Battlepanda: How not to fight the War on Drugs


Always trying to figure things out with the minimum of bullshit and the maximum of belligerence.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

How not to fight the War on Drugs

Brad Delong approvingly quotes Tyler Cowen who quotes the work of Gary Becker et. al. on the futility of the War on Drugs. Brad thinks this is the stuff of genius, I'm not sure I agree. Judge for yourself:
The authors demonstrate how the elasticity of demand is crucial to understanding the effects of punishment on suppliers. Enforcement raises costs for suppliers, who must respond to the risk of imprisonment and other punishments. This cost is passed on to the consumer, which induces lower consumption when demand is relatively elastic. However, in the case of illegal goods... where demand... [is] inelastic[,] higher prices lead... to an increase in total spending.... The authors argue that excise taxes and persuasive techniques such as advertising are far more effective uses of enforcement expenditures. "This analysis... helps us understand why the War on Drugs has been so difficult to win... why efforts to reduce the supply of drugs leads to violence and greater power to street gangs and drug cartels," conclude the authors. "The answer lies in the basic theory of enforcement developed in this paper."
First of all, this theory has been around the block quite a few times, and I'm just not sure that the premise that the demand in illegal drugs have an inelastic demand is true at all. It feels funny to lean on "The Tipping Point" now after kind-of trashing it with faint praise earlier, but Malcolm Gladwell has a great debunking of this kind of thinking, which is predicated on the notion that hard drugs are so addictive that users are hopelessly mired in their thrall no matter how high the costs go:
The absolutist approach to fighting drugs proceeds on the premise that experimentation equals addiction. We don't want our children ever to be exposed to heroin or pot or cocaine because we think that the lure of these substances is so strong that even the smallest exposure will be all it takes. But do you know what the experimentation statistics are for illegal drugs? in the 1996 Household Survey on Drug Abuse, 1.1 percent of those polled said that they had used heroin at least once. but only 18 percent of that 1.1 percent had used it in the past year, and only 9 percent had used it in the past month. That is not the profile of a particularly sticky drug. The figures for cocaine are even more striking. Of those who have ever tried cocaine, less than one percent -- 0.9 percent -- are regular users.
Lest there be any doubt, let me just make clear that I hate the stupid, appalling, unjust war on drugs. I hate it because the costs we are imposing on ourselves, especially on our poor, minority communities, through our draconian and fickle enforcement are much greater than the admittedly enormous social cost those drugs would wreck on their own, just as the legal drugs nicotine and alcohol does great mischief. Go to Radley Balko's site. Almost every other day you will get another horror story of a SWAT team descending upon the home of some suspected small-time marijuana dealer. One of the latest disturbing case actually involved somebody who was only suspected of posession. And if you are a regular reader of this site I don't need to tell you that Cory Maye was collateral damage. The force used is clearly disproportionate. But let's not fool ourselves here. If the prohibition on pot were lifted tomorrow and there are no more SWAT teams and the price decreases, usage will go up. A lot. And ditto for heroine and cocaine and any other illicit substance I can think of.

But hey! Becker and I are both on the same side in terms of opposing the War on Drugs. And his arguments are a lot more convincing and palatable than mine. So why is it so important to criticise this line of thinking? Because, in order to truly undermine the War on Drugs, we have to attack its most basic premise -- that drugs are so powerful that they take away the individual's ability to make a rational choice, necessitating state intervention. Becker's argument for loosening anti-drug measures is predicated on this premise by assuming that all users are drugged zombies who need their fix of x no matter what. Besides, any legislation that results from the promulgation of this theory is bound to be weak because as enforcement draws down, usage will inevitably go up, thus giving the lie to the idea that drug use is relatively inelastic.

By the way, it's not as if I've drank the libertarian kool-aid here. As I stated here, I love my big gubmint. I love my progressive income tax, my social security, my (admittedly rapidly eroding in the case of this big government) environmental and worker protection legislations, heck, I love my law enforcement and most of the laws on the books. What's wrong with this picture is a kind of disasterous overreaction on the part of government fueled by fear and misconceptions about marijuana and other substances that permeates our society. Frequent commentator Lawrence and I used the metaphor of the overactive immune system to describe what's happening with the War on Terror, with a small amount of irritant casing a disproportionate allergic response that devastates the body. It strikes me that the same metaphor can be used for the War on Drugs.