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Counting the Costs of the Drug War

The true costs of prohibition should be measured not just by the billions of dollars spent for enforcement of drug laws, but the overall impact on drug consumption, crime, public health and unseen moral consequences.
 
 
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The costs of the war in Iraq can be measured daily in deaths, injuries and decreasing support for U.S. policies. But how do you measure the costs of America's other war -- the war on drugs?

Each year, the U.S. government spends more than $30 billion on the drug war and arrests more than 1.5 million people on drug-related charges. More than 318,000 people are now behind bars in the U.S. for drug violations. This is more than the total number of people incarcerated for all crimes in the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy and Spain combined.

bookAt a May 6 forum sponsored by the Independent Institute, an Oakland, California, think tank, analysts tried to quantify the real costs of drug war. Have these efforts actually deterred drug abuse or reduced crime? Boston University economist Jeffrey A. Miron, who spoke at the forum, applied an economic analysis to determine whether drug prohibition is a more effective public policy than legalization -- which would tax and regulate drugs. Miron, author of the new book Drug War Crimes, says the true costs of prohibition should be measured not just by the billions of dollars spent for enforcement of drug laws, but the overall impact on drug consumption, crime, public health and unseen moral consequences.

One of the major goals of prohibition is to increase the cost of drugs and thereby reduce demand and drug consumption. But Miron says this approach has failed. He points out that the price of drugs has actually fallen by 80% in the past 25 years. Despite millions of drug arrests, Miron says prohibition has had a relatively small effect on both the supply and consumption of drugs. He says the government's claims of a fifty percent drop in consumption due to prohibition are exaggerated. "Prohibition reduces access of drugs to some people, but there is no evidence that suggests a large effect," says Miron.

Miron also disputes claims by the federal Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) that drug use makes people violent and contributes to crime. He says prohibition increases violence because people involved in the drug trade have no recourse to the legal system to settle their disputes and are more likely to settle it themselves with force. "There is no evidence that merely consuming drugs makes you go out and do criminal things," says Miron.

Throughout history, Miron says periods of escalating violence have been sparked by attempts to prohibit certain commodities such as drugs, alcohol, gambling or prostitution. In instances where prohibition does increase the cost of drugs, he says drug users are more likely to steal or rob to pay for drugs. Police efforts to curtail violence are often diverted to enforcing drug laws.

Miron also notes that the drug trade enriches only the sellers, who are exempt from paying taxes on their products or minimum wages to workers. Drug sellers are not required to engage in quality control, which leads to more overdoses and accidental poisonings, says Miron. And he notes that there are other social consequences that make prohibition more costly than the legalization. "Because prohibition is a victimless crime, there is strong incentive for police to impede civil liberties and do racial profiling," he says. Miron adds that resistance to needle exchange programs under prohibition also increases the spread of HIV.

The effects of drug use on third parties such as unborn children or those involved in drug-related traffic accidents are exaggerated, says Miron, and not significantly different from the negative effects of alcohol or forgoing sleep for late-night TV. As for those who think that drugs are inherently immoral, Miron argues that the concurrent violence, damage to civil liberties and decreased respect for law which follows prohibition have a larger negative moral impact on people who are innocent bystanders to the drug war. According to Miron, the paternalistic attitude that people need to be protected from themselves opens a Pandora's box of government intervention.

"There is no reason to think that the benefits of reducing myopic drug use balances the costs that prohibition places on society," says Miron. "The best policy is to legalize drugs and do it sooner rather than later."

The Drug War Crimes forum also looked at the impact of prohibition on police forces. Joseph McNamara, former police chief of San Jose and now a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, says police have been greatly influenced by federal escalation of the drug war. He says financially strapped local police departments now receive significant funding and much of their training from federal officials who encourage them to continue to make drug arrests. "It is a jihad, it is a holy war you have to fight," says McNamara.

McNamara says local police are also encouraged by city officials to seize the assets of suspected drug criminals to fund their departments. "In San Jose when I was given zero dollars in the budget they said 'you guys seized four million dollars last year, I expect you to do better this year,"' says McNamara.

McNamara says police are under pressure from citizen groups who worry about the impact of open outdoor drug markets on children in the neighborhood. He emphasized that these concerns cannot be dismissed. But he says current drug policies have vastly increased police corruption, and created a culture of "gangster cops." Protected by a code of silence and supported by an attitude from top officials that police should not be impeded in their duties, McNamara says prohibition gives rise to a range of police abuses. McNamara says this has been illustrated in series of police corruption scandals including one at his former employer, the New York City Police Department. Investigators there, he said, found that narcotics officers had been robbing drug dealers and stealing their drugs. Confronted by the reality that the country is still flooded with drugs, he says police sometimes develop the attitude that "it's hopeless we can't do anything about it, why shouldn't we all benefit."

Despite the impact on prohibition on the stability of social institutions, the US government rarely looks at the unintended consequences of the drug war, says Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA). "The absence of critical analysis on the part of the administration and Congress is worse now than ever," says Nadelmann who once worked for the US State Department analyzing the laundering of drug money.

Nadelmann says the DPA has been building a political movement to shift public opinion concerning drug prohibition. "We want to end prohibition as we know it and reduce the harms of drugs," says Nadelmann. "Nobody should be punished in any way for what we put in our bodies, that should be a fundamental human right and is sound public policy."

According to Nadelmann, one of the greatest concerns about drug legalization is "loss of control." He says that the government's prohibition policies have resulted in greater overall loss of control and regulation and taxation of drugs is the answer to this concern. Since the majority of drug arrests take place for marijuana, he says the dismantling of prohibition has started there. He says the DPA has taken the initiative to the states and helped support the passage of state medical marijuana laws and asset forfeiture reform. DPA also helped pass California's Prop. 36 which significantly reduced the number of people sent to jail for drug crimes by offering treatment as an alternative.

Nadelmann noted that countries with more permissive drug laws have not seen an increase in drug use. When an audience at the panel asked about age limits on drug access, Miron says there was support for age limits such as that which exist for alcohol and cigarettes. But he noted that children would still get access, as they do now to both drugs and alcohol, and it is important that these concerns be addressed by families.

Nadelmann says the marijuana reform movement mirrors the gay rights movement in that it is pushed forward by those who put a human face on the issue by coming out of the closet as marijuana smokers. He says this had helped shift public opinion in which 41% of those polled support the idea that marijuana should be taxed and regulated with numbers approaching 50% in Nevada and Alaska.

As an increasing number of states take steps toward regulating medical cannabis, Nadelmann says the next question will be "what is medical?" He notes that some people use cannabis to generate the same effect as Viagra, to treat depression, or to relax at the end of the day as one would with a cocktail.

According to Nadelmann, the next evolutionary step in the repeal of drug prohibition is the Oakland Cannabis Initiative, a ballot initiative in Oakland, Calif. which would make marijuana enforcement the lowest police enforcement priority and support a statewide effort to tax and regulate the drug. Supporters of the initiative are still gathering signatures to place it on the November ballot.

Another challenge for those who wish to overturn drug prohibition is to end policies that encourage the hatred of those who consume or distribute drugs. McNamara notes that under prohibition, these people are not only imprisoned, but they have property confiscated, driver's licenses taken away and are cut off from access to educational funding. These measures, says McNamara, violate the right of Americans to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. He reminded the audience at the Drug War Crimes forum that the first laws supporting drug prohibition were put in place in 1914 by "fundamentalist groups who inserted their concept of sin into the penal code."

"It is not up to the government to tell us what rights they will dole out to us," said McNamara as the audience cheered. "We were born with those rights."

Ann Harrison is a freelance reporter working in the Bay Area.