Time to End the War on Drugs


In a recent speech, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton cited high demand for drugs in the United States as a likely cause for escalating violence along the U.S.-Mexico border. Indeed, such border violence illustrates the important and tragic ironies of the drug war. This war has helped turn our inner cities into war zones, intensified government encroachments on our fundamental rights, undermined the legitimacy of law enforcement and the justice system, and strained American relations with foreign countries. None of this is new, of course, but the way in which it is currently coming together calls for a reconsideration of the war on drugs. Basic economics tells us why.

The current campaign against drugs can be summed up as an attempt to pretend that people respond to certain incentives but not others. Passing a law against something in the hopes that people will stop the now unlawful behavior is a fool’s errand, one amply supported by evidence from the drug war. It is true that some people don’t use drugs simply because they are illegal, but these people are likely only a tiny minority of non-drug users.

Consider the American experience with alcohol prohibition. Social reformers were certain that alcohol prohibition would improve public virtue as hordes of former drinkers were forced to opt for temperance. Tens of millions, however, refused to give up drinking and came up with ingenious ways to get their hands on alcohol. For Americans close enough to the borders, one way to do this was to go to Canada or Mexico.

The quality of accessible products deteriorated rapidly, and prohibition gave people an incentive to substitute high-potency drinks for low-potency drinks. Furthermore, since alcohol was bought and sold outside the legal system, the market’s automatic regulatory mechanisms could not function to ensure the quality of what was being bought and sold. People blinded by bad bathtub gin had no legal recourse against the producers.

Under prohibition, those purveyors were mostly well-organized criminal interests. Alcohol prohibition gave us Al Capone. Drug prohibition has given us international drug kingpins and war over drug turf in American inner cities. In a well-functioning market economy, firms compete by providing higher quality and lower prices. In illegal markets, like the markets for crack, cocaine, heroin, and other illegal drugs, firms compete by killing their competitors and limiting their customers’ access to cheaper, higher-quality products. Moving drugs outside the legitimate marketplace means that the market works in exactly the opposite of the way a well-functioning market is supposed to work.

The war on drugs also creates powerful interests that undermine the legitimacy of the justice system. Essentially turning the market for illegal drugs over to the criminal underworld opens the door to corruption. Meanwhile, incentives for police officers have unfortunately encouraged departments to conduct risky “no-knock” raids that have led to the tragic deaths of innocent people. Finally, the idea that it is legitimate for the state to tell people that they cannot buy certain nasal decongestants in unapproved quantities under the presumption that they might be turning them into powerful narcotics is morally repugnant.

The drug war undermines our fundamental humanity by assuming that a surrogate—in this case, the state—has the moral authority to decide which of our purely voluntary transactions are and aren’t legitimate. It is also far from clear that anyone has the right to tell others what they can and cannot ingest. Any government that can tell you what you can and cannot smoke, snort, or shoot is not far from being a government that can tell you what you can and cannot read, watch, or worship.

The war on drugs has been an abject and nearly unmitigated failure. It has turned our inner cities and now our national borders into war zones. It has encouraged repeated encroachment upon our civil liberties. Beyond all this, it appears to have done little to prevent people from actually using drugs. It’s time for the drug war to end.

Art Carden is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute in Oakland, California, and Assistant Professor of Economics at Samford University.
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