The Wrong War

Saturday, July 30, 2005

Should adults be free to make their own decisions about using drugs ranging from marijuana to cocaine and heroin? Most Americans would answer with a resounding no. But dig a little deeper and you find something interesting. With two admittedly big exceptions (discussed below), most problems that people attribute to drugs—the crimes committed to finance a habit, the role of organized crime in selling drugs, deaths from overdoses, innocent people killed when turf battles erupt between rival gangs, and the connection between drugs and terrorism—are due not to the drugs per se but to the fact that the drugs are illegal.

The easiest way to see that it’s not the drugs that cause these problems but the fact that they are illegal is to imagine that a common consumer product is outlawed and then figure out the consequences. Imagine, for example, that all colas were outlawed and that the government imposed the harsh sentences for selling or using cola that it now imposes for selling or using cocaine.

  • You would still be able to buy cola but not at a supermarket. Instead, you’d buy it in a nondescript bottle late at night in an alley behind the supermarket. And the price would be, say, $20 a bottle, instead of 60 cents because the seller would insist on being compensated for risking a long prison sentence. At $20 a bottle, some cola users would then go out and rob to support their “habit.”

  • Who would sell this cola? Not the supermarket employee but a criminal. Career criminals would be attracted to this “profession” because they have the “criminal skills” to make it work: the ability to hide and dissemble, street smarts about avoiding the police, and the willingness to use occasional violence.

  • Unlike legal cola, you would never know the strength or quality of what you were buying because an illegal dealer doesn’t have nearly the same incentive as a seller of legal goods to advertise or to establish a reputation. Also, the cola might be very strong; that way the dealer can pack more of the illegal substance in a given size and weight package, reducing his risk per dose. (The superstrength of some illegal drugs, incidentally, is behind many drug overdoses, some of them fatal.)

  • One way cola producers would compete against one another would be by competing on price. But that’s not the only way. They would also compete by using force against one another in order to establish territorial monopolies. Competition would be truly cutthroat. And in this violent competition, innocent people would be killed in the cross fire.

  • Because making goods illegal attracts criminals, some of the sellers could well be terrorists.

If you doubt this, read about Prohibition, which the middle three problems above were all associated with. Almost as soon as the prohibition of alcohol began, organized crime took over. Also, to reduce the risk, its producers made alcohol very potent; beer and wine almost disappeared and high-potent spirits took their place. Some people died from drinking because they underestimated the potency of their drinks, and there was no label telling them the potency. And of course the gang wars in Chicago and other cities are the stuff of legend. In some of those gang wars, innocent people were killed. After Prohibition ended, so did the hold of organized crime on the liquor business. Once again, people could know what they were drinking. Also, the murder rate fell.

Although I know of no connection between Prohibition and terrorism, the sale of illegal drugs has certainly contributed to terrorism. The U.S. government threatens the Colombian government with trade sanctions to push that government to crack down on its coca producers. The coca producers want protection from their own government. Most of them are just peaceful people trying to make a peso. So where do they go for protection? To organizations like the Revolutionary Army of Colombia (FARC), a leftist terrorist group to which they pay protection money. By one estimate, FARC’s revenue from drug-related sources is more than $600 million a year, which would make it the best-funded terrorist group in the world. Thus, the war against drugs actually strengthens the position of the terrorist insurgents.

The two problems I mentioned in the beginning that legalization would not solve are the addictive nature of drugs and the damage imposed by users on non-users. Take addiction first. Many other drugs are addictive and legal, including alcohol and tobacco. And although some totalitarians in our midst want to make those drugs illegal, most people accept the idea that adults should be free to use alcohol and tobacco. In other words, addictiveness per se is not a good enough reason to make a good illegal and throw people in jail for using it. Myself, I would take addiction over prison any day as, I believe, would most people.

The more serious problem of the two is the harm that drug users cause others. Most of us don’t like the idea of people high on various drugs operating vehicles that could crash into innocent people. But again the alcohol model is relevant. The way we handle this problem is to impose heavy penalties on drunk drivers. And evidence from Europe and the United States shows that those penalties work. One basic principle of economics is that, if you want to solve a problem, focus your policy on that problem. The problem is not drug users getting stoned in their own homes; the problem is drug users putting others at risk. That, then, should be what we try to solve.

Similarly, most people aren’t thrilled about the idea of an airline pilot being stoned while flying. There’s a simple solution, one that the U.S. military uses on its personnel. It’s called a urine test. To call for legalizing drugs is not to call for abolishing such tests.

There’s no reason we can’t legalize drugs and hold their users accountable. Then the people hurt by drugs would be mainly those who chose them, rather than innocent people who are robbed to pay for users’ habits or who are caught in the cross fire.