Looking at the Forty-Years’ Drug War

Over at the Wall Street Journal, Nobel laureate in economics Gary Becker and Univ. of Chicago economist Kevin Murphy ask, “Have We Lost the War on Drugs?”

Their answer is that we have, and what Richard Nixon began in 1971 has been a forty-years’ failure:

President Richard Nixon declared a “war on drugs” in 1971. The expectation then was that drug trafficking in the United States could be greatly reduced in a short time through federal policing—and yet the war on drugs continues to this day. The cost has been large in terms of lives, money and the well-being of many Americans, especially the poor and less educated. By most accounts, the gains from the war have been modest at best.

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.

Becker and Murphy see the impossibility of winning this war:

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.

This was true of Prohibition, and it’s now true of the Drug War: natural human responses to incentives make the problem worse as one grows more assertive in prosecuting this effort. Enforcement has created a market for criminal enterprise at the same time local governments have pushed this war to pad their budgets with state and federal money.

Worse still, it is actually harder to free oneself from addiction to an illegal substance, as

It is generally harder to break an addiction to illegal goods, like drugs. Drug addicts may be leery of going to clinics or to nonprofit “drugs anonymous” groups for help. They fear they will be reported for consuming illegal substances. Since the consumption of illegal drugs must be hidden to avoid arrest and conviction, many drug consumers must alter their lives in order to avoid detection.

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.

The immediate financial incentive, for government and traffickers, is to keep fighting this war, for funding and profit, without end.

Yet, for all that fight, this war cannot be won, and so one only hears the same hollow claims of victory, followed by more headlines about how bad the problem still is.

Becker and Murphy’s full essay is well worth reading, both for the strength of its arguments and what it says of the future. In the end, it’s neither liberals nor libertarians who will be most responsible for the end of the Drug War: conservatives will, in time, finish off this mistaken, wasteful, destructive policy. Afterward, America will focus far more on drug treatment, and far less on aggressive anti-narcotics enforcement.

The War on Drugs won’t end tomorrow, or even (everywhere) a decade from now, but end it will, a consequence of its own big claims and small results.

(For an earlier post on how Wisconsin will likely lag much of America, as all this winds down, see Wisconsin and Marijuana and the Drug War.)

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