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Commentary

The Drug War: What is It Good For?


     
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Americans celebrated a shameful anniversary last week: forty years since Richard Nixon declared “war” on drugs. To borrow from a former student, we should quit fighting wars on abstract nouns (drugs, terror, obesity). One can’t fight a war against an idea or an inanimate object, but even if one can, one usually ends up having to shoot flesh-and-blood human beings.

“But these drugs are so dangerous!” people might contend. Indeed, they are. But this overlooks the fact that drugs have increased in potency as a response to government crackdowns. Which would be easier to smuggle: $1,000,000 worth of marijuana, or $1,000,000 worth of cocaine? $1,000,000 worth of cocaine can be packed into a much smaller space than $1,000,000 of marijuana. If we decide to fight drugs, what is likely to disappear from the market and what is likely to end up all over the market? Low-potency drugs are likely to disappear. High-potency drugs—like higher-potency marijuana—are likely to stay. According to Milton Friedman, “crack would never have existed…if you had not had drug prohibition.”

What do you think will happen when the government decides to crack down on the latest and greatest drug? People are pretty resourceful, so they come up with a new way to get high. It’s like squeezing a balloon. You might depress it in one area, but it expands in another. People innovate in response to prohibition and have thus created ever-more-potent drugs.

What have been the social consequences? The “land of the free” has a higher incarceration rate than any other country in the world. Economist and drug policy expert Jeffrey Miron points out, we would have a lot less violence if we ended drug prohibition.

The drug war is also outrageously expensive. In this short video, the Foundation for Economic Education—for whom I write periodically—claims that state and local governments would save $25.7 billion per year while the Federal government would save $15.6 billion per year if they decriminalized drugs.

The costs come not merely in terms of lives lost and resources wasted. Liberty is at stake. I quoted my friend Timothy Watkins on this issue in December: “[p]rohibition is the denial of moral agency.” The kinds of encroachments on liberty being rationalized in the name of the drug war are unworthy of a country that calls itself the “land of the free.” For examples, look no further than the military-style “no-knock raids” that are becoming far too common (70,000-80,000 per year, according to criminologist Peter Kraska via USA Today).

As Mary Anastasia O’Grady points out, some questionable drug war tactics are rationalized on the grounds that they might lead drug warriors to Mr. Big. The uncomfortable truth is that Mr. Big probably doesn’t matter. Would Apple die without Steve Jobs? Maybe. Would Microsoft die without Bill Gates? In the case of drug gangs, you probably have people in a leadership hierarchy that can step in should Mr. Big go down. Apple’s stock price has changed based on Steve Jobs’s health, but two things are true: first, the company probably isn’t going to go out of business without Steve Jobs. Second, even if it did, someone would probably step up to take Jobs’s place. Jobs and Gates are exceptions, too. If you kill one c-level drug kingpin, I’m pretty sure he or she can be replaced without much trouble.

Some world leaders have owned up to it and said that the global war on drugs has been an amazing and horrifying mistake. It’s past time we recognize that. Drugs are bad, m’kay? I get that. But the drug war is worse.


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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