Just say no… to the war on drugs

What would you do with $1 trillion? Don’t answer too quickly, lean back and think about it for a while.

Physically, using the highest-value banknote I know of (the €500 bill that will be excluded in Britain due to its use by criminals for laundering and smuggling cash), that’s 2,200,000 kilograms of cash. You can’t fit that into a wallet. In fact, you would need a crane about this size to lift it:

Proportionally, it’s about one quarter of all circulating currency in the entire world (using the M0 monetary aggregate). Comparatively, it’s roughly the annual GDP of Australia, a conservative estimate of the cost so far of the recent/ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or 1000 years of profits for Macquarie Bank. Whichever way you cut it, it’s a big pile of money.

A billion here, a billion there, pretty soon it adds up to real money

When an AP analysis on the United States’ spending on the “war on drugs” since Nixon declared it 40 years ago found that it had cost US$1 trillion, I was disgusted and angry. That includes $33 billion in marketing “Just Say No”-style messages, $49 billion for law enforcement along America’s borders to cut off the flow of drugs, $121 billion to arrest more than 37 million non-violent drug offenders, and $450 billion to lock those people up in federal prisons alone. Next year, $15.5 billion will be spent directly on drug control.

To top it off, the analysis is incomplete – it only accounts for costs to the US economy (though thankfully it does include the US Justice Department’s quantification of “an overburdened justice system, a strained health care system, lost productivity, and environmental destruction” – $215 billion). The only mention of other countries is the transfer of $20 billion to Columbia and others to fight drug gangs and cultivation at the source.

That ain’t the half of it. Mexico, for example, is burying people killed by the drug trade by the thousands, had to increase spending on law enforcement by billions, and is suffering heavy blows to its economy because the insecurity drives away investment. Then there’s the damage to Mexico’s institutions – drug money feeds corruption in the justice system on a large scale, and the high death rate among police means fewer, and lower quality, recruits. Most insidiously, the very actions taken by the Mexican government in its attempts to combat the drug gangs have eroded legal rights, breached basic moral rights, and increased the prevalence of torture and deaths in custody – all falling most heavily on certain ethnic groups and those at the bottom of the socio-economic scale.

Walls around country, walls around brains

So, $1 trillion, thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) of deaths, a tremendous amount of human suffering, plus the undermining of some of the basis of civilisation itself… and for what?

Illicit drugs are no less available than in 1970, no more expensive than in 1970 (in fact the opposite for some), and usage rates have grown substantially from 1970.

The fortress mentality behind most spending by the US on fighting illicit drugs has clearly failed utterly. Indeed, I have to ask myself – how could they have possibly thought that it had any chance of succeeding? Ron Crickenberger, a US libertarian, once said:

“If the government can’t keep drugs away from inmates who are locked in steel cages, surrounded by barbed wire, watched by armed guards, drug-tested, strip-searched, X-rayed, and videotaped – how can it possibly stop the flow of drugs to an entire nation?”

This incredibly obvious observation has somehow eluded thousands of lawmakers in the US. They must be extremely stupid.

What to do?

First, admit that the mix of the nigh-unquenchable natural human desire for fun and pleasure, and the addictive qualities of many drugs, means that demand for pharmaceutical and botanical highs is impossible to eradicate completely (even if that was a good idea, which it’s not).

Second, recognise that supply will strive to meet demand regardless of anything governments can do. It’s a theme I return to again and again – ‘market forces’, for lack of a better phrase, are very powerful, and can only be corralled at best, and never thwarted entirely. Economic incentives are the most important forces in human affairs. In this, I find something of Marx’s to agree with – his theory of historical materialism is his greatest insight.

Third, realise that most of the problems with the drug trade are only problems because of the drugs’ illegality! Drugs are expensive because they are prohibited. Therefore, huge profits can be made from selling them. That means that not only is there an endless queue of people willing to be sellers, and not only that they will fight hard to maintain those profits, but that those profits are what give them the resources to make any conflict extremely damaging. And of course, those conflicts are endemic – it’s the market forces again, except this time competition can’t be conducted in the realm of price cuts, advertising, better quality, or better service to customers. Without a legal market with its institutional protections, suppliers have every incentive to take up arms instead.

Additionally, prohibiting drugs makes their (inevitable, ineradicable) use more dangerous, to individuals and to society. The quality is variable, meaning overdoses are common. Purchases are made on a black market, meaning exposure to generalised criminality and its risks. High prices force addicts to forgo other expenditure, and often to resort to theft, robbery, and prostitution.

There is no alternative

Having accepted those three fundamental facts, there is only one conclusion – prohibition is useless, counter-productive, and should be abandoned. Some combination of legalisation, de-criminalisation, prescription, regulation and taxation – for all drugs, regardless of previous status –  is the only sane choice.

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4 Responses to Just say no… to the war on drugs

  1. Kavit says:

    The war on drugs employs several dozen department worth of Government servants and plays an important role in budget allocation for various metropolitan police departments in the US and the world over.

    Every time there is some kind of a government appointed commission looking into the drug issue they get the same feedback from law enforcement agencies: “Drugs are dangerous and destroy society” . They do not learn from the history of the prohibition of Alcohol in the USA.

  2. Jarrah says:

    Yes. Government is rife with principal-agent problems. Against all experience, I still hold out hope that rational choices will eventuate.

  3. JC says:

    You/we may be surprised that the party which decriminalizes it ends up being the GOP. I say this because of the recent inroads by the Tea Party movement into the GOP which for the most party though not all is a libertarian/small government grouping. As a result of the fact money is pretty tight at all levels of government we may see an easing of the laws.

    It will be interesting to watch over the next 5 to 6 years.

  4. Jarrah says:

    Yes, budgetary pressures seem to be cited a fair bit in the recent discussions about marijuana in the US. I completely forgot to mention the positives (rather than just write about removing the negatives) of drug law reform.

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