In today’s WSJ (“Have We Lost the War on Drugs“?), University of Chicago economists Gary Becker (Nobel laureate) and Kevin Murphy make the case for the decriminalization of drug use and the drug market, here are four key points:
1. 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.
Mexico offers a well-documented example of some of the costs involved in drug wars. Probably more than 50,000 people have died since Mexico’s antidrug campaign started in 2006. For perspective, about 150,000 deaths would result if the same fraction of Americans were killed. This number of deaths is many magnitudes greater than American losses in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined, and is about three times the number of American deaths in the Vietnam War. Many of those killed were innocent civilians and the army personnel, police officers and local government officials involved in the antidrug effort.
Two indirect costs of the War on Drugs:
2. Over the past 40 years the fraction of students who have dropped out of American high schools has remained large, at about 25%. Dropout rates are not high for middle-class white children, but they are very high for black and Hispanic children living in poor neighborhoods. Many factors explain the high dropout rates, especially bad schools and weak family support. But another important factor in inner-city neighborhoods is the temptation to drop out of school in order to profit from the drug trade.
3. 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.
4. The decriminalization of both drug use and the drug market won’t be attained easily, as there is powerful opposition to each of them. The disastrous effects of the American war on drugs are becoming more apparent, however, not only in the U.S. but beyond its borders. Former Mexican President Felipe Calderon has suggested “market solutions” as one alternative to the problem. Perhaps the combined efforts of leaders in different countries can succeed in making a big enough push toward finally ending this long, enormously destructive policy experiment.