Ending the Drug War is On The Table


An end to the war on drugs may not yet be a publicly discussed policy option in D.C., but it seems like the rest of country is coming around. Obama, speaking in Mexico City last month, said that he isn’t considering legalizing marijuana, despite what our individual states may do. But the New Yorker says maybe he should. You’ve probably heard that 50% of voters support marijuana legalization, and that legalization got more votes in Colorado than Obama did last November. Here’s some of what else is out there on both marijauna legalization and a possible end to the War on Drugs.

University of Chicago economics professors Gary S. Becker and Kevin Murphy have published this article, “The Drug War and the Damage Done,” in the latest issue of the Stanford University Hoover Digest. The economic argument for an end to the drug war has been gaining traction since the 2005 Miron report, produced by Harvard economist Jeffery Miron and signed by 530 distinguished economists including Milton Friedman, estimated that the U.S. could save up to $14 billion by ending the war on drugs.

Becker and Murphy’s piece discusses the impacts and effectiveness of the 42-year War on Drugs, including the cost to taxpayers:

The direct monetary cost to American taxpayers of the war on drugs includes spending on police, the court personnel used to try drug usersand traffickers, and the guards and other resources spent on imprisoning and punishing those convicted of drug offenses. Total current spending is estimated at over $40 billion a year.

The author’s go on to discuss the more difficult to measure costs – the temptation for urban youth in poor schools to drop out and profit from the drug trade, or the lost productivity from the 1.6 million inmates in the U.S. (a large portion of whom are convicted of selling or using illegal drugs).

Hendrik Hertzberg writes in the New Yorker article:

tens of thousands of people still languish in federal and state prisons for marijuana offenses in a typical year, and just about everybody who gets busted for pot spends time locked up. Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, estimates that from fifty to a hundred thousand Americans are behind bars for pot, and only pot, on any given night. The longer-term consequences can be a lot worse than a few hours of humiliating inconvenience. If you’re employed, you can lose your job. If you’re in college, you can lose your financial aid and you will lose your eligibility for student loans, as have some two hundred thousand of your peers. If you’re undocumented, you’ll probably get deported. If you’re a parolee, you’re apt to find yourself back in jail for the remainder of your sentence. All of which, of course, is but a small part of the suffering caused by the gargantuan, perpetual “war on drugs.”


By the way, I’ve heard Nadelmann speak on this issue, and the guy know his stuff. From the scientific composition of illegal drugs (many identical to other legal substances), to the international politics, to the options for and benefits to a public health approach. The DPA homepage offers numerous political resources, including an exit strategy from the War.

Becker and Murphy also make a point I’ve put in writing many times: that the illegality of drugs like marijuana and cocaine is what makes them so profitable for dealers and traffickers. Prohibition drives up the price, making the trade lucrative for those that can evade prosecution and secure a large share of the market. This dynamic then incentives the use of violence, making prohibition policies expensive to taxpayers, dangerous for citizens, and extremely profitable for traffickers.

Naturally, Mexican analysts are looking at the issue as well. The Mexican Institute for Competitiveness (via the Economist) finds that legalization in Washington and Colorado will reduce the competitiveness of Mexican drug-trafficking organizations and slash approximately $1.4 of their $2 billion in marijuana revenues. That’s $1.4 billion that will move out of Mexico’s illegal economy and in the U.S.’s legal one.

Next Wednesday, May 29, the Washington Office on Latin America and the Brookings Institution are hosting a webcast panel to discuss the emerging politics and national implications of marijuana legalization. That debate will be on Twitter as well – #mjlegalization.

I’m glad to see this being seriously discussed. It’s about time that we admit the War on Drugs, like the War on Terror, can’t be won. There are a few things missing from the debate (and I’m currently looking for an opportunity to work on them, so get in touch if you’d like to collaborate or support).

First, we still don’t have a precise estimation on how large of a peace dividend we could realize by ending the war. Miron’s work is the best start, but it was published before the major escalation in drug war violence that we’ve seen post-2006.

Second, although without an expensive lobby and too often ignored or underestimated, women and especially mothers are a major political force in this country. Many of them oppose legalization because of concern for their families and children. But have we fully investigated and communicated to our moms how their loved ones would benefit from increased access to public health services for addiction and drug abuse? From fewer daughters and sons deployed in the War via military, DEA, and local law enforcement? And from reduced incidences of domestic violence and violence against women as a result of the economic stimulus and the improved access to treatment? As far as I know, this last question hasn’t been explored at all.

There are many more resources and analyses out there to support progressive drug policy reform. Post the ones I’ve missed in the comments. Is there a good analysis of the effect of the Drug War on women? Of the peace dividend? Have I missed anything else?

I look forward to reading what you find, and to continuing the debate.