The Drug War: Availability and Crime

Read two great bits about the drug war yesterday. First, from a letter by Ronald Shafer in the 12/30/2008 Wall Street Journal:

To believe that legalizing drugs would slash crime and violence is a pipe dream. Does anyone really think that the thugs and killers in the drug trade would suddenly become law-abiding insurance salesmen? Certainly drug addiction should be treated as a health problem. But it makes no sense to expand the availability of drugs that kill and, more often, destroy the futures of tens of thousands of young people every year.

Note the emphasis on availability. Now, from an article about Ecstasy (aka MDMA) the 12/20 Holiday Double Issue of the Economist (p133):

Ironically, once it became illegal, MDMA’s recreational use exploded.

Making drugs illegal does not decrease availability. Instead it has turned our schools into distribution centers. Usage of harder drugs increases because they’re more cost-effective for smugglers. During Alcohol Prohibition consumption shifted from wine and beer to hard liquor for that reason.

Most of the problems related to drugs, including the deaths, come about because drugs are illegal. Crime and violence a pipe dream? Look at alcohol prohibition:

Click on the graph to enlarge it. Do you see the huge drop in homicide after Prohibition ended? Do you see the jump in crime after Nixon declared the War on Drugs? The graph comes from Jeff Miron on Alcohol Prohibition.

What happened to the thugs and killers after Alcohol Prohibition? Apparently they stopped murdering people until the drug war gave them a reason to start again.

Mr. Shafer – I’m sorry your son died as a result of using LSD. But your answer is wrong. There are about 2 million arrests a year now, and 500,000 non-violent drug offenders behind bars. The drug war devastates poor communities, increases crime, and wreaks havoc on Latin America. It also wastes a huge amount of money. And like Alcohol Prohibition, it just doesn’t work. It won’t bring your son back. He died, in part, because drugs are illegal. Keeping them illegal will kill more like him.

The history of Alcohol Prohibition gives us a tremendous lesson. Why do we continue to reject it?

2 comments to The Drug War: Availability and Crime

  • Anonymous

    Warren – thanks for your level-headed, evidence based analysis. I read Ronald Shafer’s letter in the WSJ, as well as his 1989 article about the death of his son. As terrible and tragic a story as that is, my take on it is that the poor kid had some serious other problems before he tried drugs, and that is drug intake was a symptom of that, not the cause. Sure, prohibition may have increased its allure to him, but this kid went through and graduated from how many, three, treatment programs, to no avail. I don’t think that recitation supports the conclusion that the drugs are responsible for his death, or that better rehab would have saved him. Hard to know what would have happened if he had had no access to drugs, but I’ve seen a lot of people who manage to find creative ways to mess themselves up without drugs, if they are truly motivated. Sad story, no doubt. But not sure that eliminating drugs would have saved him – I would have looked for another cause…

  • Thanks for your comment. A world with “no access to drugs” is a nice fiction. Just not reality.