Another conservative gets tired of the drug war

The Agitator is pleased to see that Dan Burton, the (very conservative) outgoing chairman of the House Committee on Government Reform (that’s the old GovOps) is so frustrated with the failure of the drug war to eliminate the drug problem that he is talking in public about “taking the profit out of drugs,” by which he seems to mean creating some sort of legal market that would undercut the illicit market.

Burton’s claims about how the drug problem just gets worse and worse are hard to reconcile with the data, but it’s certainly true that the enormous expansion of drug law enforcement over the past two decades (going from about 30,000 dealers in prison to about 450,000 dealers in prison) hasn’t had nearly the effect on the illicit markets that a simple model would have predicted: heroin and cocaine prices are both down about 80% over that period, adjusting for purity and inflation.

Burton doesn’t make it clear just what he’s proposing, or what he expects to happen. I can’t tell whether he thinks (1) “taking the money out of drugs” would lead to less consumption because it would reduce the glamour and turn off the marketing effort, (2) the same amount because everyone who wants drugs already gets them, or (3) more consumption but less black-market crime, and he’s willing to take that trade-off.

In my opinion (1) and (2) represent extremely poor guesses about the hypothetical future.

(3) is an arguable position, and how you ought to react to it depends both on the drug under discussion and on how you weigh harms to self against harms to others, and how you weigh damage to the middle class (whose kids are to some extent protected against addiction by the drug laws) against damage to the inner cities wracked by the drug trade.

Making heroin legal would benefit crime victims and current heroin addicts at the expense of marginal heroin addicts — those not addicted under current policy who would become addicted if it were legal. It would also benefit those who would otherwise have become involved in heroin dealing (which is a superficially attractive but predictably disastrous career choice) and who under the new conditions would stay within the legal economy. Since the crime victims, drug dealers, and current addicts are concentrated in poor neighborhoods, where heroin is already readily available, and the marginal addicts are mostly non-poor, the bulk of the benefits of legalization go to the inner city and the bulk of the costs go to people who voted for Dan Burton.

Now given a straight-up choice, I’d rather protect people from one another than from themselves, and would be reluctant to help the better-off at the expense of the worse-off or whites at the expense of blacks and Latinos. If legalizing heroin led to only a 50% increase in the number of heroin addicts, I’d be for it.

But what if it led to a fivefold increase, from the roughly 1 million we now have to 5 million? That would still be only a third of the number of problem drinkers, which is the best estimate I have of the number of people likely to get in trouble with a legal intoxicant that has a significant “capture rate” from occasional use to abuse and dependency. (Heroin would probably be less popular than alcohol even if it were legal, but it would probably have a higher “capture rate.”) If that were the result, I think I’d prefer to stick with our current laws.

Cocaine is an even less attractive candidate for legalization, since cocaine, especially combined with alcohol, is much more likely than heroin to lead to acting-out that damages other people. Methamphetamine is a worse candidate yet, since it’s at least as nasty behaviorally as cocaine but generates much lower enforcement costs under prohibition.

The most plausibly legalizable drug among the currently popular illicit drugs is cannabis. I would support a policy under which people who wanted to grow and use cannabis, or grow it and give it away, didn’t face any legal penalty for doing so, but under which sales would remain forbidden. (That would avoid the huge increase in problem cannabis consumption that would result if the beer and tobacco companies were able to turn their marketing ingenuity loose on the project of creating and maintaining cannabis abuse and dependency.) But cannabis isn’t the drug that’s filling our prisons or generating the bulk of the drug-market violence. Non-commercial legalization of cannabis would leave the bulk of the costs of the drug war exactly where they are.

What’s discouraging about Burton’s comments is that he proceeds directly from the observation that current policies have unsatisfactory results to the conclusion that we need to move to their polar opposite. It’s either the drug war in all its dumb, cruel, ineffective glory or some version of selling the stuff across the counter. That’s a view that both drug warriors and their “drug reform” opponents find congenial, since it spares them the effort of thinking.

What that reasoning leaves out is the possibility of getting drug prohibition right. That would involve (very partial list):

1. Redesigning drug law enforcement to target specifically dealers, and styles of dealing that generate the most external costs: violence, neighborhood disruption, and the use of juveniles as apprentice dealers.

2. Reducing the volume of drug-dealing arrests and the sentences for drug offenses to cut the incarceration burden of the drug laws in half.

3. Using the the probation, parole, and pretrial release systems to control drug use among drug-involved offenders, who among them consume more than half the volume of the hard drugs.

4. Taxing alcohol more heavily, and moving to deny access to alcohol to those convicted of drunken assault or drunken driving.

[For more thoughts on practical drug policies, see here and here.]

The bulk of both mass and elite opinion today supports the drug war, though somewhat dispiritedly. A smaller but vigorous movement opposes it and wants to more or less repeal the drug laws. No one has yet succeeded in putting any significant organizational muscle behind the project of cleaning up the current drug control effort to make it serve the public interest better. I’m open to suggestions.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: