Sunday, December 30, 2012

Drug policy

Drug prohibition has costs and benefits, and it raises questions of morality, causality, and alternative or complementary policies.


Drug warriors intend the drug war to reduce drug abuse and addiction by raising the effective price of producing, selling, and possessing certain drugs. While drug use in the U.S. has not been reduced as a result of the drug war, drug warriors imagine that without the drug war the social problems associated with drug abuse would be significantly worse. Conventional neoclassical economic analysis supports this conclusion because for almost all goods, the "law of demand" states that higher prices cause consumers to reduce consumption. Empirical data from Spain and the Netherlands call this simple analysis into question. Raising the price of a drug fails to address the ultimate causes of abuse and addiction. Prohibiting drugs use "sends a message" that drug use is unwise and not tolerated by society. Unfortunately, many other messages about drug use are also being sent and received, so that the legislative message may not persuade everyone.

It is clear what supporters of this policy wish it would accomplish, but less clear whether it does so. No person gains shelter from the danger that a loved one may fall victim to drug abuse through the mere existence of laws proscribing drug experimentation.


In addition to the direct cost of funding the personnel and equipment required to prosecute the war on drugs, a number of side effects result. The mission of the police force is distorted in several ways as a result of the drug laws. Drug law enforcement incurs an obvious cost in terms of the police employees hired, the capital equipment maintained, and the additional bureaucracy required to support these. Less obvious costs include the increased complexity of the police force's mission, the increased risk of corruption, and the reduction of trust between police officers and ordinary persons that results from enforcement of drug laws. The mass incarceration demanded by the drug war also has direct and indirect costs, in that taxpayers must finance the prisons and guards to confine drug prisoners, and society must sacrifice the economic contributions that prisoners would otherwise provide. Further, racial disparities regarding apprehension, prosecution, conviction and sentencing exacerbate existing racial tensions. Coercive paternalism distorts the mechanisms of society by allowing the majority to dictate to minorities.


Supporters of drug prohibition believe that drug abuse and addiction harms the drug user, the drug user's family, and the entire community. Drug use flouts the authority and legitimacy of the law and the law's makers. Drug use "desecrates the temple of the body".

Opponents sometimes take the position that virtuous actions that result from coercion do not confer any virtue on the actor. If the punishment should fit the crime, nonviolent lawbreakers should be punished nonviolently. Two wrongs don't make a right.

Alternatives and Causes

Drug prohibition does nothing to address the base causes of drug abuse and addiction. Other disadvantageous social phenomena, like marital infidelity, lying, alcoholism, divorce, etc. impact society negatively, but no one suggests starting a "war on cheating." Alcohol prohibition was tried, and declared a failure. While alcoholism is still a problem, other approaches have succeeded in some degree in changing attitudes toward drinking and ameliorating the problems associated with alcohol abuse.

The effectiveness of punishment depends on 3 variables: severity, speed, and certainty. The uncertainty and slow speed of drug law enforcement goes far toward explaining the relative failure of the drug war. Yet proponents of the drug war do not have any serious proposals for increasing the speed and certainty of their solution.

New York Times asked "Have we lost the war on drugs?"

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