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Results of America's Drug War


      There is certainly good reason to believe that a very large part of the historical motivation to pursue prohibition was neither honorable, nor even rational. However...that doesn't really matter. During the early industrial age, for example, a theory emerged that garbage and waste produced a gas that was causing illness in unclean areas. Later, we came to understand that this theory was incorrect; that the real culprits were bacteria, etc. that was living in and on the waste. However, this incorrect theory inspired people to greatly improve sanitation. Cities underwent major cleanups, handling of sewage and trash greatly advanced...and the people became healthier for it. Sometimes, people stumble upon good ideas for the wrong reasons, but a good idea is still a good idea. So, even if America's motivation to outlaw drugs was largely based on racial, religious, and cultural bigotry; prohibition might still have been the right thing to do. In the end, the answer doesn't depend on whether you are philosophically opposed to drug use or not. The right or wrong of drug prohibition quite simply rests in whether or not the cost (imprisoning people, heavy spending on law enforcement, etc.) has been worth the benefit (reduced drug use, we are told.)


Financial Costs

     As often seems to be the case with government policies, there have been vastly more dollars given to fighting the 'drug war' than to actually determining if the approach was working. The US government has at least funded some research aimed at determining the costs of drug abuse to society. The most comprehensive study, prepared by the Lewin Group, dates from 1992 with an update performed for 1998.

     The Lewin group estimated the total cost of illegal drug abuse in the US at $143 billion for the year 1998. If we extrapolate to 2003, the current cost would be close to $190 billion/year. That puts the cost to the economy at over $600 for every man, woman, and child in the US, every year, which sounds rather horiffic...but before you sign onto the Prohibitionist band wagon in horror, let's look at the details.

     According to this study, the breakdown of expenses is thus:

     Most categories are self-explanatory; "medical costs" is the cost of treating illness associated with drug use, "Lost productivity due to incarceration" represents what drug offenders could have been contributing to the economy if we hadn't locked them up, and so forth. Rather more mysterious is "crime careers". After a bit of digging, I discovered that they're referring to the money people could be making working 'real' jobs if they weren't busy selling drugs, working as prostitutes, burglarizing people's homes to afford drugs and so forth.

Expense to society.

     The first thing of note are the numbers on crime, since this includes property losses and injuries/lost productivity of victims; this amount represents true, out-of-pocket expenses for somebody: An injury was inflicted and somebody wound up with a bill. This 'hard' cost of illegal drug use amounts to about 1.7% of the total amount claimed (about $2.4 billion in 1998.) This is certainly nothing to sneeze at, but it represents only about $8 per person living in the US per year, and could have been covered by a less than 1% tax on just cocaine sales.

     The second category of true expenses (not just theoretical unrealized potential productivity) is medical costs resulting from drug use. Although there are some injuries (such as from driving under the influence, etc.) most ($4.2 billion) of this $5.7 billion tab was due to infectious diseases caught by using dirty needles. This expense has been on the decline as needle exchange programs have grown in availability (often over the violent objections of the True Believer Prohibitionists, who seem to think people will be much more willing to become or stay heroin addicts if there are clean syringes available.) It's unclear how much of the burden of these medical costs is born by users vs. charities and public services.

     The Lewin Group found that drug use was not a major strain on social services; they estimate additional expenses of about $250 million dollars for 1998 (about a dollar per US citizen.) This number seems a bit low; the report doesn't go into details in what they included in this category.

      Drug treatment and anti-drug 'education' (it surely doesn't deserve to be called that) programs accounted for an additional $7.1 billion.

'Lost' productivity.

     Where this whole analysis takes on an air of accounting slight-of-hand is when they assign values to "lost productivity." These are not costs per say in the sense that your tax dollars had to be handed over to somebody to cover these amounts; rather, they are estimates of 'what might have been' had all drug users been completely sober average citizens. The total of these 'lost productivity' categories is about $94.5 billion. The components of these unrealized potential earnings are: $16.6 billion for premature death (ie. if a person might have earned $40,000 a year for the next thirty years, but died of a drug overdose, that's considered a $1.2 million 'loss'); $23.1 billion from illness (not working for any reason from being hung over to dying of AIDS); $24.6 billion for "crime careers" ('lost' earnings because addicts were pursuing illegal trades instead of flipping burgers); and $30.1 billion lost potential earnings from incarceration (people who would have been out working for a living, but are unable to do so because they're in prison on drug charges.)

     On a purely economic basis, it makes good sense to consider reductions in productivity as a negative impact on the economic system as a whole. However, the drug war is based on the theory that users should be arrested because they are harming society, not because they may, due to drugs, not work as hard or as long or make as much money as they otherwise might. If a person makes $25k a year instead of $35k a year because heavy pot smoking made them less productive, it may be unfortunate...but as long as they are fully self-supporting, I don't believe such an argument is a defensible basis for treating them as criminals.

     Also noteworthy is that large amounts of these 'lost productivity' numbers are actually the result of the drug war itself. The largest segment, lost earnings due to incarceration on drug charges, is almost entirely caused by prohibition. Likewise, the sizeable portions of unrealized potential earnings caused by illness and deaths associated with drugs are not fixed costs; sincere harm reduction efforts focused on helping users and abusers use drugs as safely as possible could greatly reduce these costs (as has happened through needle exchange programs.) At one point ten thousand Americans a year were catching HIV through dirty needles; this no doubt has greatly contributed to the "death and illness" categories.

Prohibition and law enforcement costs.

     The Lewin Group identifies $22.5 billion of expenses for prisons and court costs for drug-related charges as well as for DEA and other 'supply reduction' programs (spending in these areas has greatly increased in the years since this study.) They also list $9.1 billion for "police protection." What is meant by this isn't entirely clear; presumably much of this expense stems from the constant pursuit of drug offenders.


Contemplation of the Account Balance.

     Does prohibition make economic sense? For the first comparison, let's ignore the idea of 'lost potential earnings.' I want to be fair to the prohibitionists, so I'll give them a very generous set of assumptions: First, let's assume that all those police costs are from secondary crime prevention/solving, with none of it actually spent on chasing and arresting drug offenders. Then let's assume that every penny of the drug treatment programs and every penny of drug user's medical expenses is paid by the public, none of it by the users themselves. Then let's assume that no victim of a drug-related crime is ever compensated, no fines are ever paid by drug offenders, and that their property is never seized and sold. And just to make sure we don't underestimate how bad drugs are, let's assume that a more harm-reduction oriented approach would not reduce any of these expenses (in spite of all evidence to the contrary.)

     Under these assumptions, the total cost to society in 1998 from illegal drug use was roughly $24.4 billion. In the same year, we spent about $22.5 billion just on court, prison, and interdiction efforts. Based on this model, if we completely legalize all drugs today, with no effort made to educate or help people use more safely, with no additional effort made to improve treatment programs, with no taxes collected on drug sales, with no additional controls such as age restrictions at the point of sale, no oversight of drug purity, just throw the floodgates wide to every drug dealer and criminal organization to run things....then drug use would still have to almost double, across the board, for prohibition to make even minimal economic sense.

     If we do want to include the idea of unrealized potential earnings, the picture is much the same; lost earnings from people in prison on drug charges are almost as high as the total 'losses' from drug-related injury and premature death. The Lewin group doesn't try to assign causal connections to their "crime careers" category, but obviously, if the drug trade is legal than you don't get to count people working as drug dealers as a 'lost' segment of the economy (if you ever could.) That's also assuming my extraordinarily generous set of starting assumptions. If harm-reduction (education, quality control of drugs, clean needle programs, etc.) really can reduce harm to society, then that would produce an additional decrease in the cost of drug use. Likewise, much of the police costs involved in drugs are no doubt actually for chasing drug offenders, not just from drug-related crimes. There is also the issue of profits from the drug trade; it should be fairly easy to realize perhaps $20 billion/year in profits from taxes on drugs. (According to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, Americans spent about $67 billion on illegal drugs in 1998, down from a high of $154 billion in 1988, reflecting both reduced usage of cocaine and plummeting prices for cocaine and heroin.)

     All of this leaves us with a fairly simple question: If we do legalize drugs, how will usage levels be affected? If there is not a huge increase of use and addiction, then ending prohibition is the economically responsible choice. (The Prohibitionists would no doubt point out that the cost of drugs is not purely in dollars, and I agree. I suggest they ask the 1.5 million Americans they arrested last year on drug charges who will now be less able to get jobs and unable to get student aid for college what they think of the 'intangible' benefits of prohibition.)



Grilling Sacred Cows: Prohibition's Impact on Drug Use.

     The prohibitionists argue that yes, perhaps the cost of waging war against your own citizen's private lives is expensive, but it would be far worse if we didn't. Without Prohibition (the Prohibitionists claim) drug use would run out of control: Prohibition is the only thing standing between us and a nation drowning in drug abuse. So...what impact has prohibition had on levels of drug use?

The Netherlands experiment.

     The drug we have the most information on in terms of use within different legal climates is probably marijuana. The Netherlands has for thirty years pursued a 'harm reduction' approach to marijuana; although they haven't entirely legalized it, they do permit the sale, use, and possession of small amounts by adults. What has the result been? Has their policy of treating marijuana use as just another personal vice instead of a criminal menace left the nation drowning in marijuana addicts? (And by the same token, has the fanatical US policy actually controlled marijuana?)


Data gathered by the European ESPAD survey and the US Monitoring the Future surveys of students. Data is for the year 1999 (the latest year for which data is available from both.)


     OK, I stuck in the ecstasy use results as well out of personal interest (the Netherlands appears to be the heart of the world's ecstasy trade, at one point producing as much as 80% of the world's supply according to one DEA estimate.) They make more, purer, stronger, and cheaper ecstasy tablets than pretty much any other country...good pills can be had there for a few dollars apiece (as opposed to $15-$30 in the USA.) Indeed, the Netherlands is constantly accused of being 'soft on drugs' by the US. So, how is this possible? One of the most sacred premises of the drug war says that levels of drug use depend on price and availability, yet these results don't seem to support that conclusion.

     Perhaps even more striking are the results for marijuana. In spite of marijuana being openly and legally available in the Netherlands, considerably fewer of their young people currently use it, or have ever used it! How is such a thing possible if, as the prohibitionists claim, having marijuana illegal is the only thing that keeps us all from turning into unrepentant potheads?

     I would suggest several factors. First, by outlawing drugs, the government has made them the 'forbidden fruit'. Under prohibition, smoking pot is 'cool'. It's counterculture. Rebellious. Courageous. A statement. Under legalization, it's just another unhealthy dumbass waste of your time and money. By effectively legalizing marijuana, the Netherlands has kept it in its place, countering ready and legal availability by denying it the prestige of government persecution.

     It is clear than legalization of marijuana in the Netherlands has not caused runaway use. Even as adults, a person in the Netherlands is about half as likely as an American to be a pot smoker, in spite of our having arrested nearly 750,000 people for marijuana in 2001 alone. For all the lives disrupted and destroyed, for all the billions of dollars and fervent chest-beating by politicians, there is no evidence that America's war on marijuana has had even the slightest positive impact on levels of drug use. That's a pretty radical idea for most people, but...these are the numbers. If you can find a justification of marijuana prohibition in this or any other data, let me know.

      Meanwhile in the US, the government continues to study substance use by young people. In the latest Monitoring the Future study (2002), 89% of high school seniors report that it would be "fairly easy" or "very easy" for them to get marijuana. So, if we really want to give the Prohibitionists the benefit of the doubt, we might say that they are keeping marijuana away from about 10% of young adults. (By the time they graduate high school, over half of American kids will have smoked marijuana.)


Harm Reduction Nations vs. Prohibitionist Nations.

     The UN has dedicated a great deal of effort to tracking the drug trade around the world, including gathering information on usage rates of many drugs from numerous countries. Here are some of the most recent results (numbers in parenthesis indicate the age range studied and the year of the study; percentages are of people who used the drug in question within the past year.)


     You may ask why the Netherlands, where high-grade marijuana flows like water, legally and openly, has had so much better luck containing marijuana use than the US has? Or compared to the United Kingdom, which has traditionally marched virtually in lock-step with American drug policy? This is not necessarily evidence that prohibition has increased use, but it's certainly a damning blow to the prohibitionist belief that levels of drug use are significantly determined by legality. (Average price of marijuana in the Netherlands was about $5 per gram, vs. $10 per gram in the US.)

    I can hear the prohibitionists, squealing in protest: "Respect for the laws stops people from using drugs! If you legalize pot, they'll have no reason not to become potheads!" Well, I have a wake up call for these simple-minded villains: American popular culture loves marijuana. Sure, the law says no, but our friends, the movies, MTV, and everybody else says yes, and in the end, culture is infinitely more powerful than the moralizing condemnation of balding legislators. That is why the Netherlands has kept usage to half the rate of the US in spite of de facto legalization; they have returned control of drug use from impotent government regulations to social pressures and expectations, which are much harder to dodge than the law. The US government can never shift the tide of popular culture's opinion of marijuana as long as they demonize and persecute it. They, the Prohibitionists, made marijuana special. They've done it by declaring 'thou shall not because we say so'. They've done it by turning it into a culture war instead of just a questionable lifestyle/health decision.


MDMA ('ecstasy'.)

     In spite of a more lax policy towards the drug, in spite of a virtually limitless local supply of high-quality low-cost pills, the Netherlands had considerably less MDMA ('ecstasy') use than the US and UK, those eternal partners in the great Drug War. (The UN reports an average per-pill price in the US of $27 for 2000. Recently prices in the Netherlands have reached around $3.)


Opiates (heroin, morphine, etc.)

     The Netherlands also has "dangerously lenient" policies regarding heroin users, trying to treat them as people with a medical problem instead of as criminals. Needle exchange programs, 'shooting galleries', even in some cases police turning a blind eye to dealers who cooperate with harm-reduction groups. According to the American Prohibitionist dogma, the Netherlands should be overrun with heroin addicts as a result. Yet...they are not. I don't know what all the factors are that determine levels of use, but again, it's clear that harm-reduction hasn't caused the sky to fall, nor has absolute Prohibition actually managed to produce any measurable benefits. Further damning the Prohibitionist theories of drug use, in 1999 heroin cost an average of $42.50 a gram in the Netherlands, while in the US prices were $131 or more per gram (prices were similar in the UK.)


Stimulants (amphetamine, methamphetamine, cocaine.)

     The US did far worse than the Netherlands with amphetamines as well...but at least they finally they pulled ahead of the UK, right? Well...

     There's the explanation. The US didn't doesn't have notably fewer stimulant users; Americans are just more likely to be using cocaine instead of amphetamines. (Cocaine was also more expensive in the US; $82 per gram vs. $61 in the Netherlands.)




Exporting the Drug War: Foreign Supply Reduction Efforts

     Lest we forget yet another front in the American led drug-war, let's see how we're doing trying to stop the flow of drugs coming into the country from overseas.


    From powering the Disco era at the height of Yuppie excess to helping make future US presidents the life of the party, America has had a long love affair with cocaine. In recent years, the US has aggressively pursued eradication efforts in South America, helping to spray herbicides on coca plantations, funding and equipping the local government troops, and providing advice.

     If we define success as being able to keep the price of cocaine from rapidly declining, then the US effort has been a success. Still, the past decade saw almost a 40% decline in wholesale prices. Average purity has, according to the DEA, declined modestly in recent years due to more restrictive regulations of chemicals used to process the coca leaves.



     Arguably one of the most dangerous, addictive, and socially costly illegal drugs, controlling the heroin trade has long been a priority for the US. In recent years, opium production in South America has created an explosive increase in purity and decrease in prices for heroin in the US:

     As you can see, wholesale prices have been cut to a third of what they were just a decade ago, reflected a greatly increased supply within the US. According to the Drug Enforcement Agency's Domestic Monitor Program the average purity of heroin in the US at the street level has gone from a low of 3.6% in 1980 to 36.8% in 2000 (purity has been fairly stable in recent years.)



The Prohibitionist Religion


     We have been offered the Prohibitionist's central belief, that making something illegal must greatly reduce use, as a statement of Faith. We are simply expected to embrace it as a 'self-evident' truth. Does Prohibition reduce drug use? "Of course, it's obvious that it must!" But when examined in detail, it's anything but obvious. 'Soft on drugs' nations have not been overrun by drug abuse. Fanatically anti-drug governments like the US have some of the most out of control drug abuse problems on earth. We hemorrhage cash to pay for a solution that's been more expensive than the problem, our prisons are crammed, our rights and Constitution are trampled on, and for what? A statement of faith that has never delivered on its claims. I can find no evidence to support the conclusion that American-style Prohibition has had any beneficial impact on drug use or harm to our society from drug use; indeed, prohibition has caused grievous harm. Unquestioning blind faith may be fine for a cult, but it's a wretched basis for public policy.

     Prohibition has already reached its high-water mark; the perennial declarations of various governments that they will 'win the drug war' within a certain number of years are nothing more than ignorant delusions. They cannot win the drug war because a large minority of people want drugs. Any reduction in the supply merely increases the profits, motivating traffickers and producers to escalate to ever-greater extremes of ingenuity and violence to defend and expand their share of the trade.

      An ambitious person could spend a few hundred dollars on an airline ticket to Europe, pick up a thousand 'ecstasy' tablets for a dollar or two each, Fed-Ex them to an accomplice in the US (lovingly vacuum-packed and scrubbed down to prevent detection by dogs), and sell them off stateside for as much as $25+ a pill. Many people can't resist that sort of profit potential, and as long as there are buyers, there will be people willing to roll the dice for a chance at easy wealth. Trying to stop the drug trade by attacking users is vicious and unproductive. Trying to stop it by chasing smugglers and dealers (and even labs) is as pointless as trying to piss up a flagpole; reduced supply = increased profits = new recruits to the trade to restore supply. God himself couldn't beat that market dynamic. Even the Communists were eventually bright enough to realize that capitalism is an unstoppable force; why can't the Prohibitionists figure it out?

    It's time to end the lie. The Prohibitionists have perpetuated their crimes against the American people for far too long already.


     "The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) opposes criminal prohibition of drugs. Not only is prohibition a proven failure as a drug control strategy, but it subjects otherwise law-abiding citizens to arrest, prosecution and imprisonment for what they do in private. In trying to enforce the drug laws, the government violates the fundamental rights of privacy and personal autonomy that are guaranteed by our Constitution."

-ACLU Position Paper


     "Libertarians, like most Americans, demand to be safe at home and on the streets. Libertarians would like all Americans to be healthy and free of drug dependence. But drug laws don't help; they make things worse.  The professional politicians scramble to make names for themselves as tough anti-drug warriors, while the experts agree that the "war on drugs" has been lost, and could never be won. The tragic victims of that war are your personal liberty and its companion, responsibility. It's time to consider the re-legalization of drugs."

-Libertarian Party Platform


     "The long federal experiment in prohibition of marijuana, cocaine, heroin, and other drugs has given us crime and corruption combined with a manifest failure to stop the use of drugs or reduce their availability to children."

-The CATO Institute


     "So long as large sums of money are involved - and they are bound to be if drugs are illegal - it is literally impossible to stop the traffic, or even to make a serious reduction in its scope."

     "Legalizing drugs would simultaneously reduce the amount of crime and raise the quality of law enforcement. Can you conceive of any other measure that would accomplish so much to promote law and order?"

-Milton Friedman, Nobel Prize winning economist


     "Criminal penalties have clearly failed to prevent widespread use of marijuana... Law and health are two entirely separate issues."

-Bob DuPont, former head of the National Institute on Drug Abuse


     "Government exists to protect us from each other. Where government has gone beyond its limits is in deciding to protect us from ourselves."

-President Ronald Reagan


"Let justice be done, though the world perish."
-Ferdinand I - Motto adopted in 1530s



Next page: Alternatives to Prohibition.