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A Modest Proposal for the War on Drugs

GIve them away!

By Demosthenes  |  February 19, 2008

The "War on Drugs" simply isn't working.  The street price of cocaine, heroin, marijuana, and other illegal substances keeps going down as suppliers become more efficient in response to customer demand.  Selling drugs is so profitable that the FARC and other drug-related groups have enough money and firepower to threaten the governments of Mexico and Colombia.

For years the collective governments of most of the world have cracked down on drug dealers in regular strikes and oft-lauded raids drawing in hundreds and even thousands of pounds of one sort of memory-remover or another.

"$460m cocaine seized in world's biggest drug bust" tells how Colombian authorities found $US350 million worth of cocaine stashed on a jungle riverbank by far-right paramilitary groups in what police called the biggest cocaine bust in history.  Whether the drug trade funds the leftist FARC or the right-wing paramilitary groups is equally bad for countries where these groups operate.

The document President's Fiscal Year (FY) 2007  recommended "drug war" funding of $12.7 billion.

After spending billions in places as far away as Afghanistan and thousands of hours of people's time, we find that we went from virtually no opium produced in Afghanistan in 2001 to 2007 being a bumper crop year.  Afghanistan, Opium and the Taliban points out that the Taliban nearly wiped out opium production but opium production boomed after we displaced the Taliban.

US, NATO troop levels in Afghanistan shows that we're spending a lot of money trying to keep order in Afghanistan but our definition of order includes not growing opium.

Opium growing is the only way most of the farmers can prosper materially; it will be hard to win their hearts and minds while keeping them in poverty.  Trying to keep Afghanis from growing opium is turning out to be so counterproductive that NATO governments are considering legalization of Afghanistan's opium production as described in "NATO to Legalize Afghanistan's Opium?"

In some American communities, more than half of the young men are either in jail, under investigation, or on probation for drug-related offenses.  Our police are being corrupted -- a strange kid can come to town and buy drugs after asking a few questions; you can't tell me the cops don't know who's dealing.

We've gone back and forth on drugs for years -- California legalized medical marijuana, the feds went to court to retain the right to bust doctors who prescribed marijuana and started raiding pot clinics.  California countered with vending machines stocked with pot.

All this police and court activity costs a lot of money and doesn't do our society any good.  What do you think our drug problem does for countries where the drug lords are almost as powerful as the government?

The Two Approaches

Given that we really don't want our people using drugs which our government has put on the illegal drug list, our lawmakers have considered two ways to stop them:

One Sure-Fire Solution

Singapore doesn't have much of a drug abuse problem because it's a capital offense to be caught selling illegal drugs.  Those caught possessing narcotics are beaten by a professional body-builder with a six-foot bamboo rod.  Those caught selling are summarily executed.

This suppresses demand enough to make the industry unprofitable, but America has decided not to address the demand side of the equation in an effective manner.  We don't shoot drug users, we lock them up for "possession."  Locking up drug users has no little or no effect -- in most jails, drugs are available as conveniently as on the street.  Prison sentences for drug users merely increase the profits of the prison-industrial complex without actually reducing overall demand for drugs.

Our anti-drug programs have not measurably reduced the street demand for drugs; all evidence indicates that demand is going up.  Given that we aren't going to imitate Singapore and go after users hard enough to deter them, we're left with efforts to reduce supply.

In spite of our many efforts and in spite of increasing demand, the street price of drugs is still falling.  The market is telling us that our efforts to stop importation simply don't work.

One of the many reasons that we have not seen success in the war on drugs is that we have built a secondary economy surrounding the "War on Drugs".  If the war were to end, so would the job market for those involved in it.  Like all government employees, our drug warriors would far rather expand the problem than solve it.

The Magnitude of the Problem

Some people argue that we can't know how much illegal drug use is going on because, being illegal, we can't track it.  They're wrong -- it's simple to get accurate weekly or even daily estimates of area drug use.  Oregon State University researchers have tested a method to perform an ad hoc drug test on the entire population of a city, so we really can tell just how effective the local police force(s) are in their own sector of the "War on Drugs".

Researchers have figured out how to give an entire community a drug test using just a teaspoon of wastewater from a city's sewer plant.

The test wouldn't be used to finger any single person as a drug user. But it would help federal law enforcement and other agencies track the spread of dangerous drugs, like methamphetamines, across the country.

By measuring the concentrations of various drugs in sewage samples taken at strategic locations where pipes come together, the researchers can estimate the use of pretty much any drug, legal or illegal, in the neighborhood drained by the pipes they tap.  All available data suggest that drug use is increasing.

Our prison population is growing and so much money is flowing to the drug lords that they can shrug off losing $350 million worth of product without the street price going up a bit. The drug pipeline is more efficient than the oil distribution system -- what would happen to gasoline prices if we lost an equivalent amount of oil?

As Ben Franklin said, "The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results."  What we're doing is not working, it's insane to keep doing it.  It's been failing for long enough that it's insane not to try something else.

Make it Legal?

Some people propose legalizing the use of narcotics on the grounds that we can't stop them anyway.  It's been suggested that we might as well get some tax revenue from drug users.

The difficulty with making drugs legal is that big companies would work to expand their profits by finding new customers.  Proponents of legalization point to the decreasing tobacco industry to prove that the legitimate tobacco market is declining so drug use might not necessarily expand after legalization.  This is a poor analogy however, because tobacco use was increasing until the lawyers forced tobacco companies to raise prices enough to deter smoking.

Common sense shows that allowing big companies to advertise their product will be more likely to increase their markets rather than decrease them -- legalization of drugs would be likely to increase drug consumption nationwide.

New York magazine of Jan 14, 2008, pp 20-21 notes that although murders in New York City are down considerably from their peak in 1990, drugs seem to be involved in more than half the remainder.  They quoted the advice of the authors of the book Freakonomics:

Legalize drugs.  "If drugs were legal, they wouldn't be sold on street corners by gangs; they'd be grocery-store commodities."

The violence associated with the trade arises they say, because business disputes between sellers can never be settled through, say, an advertising war or or a civil lawsuit. "In the 1920's, Al Capone and his rivals left a trail of dead bodies as they fought over the profits from bootlegged liquor.  When prohibition ended, it was folks like Anheuser-Busch who took over the business"

The difficulty with simple legalization is that consumption would increase.  When Anheuser-Busch took over the business from Al Capone, their profit motive led them to advertise and seek new customers.  They moved far more beer than Al Capone could imagine.  That's why we do not want simple legalization -- merchants who sell tobacco, booze, and other profitable, but societally harmful substances, advertise to increase consumption.

Make it Free!

As with many seemingly intractable problems, there's a simple solution that nobody talks about -- the Internet shows how to take the profit out of the drug business so the market won't grow.

There was a time when there were only two industries that made money selling on the Internet -- pornography and cosmetics.  The web has matured and many, many businesses get significant revenue via the web, but profitability for porn has diminished greatly.

Was there a "War on Porn"?  Did our government pass new laws against selling porn?  Did they lean on credit card companies not to accept charges from porn sites?

No!  Instead, the market worked.  Many people believe that information on the web ought to be free, and there's a great crowd of folks willing to supply information for free.

Amateurs started filming pornographic movies and posting them online for free.  It's hard to get solid statistics or respectable research in this area, but some say that the "you porn" site in Germany is the third-busiest web site in the world.

As cameras have gotten better and more and more amateurs have contributed, quality has improved; there's less and less money to be made selling professional porn.  The availability of high-quality, free pornography has not reduced porn consumption and may, in fact, have increased it, but has taken the profit out of it.

Mainstream media face the same problem as porn merchants -- how do you compete with armies of talented amateurs who work for free?

This should make it clear how to solve the drug problem in America -- take the money out of the drug business by having the government give the stuff away free.  We'll keep all our anti-drug programs, of course, as we try to persuade kids not to smoke or drink, but if anybody wants to use pot, or coke, or whatever, we'll give it to them for free.

People who really want drugs aren't stopped by high price -- they take up crime to support their habits. Taking the profit out of the industry eliminates drug-related crime.  People who make money selling drugs give away samples to build the market.  If the government gives it away,  the bureaucracy will by its very nature build enough hassle into the system that nobody will ask for drugs unless they really want them.

We need the bureaucracy involved to make the process of getting drugs unpleasant enough to keep usage down.  We can't just legalize the stuff, decent marketing would grow the user community.

The fact that dealing with the government in any way at all is extremely unpleasant is an advantage.  Treating customers badly is inherent in the nature of bureaucracy so people won't want to go there.  If addicts can get all the drugs they want for free, however, there won't be any profit so nobody will push the stuff.  Getting it from the government will be so unpleasant that nobody will put up with the hassle unless they want it badly.

Government involvement can destroy pretty much any business.  Look what happened to General Aviation when the government was given control -- it's become insanely expensive and never fulfilled its early potential.  With NASA being ready to step in with an artificially low shuttle launch prices, nobody can get into the aerospace business.  Colleges which have to compete do well, government schools with little or no competition in the K-12 market serve their customers badly.  A government giveaway won't urge people to try drugs, but it will take all the profit out of the drug business.

Without drug profits, the rivers of illegal cash that flow all over the world will be reduced greatly.  When that happens, the relatively tiny sums terrorists move around will be easier to track.

Without drug profits, the Taliban will be de-funded in Afghanistan, the FARC guerrillas of Columbia will be de-funded, and the CIA won't have to spray weed killer all over South American any more.  Cops, drug dealers, and companies that sell weed killer won't like losing income, but sacrifices must be made.

We'll still have people who use too much of any drug and there'll be deaths from overdoses, but that's no different from what we have now.  By taking the money out of illegal drugs, we'll eliminate a huge amount of drug-related crime and we'll even let the government create a new giveaway program!  It might even provide a place to park all the useless bureaucrats that get in the way of productive people doing useful things.

What could be better?  A government giveaway that actually solves a problem!  Will wonders never cease?