Posts tagged ‘drug legalization’

Drug War: Fail

Bravo for Nicholas Kristof's editorial in the Times:

Here in the United States, four decades of drug war have had three consequences:

First, we have vastly increased the proportion of our population in prisons. The United States now incarcerates people at a rate nearly five times the world average. In part, that's because the number of people in prison for drug offenses rose roughly from 41,000 in 1980 to 500,000 today. Until the war on drugs, our incarceration rate was roughly the same as that of other countries.

Second, we have empowered criminals at home and terrorists abroad. One reason many prominent economists have favored easing drug laws is that interdiction raises prices, which increases profit margins for everyone, from the Latin drug cartels to the Taliban. Former presidents of Mexico, Brazil and Colombia this year jointly implored the United States to adopt a new approach to narcotics, based on the public health campaign against tobacco.

Third, we have squandered resources. Jeffrey Miron, a Harvard economist, found that federal, state and local governments spend $44.1 billion annually enforcing drug prohibitions. We spend seven times as much on drug interdiction, policing and imprisonment as on treatment. (Of people with drug problems in state prisons, only 14 percent get treatment.)

I've seen lives destroyed by drugs, and many neighbors in my hometown of Yamhill, Oregon, have had their lives ripped apart by crystal meth. Yet I find people like Mr. Stamper persuasive when they argue that if our aim is to reduce the influence of harmful drugs, we can do better.

The current regime not only has failed, but is absolutely absurd in its assumptions.  The argument that something like marijuana should be illegal is always "to protect the kids."  But the solution is nuts.   I will put it very personally.  It replaces a mildly bad thing (my teenager is smoking rope) with a disasterous, ruin-one's-life thing (my teenager was arrested for possession and may go to jail).  Its just crazy to say it is better to send kids to jail than have them do drugs.  Drugs I can deal with and correct in my household, or at least I can try -- jail and an arrest record I can't fix.

Drug warriors worry about "the message" we send to kids with legalization, but no one is talking about legalizing drugs for kids, any more than we do with tobacco or alcohol.  Use of those are adult decisions and we require one to be an adult to make them.

To be honest, looking at the teens I see, I can't see much difference in teen's perception of smoking tobacco vs. other drugs, despite the fact that the former is legal for adults, and so by drug warrior logic we have sent the message that it is more OK somehow.  In fact, in use statistics, it is hard to see any difference, with teens using legal-for-adults drugs like tobacco at about the same rate as they use other illegal-for-everyone drugs.

The Wire

I really like the HBO series "the Wire" about the Baltimore police force and the pursuit of various drug gangs, which I have been catching up on via DVD.  While season 2 and 3 were not quite as good as 1, they still are quite good.

In many respects, this is a very libertarian series in outlook.  A central part of the show is that government officials nearly universally do wrong and wasteful things.  However, only a few of them are overtly corrupt.  The vast majority are regular folks responding rationally to the types of incentives government employees are given and which result in really bad outcomes.

In fact, I may just be screwed up from too many years in a past life working on corporate performance metrics, but at some level the show is all about incentives.  Even within the drug gangs, there is an interesting interplay between Avon and Stringer due mainly to the fact that though they face roughly the same circumstances and inputs, one has a goal of making money while the other has a goal of reputation and street cred.  I can see now why the Freakonomics blog discusses the show so often.

Oh, and the season 3 experiment with effective drug legalization is also interesting.

Highly recommended.

Failure of the War on Drugs

Frequent readers of this site will know that I support the legalization of most illegal narcotics for adult use, not because I am a secret user who wants to come out of the closet, but because prohibition and efforts to save people from themselves always result in failure.  In particular I remember the old joke that communicates so well the inherent contradictions embodied in the drug war.  It goes: "What is the worst thing that can happen to a teen who smokes marijuana?  Answer: He can get thrown in jail."

Whenever I make the argument for drug legalization, 100 out of 100 times the first response is "what kind of message does that send to kids."  They argue that even if kids under 18 are not allowed access to drugs, legalization for adults will send the message to kids that drug use is more acceptable, and their use of drugs will increase.

What is most surprising about this statement is how easy it is to test.  The approach was suggested to me by something I read in Reason the other day.

Check out this press release from the Department of Health and Human Services on youth drug use:

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration today
announced that current illicit drug use among youth ages 12-17
continues to decline.   The rate has been moving downward from 11.6
percent using drugs in the past month in 2002 to 11.2 percent in 2003,
10.6 percent in 2004 and 9.9 percent in 2005....

The  rate of past month cigarette use among youth ages 12-17 declined from 13.0  percent in 2002 to 10.8 percent in 2005.

The counter proof to the "what about the kids" argument is right here in these two paragraphs.  Tobacco today, which is illegal for teens while legal (but frowned upon) for adults, is a good proxy for post-legalization narcotics.  Note therefore that illicit drug use among teens is 9.9 percent, while tobacco use is 10.8 percent.  There is virtually no difference!  The legal-for-adults substance is used by teens at only slightly higher a rate than illicit drugs, and this from the drug warriors' own figures.  At most, the"message" sent by legalizing tobacco seems to be no different than the "message" sent by making narcotics illegal. Tobacco is legal for adults, does not carry nearly the same stigma as illegal drugs, is far easier for a teen to obtain, and carries much lower penalties for its use, and still it is used by teens at about the same rate as illegal drugs.  In fact, in the figures you can see the legal tobacco use falling faster than illegal drug use.

So what has prohibition, prohibition-related drug violence, and hundreds of thousands of people in jail for drug use achieved?