I just finished a four-day seminar with a group of federal judges at which we discussed drug abuse control policy. (That’s why postings here have been light.)
As part of my preparation, I had Kenna Ackley, my research assistant, pull together some numbers. Between 1980 and 2004, the number of drug dealers in state and federal prison is up more than twelvefold, from 24,000 to 325,000. Most of that increase is cocaine dealers.
Over that same period. the retail price of cocaine is down about 80% in constant dollars, from $535 a gram equivalent in 1980 to $105 today.
Those numbers convince me of something I wouldn’t have believed: that, under U.S. conditions, no practicable level of drug law enforcement can raise the prices of mass-market drugs. (Prohibition itself, along with enough enforcement to avoid having the law become a dead letter, does influence drug prices: pharmaceutical-grade cocaine costs your dentist between $5 and $10 a gram.)
If that’s right, then the right measure of the effectiveness of drug law enforcement isn’t the costs it imposes on the illicit markets, but its effect on the side-effects that result from the operation of those markets: violence, corruption, neighborhood disruption, seduction of minors into illicit activity, and (if significant) financial contribution to terrorist operations against the U.S.
The current structure of sentences for drug offenses, which is based largely on the drug involved and the quantity dealt, is more or less appropriate to a supply-reduction enforcement strategy. It makes no sense in a world where we’re trying to reduce market side-effects instead.