Glenn Reynolds pointed to an interesting talk by Charles Whitebread on the history of the drug war.

In the face of possible Constitutional opposition to what they wanted to do, the people in Congress who supported the Harrison Act came up with a novel idea. That is, they would masquerade this whole thing as though it were a tax…

let’s say that in 1915 somebody was found, let’s say, in possession of an ounce of cocaine out here on the street. What would be the Federal crime? Not possession of cocaine, or possession of a controlled substance. What was the crime? Tax evasion.

This is interesting in that economists frequently argue that a tax on illegal drugs would be more efficient than prohibition. Of course, we do not advocate a prohibitive tax!

Elsewhere in Professor Whitebread’s talk (which I strongly recommend reading):

What is the iron law of Prohibitions? Prohibitions are always enacted by US, to govern the conduct of THEM. Do you have me? Take the alcohol prohibition. Every single person who has ever written about it agrees on why it collapsed.

Large numbers of people supported the idea of prohibition who were not themselves, opposed to drinking.

He argues that prohibitions typically are aimed at a group that is associated with the act, rather than the act itself. For example, marijuana laws were enacted out of prejudice against Mexicans. Gambling laws are meant to restrict poor people from gambling, but not to impede rich people’s “sport.” He does not mention the example of crack cocaine vs. powder, but it obviously fits the theory.

In his blog post, Reynolds discusses the point that if drug prohibition were ended, then this would call into question the requirement for prescriptions for medication. I think that economists would support getting rid of that requirement, although huge opposition would result from rent-seeking physicians and pharmacists.

For Discussion. Reynolds points out that people might over-purchase antibiotics, leading to the growth of drug-resistant bacteria. Why is this is a classic case of an externality, and what sort of policies does it justify?