The Drug War -- It's for the Children?

I have written a number of times about the high cost of the war on drugs, and the craziness of locking up drug users for years in prison "for their own good." 

Usually, the argument for the drug war devolves to "its for the children."  The argument is that by keeping various narcotics and other drugs illegal to all, children, who by definition can't make adult decisions well, will find it harder to obtain and use these drugs.  Also, drug warriors argue that full prohibition prevents kids getting the message that drug use is OK, presumably because they might interpret "legality" as "approved for use."

We could prove or disprove this hypothesis that full drug prohibition reduces that drug's use among kids with a simple experiment:  Make some drugs legal for adults, but illegal for children, and make other drugs illegal for everyone, and see what happens. 

But wait!  We already have such an experiment in place.  Drugs like cocaine and marijuana are illegal for everyone, and a drug like tobacco cigarettes are legal for adults but illegal for kids.  If the drug warrior's hypothesis is correct that total bans on drugs reduce childhood use, then we should see tobacco use among children much higher than use by those same kids of drugs that are illegal for all.  Well, here are the stats, from Monitoring the Future (hat tip: Hit and Run), whose funding comes from the war-on-drugs folks.  I will use the 2006 data on drug use in the last 30-days, but any of the table shows the same basic results:

% Using Illegal

% Using Tobacco

8th grade



10th grade



12th grade



Can you see the point?  Tobacco use is the same or even lower than the use of illegal drugs in this survey.  Legalizing a habit-forming drug for adults does not seem to increase use of that drug among kids vs. full prohibition.  So what is the war on drugs buying us, anyway?


  1. Brad Warbiany:

    Interesting... Did you see the numbers on alcohol though? (I'm assuming you're looking at the 30-day Prevalence numbers, for 2006, because those numbers appear to match up):

    For alcohol (any use)
    8th: 17.2%
    10th: 33.8%
    12th: 45.3%

    Now, those numbers could include Sunday communion, so they have another:

    Alcohol (been drunk)
    8th: 6.2%
    10th: 18.8%
    12th: 30%

    It seems to me that the numbers for alcohol are significantly higher than for marijuana. While I doubt heroin would get popular with 10th-graders, I would think that if marijuana were legalized, it would probably reach usage levels somewhat approaching that of those who have been drunk from alcohol (it would take a while, as alcohol is currently more socially acceptable than pot, but I think that would slowly change with legalization).

    Kids smoke cigarettes to look cool. Kids smoke pot to get high. I would think alcohol usage numbers are a lot better analogy than tobacco usage numbers.

  2. isaac Crawford:

    Yeah Coyote, I'm with you all the way on the war on drugs, but this post isn't going to help the argument. In addition to the alcohol numbers (which I think are a much better comp.) there is simple economics. By removing the legal barriers to drug consumption you have also removed a "cost." In addition, logic would dictate that with legal status, compitition would generate lower prices across the board. When things cost less, people consume more. I think that with the more dangerous drugs (Heroin, alcohol, cocaine, meth) the over all costs will probably dominate more than the dollar amount, but other drugs where the primary costs are the doillar amount and possible legal troubles (marijuana, extascy, hash, etc.) will see rises in usage across the board once they are legalized. So yes, I do expect more kids will partake in "drugs" once legalized, but that is the parent's problem to deal with, not the nanny state...


  3. Jim Collins:

    This all comes down to one
    There is too much money to be made in manufacturing and selling drugs and there is too much money to be made in fighting drugs. In the mid 1980's Lockheed kept itself out of bankruptcy because of it's contrcts for modifying aircraft for the "war on drugs". If you don't think that both the druggies and the anti-druggies both have their own lobbiests you are mistaken.

  4. Bill:

    Cigarettes are illegal for kids until late into 12th grade. It figures that the ones smoking prematurely will also be using illegal drugs. that being said, I don't buy the study, or any survey which asks kids to tell you how often they engage in drugs and sex. Those numbers are striking though, and so maybe I'm being too pessimistic.

    Anyway, most kids will hopefully grow out of drug use, and hopefully they never got too deep into it. If you're rebeling by smoking pot, what do you do when it gets legalized? Heroine, I guess. In all serioussness though, as wasteful as the drug laws may be, I am very hesitant to legailze these substances. They are bad for kids, and for everyone. Is alcohol and/or tobacco worse? Yes, but that doesn't mean we should legalize lesser or equivalent poisons because one that is worse is still allowed.

    Are people being locked away needlessly and at tremendous cost? Yes, but I am not unconvinced many of those people (the ones getting caught and locked up) wouldn't end up locked up or destitute for some other reason. That is to say, while the war on drugs is responsible for putting people in jails, I would guess a large number might find their way into jail, through drug use, even if said drug use wasn't illegal.