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 drugs—especially marijuana—be 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. It’s high time to end prohibition. Even if you aren’t willing to go whole-hog and legalize all drugs, at the very least we should legalize marijuana.
For the sake of the argument, let’s go ahead and assume that everything you’ve heard about the dangers of drugs is completely true. That probably means that using drugs is a terrible idea. It doesn’t mean, however, that the drug war is a good idea.
Prohibition is a textbook example of a policy with negative unintended consequences. Literally: it’s an example in the textbook I use in my introductory economics classes (Cowen and Tabarrok, Modern Principles of Economics if you’re 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 don’t 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, I’ll defer to Cowen and Tabarrok—page 60 of the first edition, if you’re still curious—for a discussion of the basic economic logic:
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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). It’s hard to beat an enemy that gets stronger the more you strike against him or her.
People associate the drug trade with crime and violence; indeed, the newspapers occasionally feature stories about drug kingpins doing horrifying things to underlings and competitors. These aren’t caused by the drugs themselves but from the fact that they are illegal (which means the market is underground) and addictive (which means demanders aren’t very price sensitive).
Those same newspapers will also occasionally feature articles about how this or that major dealer has been taken down or about how this or that quantity of drugs was taken off the streets. Apparently we’re to take from this the idea that we’re going to “win” the war on drugs. Apparently. It’s alleged that this is only a step toward getting “Mister Big,” but even if the government gets “Mister Big,” it’s not going to matter. Apple didn’t disappear after Steve Jobs died. Getting “Mr. Big” won’t win the drug war. As I pointed out almost a year ago, economist and drug policy expert Jeffrey Miron estimates that we would have a lot less violence without a war on drugs.
At the recent Association of Private Enterprise Education conference, David Henderson from the Naval Postgraduate School pointed out the myriad ways in which government promises to make us safer in fact imperil our safety and security. The drug war is an obvious example: in the name of making us safer and protecting us from drugs, we are actually put in greater danger. Without meaning to, the drug warriors have turned American cities into war zones and eroded the very freedoms we hold dear.
Freedom of contract has been abridged in the name of keeping us “safe” from drugs. Private property is less secure because it can be seized if it is implicated in a drug crime (this also flushes the doctrine of “innocent until proven guilty” out the window). The drug war has been used as a pretext for clamping down on immigration. Not surprisingly, the drug war has turned some of our neighborhoods into war zones. We are warehousing productive young people in prisons at an alarming rate all in the name of a war that cannot be won.
Albert Einstein is reported to have said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. By this definition, the drug war is insane. We are no safer, and we are certainly less free because of concerted efforts to wage war on drugs. It’s time to stop the insanity and end prohibition.