoods. Drug laws and their enforcement likely account for the bulk of homicides that occur there, directly or indirectly. A post on SacredCowChips last week discussed the violence that frequently beleaguers communities that are home to unassimilated minorities. Drug prohibition compounds the tragedy in several ways: deadly rivalry among supplier organizations; violent confrontations with law enforcement; user criminality; drug-related incarceration; degraded user productivity; and tainted supplies that exacerbate health risks for users.
Ultimately, bad laws are distinguished by their failure to achieve broad compliance. The thing is, people who want to do drugs will do so regardless of their legality. Most recreational users are sufficiently imbued with a survival instinct and the self-control to govern their use effectively, without ostensible harm. Nearly all recreational users believe they are engaging in a harmless activity, and most of them are right. That is, quite simply, why the drug war just doesn’t work, and it won’t ever work. It doesn’t work for pot, LSD, cocaine, or anything else, including opioids and heroin. (Also see this.)
Prohibition, however, delivers the drug trade into the hands of gangs and mobsters. The supply side of the business attracts individuals having few legitimate market opportunities, who happen to be concentrated in economically depressed neighborhoods. The drug trade’s illegality transforms it into a risky and violent enterprise, and efforts to enforce prohibition magnify those dangers and expose law enforcement to great risk as well. Then, there are the effects of mass incarceration on individuals and their home communities. The situation is self-reinforcing, adding to the instability of these struggling areas.
There is ample evidence that drug prohibition is a driver of crime and responsible for a large number of homicides in the U.S. A Chicago prosecutor was quoted by HuffPo in 2013 as saying that 80% of homicides in the city were gang-related, and therefore primarily drug-related. Economist Jeffrey Miron has linked drug prohibition to international differences in violent crime rates. Scott Sumner has this take on the drug war and crime rates, including a brief analysis of the drop in homicides (40%) after alcohol prohibition was repealed. In 1991, Milton Friedman stated that the repeal of drug laws would eliminate about 10,000 U.S. homicides every year, which at the time would have been about a 40% reduction. And here is Yale’s Dan Kahan on the subject of drug laws and homicide:
“The weight of the evidence pretty convincingly shows that drug-related homicides generated as a consequence of drug prohibition are tremendously high and account for much of the difference in the homicide rates in the U.S. and those in comparable liberal market societies.“
In my last post on the U.S. homicide rate, I drew on Britigne Shaffer’s On the Banks blog post entitled “Michael Owen Nails the Gun Debate“. As log as we have prohibition and a drug war, the U.S. homicide rate is likely to exceed most other industrialized countries:
“We have a system in place where the government subsidizes poverty in urban areas, imposes economic blight in those same areas through heavy taxes and regulations, renders the residents permanently unemployable via the ‘criminal justice’ (sic) system, and creates a lucrative black market in drugs by restricting supply (not to mention increasing demand as people are desperate to escape their circumstances by getting high), meaning the only game in town is often entering the drug trade. The drug trade is violent because those in it have no access to courts to settle disputes. Powerful industries lobby to keep the drug war going; the top spenders are law enforcement unions, the prison industry, big alcohol, tobacco, and pharma.“
The CATO Institute‘s Handbook for Policymakers, Issue #23, advocates the following: repeal of the Controlled Substances Act; allowing states to pursue their own initiatives without federal interference; complete repeal of mandatory minimum sentences; and termination of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). These actions would allow the federal government to focus its resources on real threats, rather than fighting an unending war with an underworld empowered by those very laws, and with Americans who wish to exercise freedom over their use of drugs for medicinal or recreational use. From the CATO Handbook:
“Repeal of prohibition would take the astronomical profits out of the drug business and destroy the drug kingpins who terrorize parts of our cities. It would reduce crime even more dramatically than did the repeal of alcohol prohibition. Not only would there be less crime: reform would also free federal agents to concentrate on terrorism and espionage and would free local police agents to concentrate on robbery, burglary, and violent crime. … The war on drugs has lasted longer than Prohibition, longer than the Vietnam War. Prohibition has failed, again, and should be repealed, again.”
Despite the destructive effects of prohibition, a great many Americans—and politicians—base their opinions about drug laws on flawed moral reasoning that somehow it is more “wrong” or more “dangerous” to do drugs than to drink alcohol, itself a drug posing great danger to abusers, but a legal one. Responsible drug use, like responsible drinking, is a victimless act, or would be without the engagement of underworld suppliers. But it’s clear that President Donald Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions are committed to a continuation of the failed drug war, as are a majority of both Democrats and Republicans in Congress. The drug-related killings will continue, as will the ongoing damage to so many American families and communities. The refusal to end the drug war is a tragedy of many tragedies past and future.