I think it’s time we reconsider the Prohibition of illicit drugs which have produced a number of negative consequences.

On the domestic side, this led to overcrowding of prisons with non-violent drug users (most marijuana), an inefficient waste of police resources, and a loss of civil liberties.

On the foreign side, the global illicit drug trade has fueled the rise of transnational criminal organizations and a massive global black market.

The foreign aspect of this worries me more, but I realize this is a more abstract threat. To simplify, the drug trade is about supply and demand. There are consumers who choose to use a drug, so someone will supply it. Constricting the supply, at best, raises the price of the drug without lowering the demand. The drug war targets the supply, but this has not had an effect at constricting supplies.

Criminals are versatile and flexible. They can grow and refine drugs in ungoverned regions in failed states like Colombia, Peru, Indonesia, and Afghanistan, and easily smuggle them into wealthier states where the consumers are. Worse yet, these criminals, like those in Colombia and Afghanistan, fund military insurgencies aiming to overthrow the governments.

Interdiction of smuggling is ineffective as well. Smugglers disperse their traffic. For example, if you want to smuggle 1000 lbs of cocaine across the Mexican-US border, you give 100 runners 10lbs each. You figure one or two of the runners will steal their goods and you won’t do business with them again. A few more will be captured by police. But most will get through safely. Smugglers distribute their risks and bypass interdiction efforts.

To make an analogy, the Prohibition of alcohol in the 1920s created a massive black market controlled by criminal kingpins like Al Capone. Ending Prohibition broke the power of the mafias. Modern Prohibition produced many Al Capones who like to dabble in politics and start wars.

The 1994 RAND study “Controlling Cocaine: Supply Versus Demand Programs” studied the cost effectiveness of “(1) source country control; (2) interdiction; (3) domestic enforcement; and (4) treatment of heavy users.”
(full pdf article)

The additional spending required to achieve the specified consumption reduction is $783 million for source-country control, $366 million for interdiction, $246 million for domestic enforcement, or $34 million for treatment. The least costly supply-control program (domestic enforcement) costs 7.3 times as much as treatment to achieve the same consumption reduction.

Treatment is the cheapest and most cost-effective way of handling the problem. It ignores the supply of drugs and concentrates on reducing demand. It funds clinics to help patients overcome addictions.

I add that liberalization with treatment is the cheapest and most cost-effective solution. The Dutch liberalization solution has worked reasonably well and is cost-effective. The Dutch have lower consumption rates than the US. This is particularly true of Marijuana, which is not a dangerous or violence inducing drug in the first place.

The civil liberties question is another consideration. Originally, President Nixon allocated the bulk of anti-drug funding to treatments. It was President Reagan who slashed treatment funding and made the Drug War a real war, but attacking the source of the supply in Colombia and elsewhere.

The so-called war escalated under the Clinton Administration which passed the most draconian anti-drug domestic laws in history. These laws were more severe and expansive than the Patriot Act that receives and inordinate amount of attention. State laws are often as bad, such as New York’s Rockefeller Drug Laws.

This creates a vicious cycle with only politicians benefiting. Prohibition pushes the drug economy underground where local and international criminals control the trade instead of legal businessmen. This leads to skyrocketing crime rates and a greater call to crack down on crime. Police, who I really do respect, will exceed their boundaries due and abuse their power under these circumstances. Politicians seem to benefit from this crisis, because all they have to do is promise to throw more money on the fire. Throwing money on a fire means they care.

Not to mention that the resources are better spent elsewhere. Perhaps the government should not use coercion to enforce morality.

I don’t see an end to the Drug War in the near future. Instead of pushing for legalization of marijuana and treatment programs for cocaine and heroin, politicians act like they wish to outlaw tobacco too. It makes good election slogans, even if it would create tobacco mafias.

Will ending the Drug War really help? A little bit, but I’m not optimistic about that either. And perhaps I am wrong and the Drug War was the greatest idea since sliced bread.