10 September 2012

I Wonder If They’re Yellow

Although they captured 129 tons of cocaine on its way to the U.S. last year, the Coast Guard thinks that close to 500 tons could now be making it through. "My staff watches multi-ton loads go by," Rear Adm. Charles D. Michel told The Times. Part of the problem is a new class of fully submersible craft, three of which have been seized in recent weeks. (Before, the subs were only semi-submersible, depending on a snorkel to bring in air for the engine.) These new drug-running subs are capable of carrying up to ten tons of cocaine at a time and can run from Ecuador to Los Angeles without coming up for air. On top of it all, officials are also worried that these subs could be used by terrorists. [Emphasis added.]

Let me see if I get this straight:  We have a costly federal policy to slow down or possibly eliminate drug use.  While this policy has been in place, drug usage has increased, which is the exact opposite effect intended by the policy.  This has occurred in spite of the price of drugs increasing by the ban (in terms of direct cost, risk, and seeking alternatives).  In sum, we’ve spent a lot of tax money making the problem not go away.

Furthermore, basic economic principles would suggest that there is a causal link between an increase in government spending on the war on drugs and the increase in drug usage and its attendant ill social costs.  By making certain drugs illegal, the price of such drugs generally increases because supply is limited.  However, the increasing prices attract new suppliers who rush to capitalize on the high prices.  Some of these suppliers inevitably get weeded out of the supply chain by law enforcement, which creates perpetual supply shortages, and consequently perpetually high prices, which perpetually attracts new suppliers.

Additionally, this causes consumers to seek legal alternatives to drugs, which means going to legal but riskier alternatives.  Going from, say, pot to alcohol is one example of this. Another is the production of brand-new compounds that manage to escape bans since they were not previously made illegal due to their non-existence.  Alternatively, some people turn from expensive illegal drugs to cheap illegal drugs (this is the main theory as to why meth became popular).

Thus, not only has the war on drugs failed, it was never winnable in the first place.  The incentive structure set in place never dealt with the fundamental issue:  demand.  By attacking supply, the federal government ensured that drug prices would go up and that there would be a steady stream of interchangeable suppliers, while simultaneously encouraging consumers to try risky but legal alternatives, or riskier, cheaper, illegal alternatives.

And what is the result of this mess?  Not only has drug use increased, and not only are taxpayers on the hook for an unwinnable war (the hallmark of an empire, if I’m not mistaken), but the federal government has subsidized the development of enemy weapons. 

Now, I’m not necessarily inclined to think that every appeal to national security is completely valid when it comes to determining policy, but it can’t be denied that federal policy has been responsible for subsidizing the development of cheap submarines that could hypothetically be used in attacks against the US.    Furthermore, the war on drugs has required that federal government constantly intervene in other nation’s affairs—particularly South American nations—which increases the odds of a terrorist attack.  Thus, federal policy has done its damnedest to ensure that the US is not only more likely to be attacked by terrorists, but it has also subsidized the terrorists’ weapon development program in the interim.

The best solution to this complete failure of a policy is to call it quits.  Doubling down on the war on drugs doesn’t change the incentive structure of the drug market, and will thus only make the problem worse.  The federal government is inept anyway, so expecting it to clean up its mess is a pipe dream.  Therefore, the best solution is for the government to stop, and in so doing stop making the problem worse


  1. Simon, you got it all wrong. It matters little whether the war on drugs cuts down drug usage, keeps it the same or increases it. The important point is that funds continue to flow to police departments and fresh (mostly male) bodies are injected into the private, for-profit prison system.

  2. @Carnivore- I understand that. I'm merely pointing out how illogical the war on drugs is in light of its stated aims. I'd have to think that SoCons would be disinclined to support it as much as they do if our leaders said that the only reason to prosecute drug use is to line the pockets of prison administrators, rights be damned.