Ben Powell on the Drug War
By David Henderson
Economics is a science of means and ends. Thus, the question for economics is whether the means–drug prohibition–is effective in promoting the ends of greater health, safety, and productivity, as well as lower violence and criminal justice costs.
In “The Economics Behind the U.S. Government’s Unwinnable War on Drugs,” one of the two July Econlib Feature Articles, Texas Tech University economics professor Ben Powell answers that question with a resounding “No.”
The net effect of prohibition on drug users is, at best, to decrease consumption while making the consumption of the remaining drug users much more dangerous because their purchases are more potent and less predictable. This is borne out in the data on deaths from drug overdoses. From 1971–two years before the creation of the federal government’s Drug Enforcement Administration and Nixon’s declaration of the war on drugs–to 2007, the rate of death from a drug overdose per 100,000 total deaths increased by a factor of ten.
Other lost liberties arise from the nature of drug transactions. Normal crimes, such as theft, have a victim who has an incentive to report the crime. But normal detection and enforcement methods will not work in the drug war. Why? Because regardless of what the rest of society thinks about drug use, neither drug users nor drug dealers consider themselves victims. To enforce drug prohibition, police must assume powers and pursue practices that are unnecessary for enforcing laws against other crimes. These tactics include searches of people and property suspected of holding drugs, wiretapping and other surveillance, and violent raids of suspects’ homes.
Professor Powell also takes on the idea that the way to fight the drug war is to shift it from a “supply-side” war to a “demand-side” war:
A demand-side drug war that places draconian penalties on usage or possession does not necessarily fail a means-ends test. If the goal is simply to end drug usage, implementing a swift death penalty for anyone convicted of possession or use would do the trick. Of course, it would not improve those people’s health. Most people, including myself, would consider such a policy even more unjust than the current drug policy.