The Taboo Solution

The silenced economics of legalization
In 1998, the satirical newspaper The Onion boldly declared “Drugs Win Drug War.” Satire aside, the headline embodied the increasingly prevalent view that America’s War on Drugs is unwinnable, and that it has been ineffective at best, and counterproductive at worst. Still, the dominant view in American politics is that prohibited drugs are dangerous and ought to remain illegal. That drugs pose health risks is indisputable, but not necessarily sufficient reason to criminalize them. Yet to discuss legalization, even from a practical perspective, can be political suicide. This unfavorable political climate muffles the legitimate questions raised by economic arguments for legalization, and deprives the nation of a broader spectrum of solutions to America’s drug problem.

Economic Arguments

While there is consensus among economists that legalization would increase drug consumption, Jeffrey Miron, an economics professor at Harvard, argued to the HPR that the nature of the rise in consumption is just as relevant. According to Miron, “It would be responsible users who [would be] more likely to choose to consume drugs under legalization;” law-abiding citizens who would use drugs only after they are legalized are less likely to abuse them than people who use drugs regardless of their legal status. Furthermore, Miron suggested, a leading cause of overdoses is the poor quality of drugs sold on the black market. Thus, he argued, while drug use would probably increase if prohibition were repealed, consumption would be safer and, on average, more responsible.
Yet there are ethical questions inherent in this debate as well. According to Ed Glaeser, another economics professor at Harvard, the addictive nature of some drugs complicates the issue. As Glaeser told the HPR, “One can make a rational decision to use a drug at some time-zero, but this has the potential to turn into an irrational decision at some later time-one.” A major ethical question thereby arises: To what extent is the government responsible for protecting people from addiction, or in other words, themselves?
The link between drug use and crime, however, makes prohibition more than a means to protect citizens from addiction. The cure in this case, though, might be worse than the disease. Prohibition has greatly increased the cost of supplying illegal drugs, in turn driving up the market price. It is, therefore, unclear whether the violence associated with drugs is caused more by the altered mental states of those who use drugs, or by the ways addicts obtain money to pay for their expensive addictions.

A Political Nonstarter?

For over 30 years, however, there have been virtually no debates over these issues. In an interview with the HPR, professor Erich Muehlegger of the Harvard Kennedy School noted that the issue receives little attention because “drug users are more likely to be disenfranchised.” Furthermore, he joked, “It is unlikely that drug dealers would ever form a political action committee.” Indeed, the legalization effort is not a force in Washington politics, but neither is it entirely absent. Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, for example, has argued since 2002 that prohibition is responsible for the drug problem in the United States. Jack Cole, executive director of LEAP, pointed to a program President Nixon created to reduce drug use among U.S. troops in Vietnam; as he told the HPR, this policy “had terrible unintended side effects – it’s estimated that half of all the U.S. troops simply switched to the lower-priced and easier-concealed heroin [in response.]” This phenomenon, LEAP argues, has repeated itself in the United States, increasing the demand for “harder” drugs and the prevalence of drug-related crime.
However, Cole admits that the argument is a difficult sell “because most people who would [argue for legalization] would be accused of ‘just wanting to get high.’” Indeed, the stigma of drug use makes legalization a dangerous subject to broach, and three decades of political inertia render a course change increasingly difficult. Legalization itself seems an unlikely solution to win widespread public support. But the exclusion of compelling economic arguments for legalization nonetheless weakens American drug policy by depriving it of important insights. While a more balanced debate would benefit policymakers, it thus seems unlikely to begin in the near future.

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