April 20 is the counter-culture holiday on which lots and lots of people come together to advocate marijuana legalization (or just get high). Should drugsespecially marijuanabe legal? The answer is yes. Immediately. Without hesitation. Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200 seized in a civil asset forfeiture. The war on drugs has been a dismal failure. Its high time to end prohibition. Even if you arent willing to go whole-hog and legalize all drugs, at the very least we should legalize marijuana.
For the sake of the argument, lets go ahead and assume that everything youve heard about the dangers of drugs is completely true. That probably means that using drugs is a terrible idea. It doesnt mean, however, that the drug war is a good idea.
Prohibition is a textbook example of a policy with negative unintended consequences. Literally: its an example in the textbook I use in my introductory economics classes (Cowen and Tabarrok, Modern Principles of Economics if youre curious) and in the most popular introductory economics textbook in the world (by N. Gregory Mankiw).The demand curve for drugs is extremely inelastic, meaning that people dont change their drug consumption very much in response to changes in prices. Therefore, vigorous enforcement means higher prices and higher revenues for drug dealers. In fact, Ill defer to Cowen and Tabarrokpage 60 of the first edition, if youre still curiousfor a discussion of the basic economic logic:
The more effective prohibition is at raising costs, the greater are drug industry revenues. So, more effective prohibition means that drug sellers have more money to buy guns, pay bribes, fund the dealers, and even research and develop new technologies in drug delivery (like crack cocaine). Its hard to beat an enemy that gets stronger the more you strike against him or her.
Art Carden is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute in Oakland, California and an Associate Professor of Economics at Samford Universitys Brock School of Business.