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January 7, 2013

"Have We Lost the War on Drugs?"

The title of this post is the headline of this lengthy essay which appeared in Saturday's Wall Street Journal and was authored by Gary Becker and Kevin Murphy. The subheading to the piece summarizes its themes: "After more than four decades of a failed experiment, the human cost has become too high. It is time to consider the decriminalization of drug use and the drug market." Here are just a few excerpts:

The direct monetary cost to American taxpayers of the war on drugs includes spending on police, the court personnel used to try drug users and traffickers, and the guards and other resources spent on imprisoning and punishing those convicted of drug offenses. Total current spending is estimated at over $40 billion a year.

These costs don't include many other harmful effects of the war on drugs that are difficult to quantify. For example, over the past 40 years the fraction of students who have dropped out of American high schools has remained large, at about 25%. Dropout rates are not high for middle-class white children, but they are very high for black and Hispanic children living in poor neighborhoods. Many factors explain the high dropout rates, especially bad schools and weak family support. But another important factor in inner-city neighborhoods is the temptation to drop out of school in order to profit from the drug trade.

The total number of persons incarcerated in state and federal prisons in the U.S. has grown from 330,000 in 1980 to about 1.6 million today. Much of the increase in this population is directly due to the war on drugs and the severe punishment for persons convicted of drug trafficking. About 50% of the inmates in federal prisons and 20% of those in state prisons have been convicted of either selling or using drugs. The many minor drug traffickers and drug users who spend time in jail find fewer opportunities for legal employment after they get out of prison, and they develop better skills at criminal activities....

The paradox of the war on drugs is that the harder governments push the fight, the higher drug prices become to compensate for the greater risks. That leads to larger profits for traffickers who avoid being punished. This is why larger drug gangs often benefit from a tougher war on drugs, especially if the war mainly targets small-fry dealers and not the major drug gangs. Moreover, to the extent that a more aggressive war on drugs leads dealers to respond with higher levels of violence and corruption, an increase in enforcement can exacerbate the costs imposed on society....

Usually overlooked in discussions of the effects of the war on drugs is that the illegality of drugs stunts the development of ways to help drug addicts, such as the drug equivalent of nicotine patches. Thus, though the war on drugs may well have induced lower drug use through higher prices, it has likely also increased the rate of addiction. The illegality of drugs makes it harder for addicts to get help in breaking their addictions. It leads them to associate more with other addicts and less with people who might help them quit.

Most parents who support the war on drugs are mainly concerned about their children becoming addicted to drugs rather than simply becoming occasional or modest drug users. Yet the war on drugs may increase addiction rates, and it may even increase the total number of addicts....

The decriminalization of both drug use and the drug market won't be attained easily, as there is powerful opposition to each of them. The disastrous effects of the American war on drugs are becoming more apparent, however, not only in the U.S. but beyond its borders. Former Mexican President Felipe Calderon has suggested "market solutions" as one alternative to the problem. Perhaps the combined efforts of leaders in different countries can succeed in making a big enough push toward finally ending this long, enormously destructive policy experiment.

January 7, 2013 at 03:06 AM | Permalink


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Doug, most definitely we have lost the War on Drugs... Its just another looser for the people, meanwhile the FEds just keep tightening up the drug laws etc..

Its mind boggling for me to understan why good time days aren't increased in the Federal system.

Theya re actually being warehoused, no different than a can of corn.. When the expiration date expires, they go home... But wait, the hits keep on coming...Supervised Release is extenmsive as well, 60% of them go back for 1 - 10 yrs additionally for minimal type infractions..How in the world would one keep from mis behaving after being caged up for an extensive length of time..

A while back I computed if the good time days were increased to 120/yr save 1.1 annually.
Be from 87.2% down to 65%....Current rate is not sustainable..

Calcs: $77.50 day * 66 days saved / inmat = $5115 annually/inmate.
5115 * 217,582 inmates = 1.1 billion saved annually.

Also save on building new prisons. Its just a shme that congress is so shallow as to only
view things so they can get re elected and the public allows it...Tough on crime is a bunch of crap
when you see who gets these sentences and how they are computed....

There will be a day when the country can no longer be drunk on debt and they will yield.
That day is not just too far off....We are drowning in politicians fiscally fueled incompetence.

We don't have a budget.. We absolutely need term limits, 3 terms is plenty.
Also federal judges and the supreme court has to retire when nraching age 68.....

I understand that more Pork was passed with the Sandy deal... Anyone surprised..

The federal system mirrors the people that built it and they are ones that donot maintain anything afterwards....Go figure... Enough said.....

Posted by: Midwest Guy | Jan 7, 2013 2:50:22 PM

Please excuse the multitude of errors in my previous post, looks shabby...But the content is there.

Posted by: Midwest Guy | Jan 7, 2013 2:56:08 PM

Unless you count providing employment to law enforcement, prison guards, and drug "treatment" providers as a boon to America, it would be nice for someone to point out one positive, substantial, concrete benefit the war on drugs has provided this country. The politicians and drug warriors like to point out the war's goals--reducing addiction, reducing crime, making drugs unavailable, stopping drug production--but none of these goals has demonstrably been met. Simply prosecuting and imprisoning people is not an end in itself. It's time to start demanding that the drug warriors show us some results.

Posted by: C.E. | Jan 7, 2013 8:49:34 PM

Last election:

Candidates who support criminalization of drugs, 99%.

Candidates who support legalization of drugs, <1%.

It reminds me of the proud mother watching the parade who proclaimed, "Look, everyone but my boy is out of step!"

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jan 7, 2013 10:24:25 PM

These are academics, no? Like innocent children. The War on Drugs has most definitely been won. If it was to reduce addiction, or drug use, it has not been won. After decades, one must conclude those were lawyer pretexts. It is like saying the Inquisition was to decrease blasphemy. It thrived on blasphemy because it enriched the church.

Follow the money, and it leads to government enlargement and empowerment, not to mention worthless make work in rent seeking. To the extent it has been a rent seeking operation, it has been a roaring success. The rent seeking theory is not well appreciated even by top economists. It explains too much left wing anomalous policy. If Becker were writing in good faith, he would have stated the obvious, the power of the rent seeking theory to account for all irrational and failing policies. He is arguing against government interest, but not enough to get himself in trouble with left peers by labeling the War on Drugs a crude but effective racket and plunder of taxpayer money.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Jan 7, 2013 10:59:38 PM

Speaking of who is out of step and just can't quite figure it out..

Posted by: Midwest Guy | Jan 8, 2013 9:42:39 AM

horse pucky bill! the war on drugs was lost the day Before it started!

Just like the war on alcohol you know probition back in the 20's and 30's.

Only diff is this one has killed a hell of a lot more people and wasted a hell of a lot more money we DON'T have!

Posted by: rodsmith | Jan 8, 2013 3:33:49 PM

rodsmith --

You don't need to win the battle with me. I'm only one person. You need to win the battle with the electorate.

As I said, and you understandably don't dispute, candidates supporting the criminalization of drugs got 99% of the vote, and candidates supporting legalization of drugs got less than 1%.

Here are some other statistics, bearing in mind that we have 50 states:

States legalizing recreational pot = 2
States legalizing heroin = 0
States legalizing meth = 0
States legalizing crack = 0
States legalizing cocaine = 0
States legalizing Ecstasy = 0
States legalizing LSD = 0
States realistically likely to legalize any of the above six = 0

You can read the scoreboard as well as I can.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jan 8, 2013 5:20:47 PM

Bill Otis, if the only drug being legalized is pot, doesn't it kill your argument that pot legalization will lead to harder drugs being legalized?

Posted by: MikeinCT | Jan 8, 2013 11:09:23 PM

MikeinCT --

I don't believe I ever said that harder drugs will be legalized. What I said is that (1) the main libertarian argument for legalizing pot also justifies legalizing everything else, and (2) a not insignificant segment of those wanting to legalize pot also, largely on ideological grounds, want to see the harder drugs legalized as well.

In addition, if and when pot is legalized, its use will increase. When that happens, useage of the harder drugs is likely eventually also to increase, since drug users are constantly in search of a higher high (indeed, that's the main reason drugs are used to begin with).

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jan 8, 2013 11:31:20 PM

Nicotine and alcohol are 10 times more addictive. They 400,000 and 100,000 people a year. Alcohol is the most crimogenic substance known to man, being at legal intoxication levels in half the murderers and half the murder victims. There are twice as many suicides as murders, and half of them are legally drunk.

If one advocates the prohibition of marijuana, should one support the prohibition of nicotine and alcohol? I do. I say, legalize pot, or ban alcohol and cigarettes. The current situation of illegal marijuana and legal nicotine and legal alcohol, is untenable intellectually.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Jan 9, 2013 4:01:51 AM

The only reason the War on Drugs, as well as the broader War on Crime, can fairly be described as having been lost is because its champions have described it as a war. It's not.

However, military language and references are useful. While we can't win the war, we can attrit the enemy and degrade his operational capabilities.

Imagine Verdun rather than Desert Storm.

Posted by: Fred | Jan 9, 2013 9:15:06 AM

@Bill Otis
"In addition, if and when pot is legalized, its use will increase. When that happens, useage of the harder drugs is likely eventually also to increase, since drug users are constantly in search of a higher high (indeed, that's the main reason drugs are used to begin with)."
Not as likely as you think. If I can only find weed at a legal dispensery would I really want to go through illegal channels after that? If it were true though, that would make alcohol the most dangerous gateway drug aver given its availability and acceptance.

Posted by: MikeinCT | Jan 9, 2013 9:29:21 AM

LOL good one bill!

"As I said, and you understandably don't dispute, candidates supporting the criminalization of drugs got 99% of the vote, and candidates supporting legalization of drugs got less than 1%."

All this proves is we have a whole bunch of dumb shits voting in this country. Hell any one walking though the halls of our fucked up congress knows this!

Just because the majority think something is a good ideal does Not make them right.

Posted by: rodsmith | Jan 9, 2013 9:54:31 AM

rodsmith --

"Just because the majority think something is a good idea does Not make them right."

I quite agree, but when the majority is 99%, and the minority is a skimpy 1%, the 1% need to take a cold, hard look at why their arguments are bombing so badly.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jan 9, 2013 3:01:48 PM

MikeinCT --

"If I can only find weed at a legal dispensery would I really want to go through illegal channels after that?"

I think it's a mistake, although a common one among normal people, to underestimate the craving for a higher high. People literally die trying to get them.

"If it were true though, that would make alcohol the most dangerous gateway drug aver given its availability and acceptance."

I think alcohol operates differently, although I can't claim a lot of personal experience. At college, where I saw a good deal of drinking, it seemed to me that people did not so much get "high" from it as woozy, before they threw up and passed out. And, no, I was not in a fraternity, but I had a lot of friends who were.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jan 9, 2013 3:08:02 PM

Ahh bill but we come right back to the so-called war on drugs is the ideal and brain child of the retards now running this country off a cliff....oh wait they kicked it another 2 months down the road... More proof they are useless and should be removed ....with predjuice if necessary.

Posted by: rodsmith | Jan 9, 2013 11:29:02 PM

One hundred million American adults cannot pass the simple reading tests given to twelve year old kids born in Utah. The state also has the lowest rate of opiate use in the nation which results in less brain damage and smarter children. The shocking amount of illiterates in America might be caused by the heavy use of opiates, instead of hiring expensive teachers, it would be cheaper and more effective to train opiate sniffing dogs that will labor 24/7 for a can of chow.

Posted by: melvin polatnick | Jan 12, 2013 10:53:32 PM

I don't think we've lost the war yet. With all of the new improvements, like rehabilitation centers, electronic cigarettes, and other things, we can still win the war.

Posted by: Long Term Addiction Treatment | Jan 14, 2013 1:27:44 PM

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