Has Obama Changed Course on the War on Drugs? No

This is Richard Posner:

The new (that is, the ostensibly new) strategy gives continued primacy to the “war on drugs,” which best describes the criminal-law and (abroad) paramilitary campaigns against the drug trade. No one thinks these campaigns can eradicate illegal drugs. The realistic-seeming objective is, by increasing expected punishment cost and by taking out of circulation (through imprisonment) those not deterred by the cost, the war on drugs raises the prices of illegal drugs. Yet those prices remain very low. The reason appears to be the very high elasticity of supply of drug dealers. It’s like Karl Marx’s “reserve army of the unemployed”; if there is no dearth of persons willing to be drug dealers at modest wages, the principal effect of law enforcement may be to increase labor turnover, at enormous cost in police and prosecutorial resources and above all in incarceration: half the federal prison population in the United States consists of drug offenders. Some 1.7 million persons who are in prison or jail (state or federal) or on probation or parole (or its federal equivalent, supervised release) are in those situations of confinement or restriction because of drug offenses. No doubt the mere fact that drugs are illegal deters some consumers — but how many relative to the large number of persons who have no interest in consuming mind-altering drugs, legal or illegal?

Gary Becker here.

Comments (11)

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  1. Jack says:

    They’re trying this strategy even in states that legalized marijuana. The punishment for not buying from authorized dealers is much steeper, but unfortunately because the “authorized dealers” provide subpar product at higher prices, it’s actually increased the demand for illegal marijuana sales. Given that it mostly affects a population who were willing to break the law anyway.

    They should have give the whole thing over to the market, required easy licensing procedures, and encouraged growers to form legitimate (taxable) businesses.

  2. Harley says:

    The costs for trying, incarcerating and then monitoring drug offenders is absolutely staggering. As a result of these efforts we have the largest percentage of the population incarcerated than any other country in the world.

    The supply of product is highly price elastic, not just the labor supply. Meaning that incarceration does nothing. Congratulations DEA, you fail at numbars.

  3. Singh says:

    The war on drugs, it needs to be aggressive on both front. First is being very aggressive on the drug dealers, attacking them military style. However, we need to tackle the consumption of the drugs, study the best practices and implement them.

  4. Patel says:

    I think Sigh brings up an important point, there was an interesting documentation done by PBS that looks into the how counter-insurgency is being practiced in American drug infested communities. The results have been promising.

  5. Studebaker says:

    Some Asian countries have been rather savage in their war on drugs. I wonder how effective their efforts have been?

  6. Tom says:

    This is cyclical problem that NO politician will change unless our culture on drugs change. The way instant-gratification works in our modern culture, I expect reliance on drugs to continue being high in demand for the foreseeable future.

  7. Renald says:

    I have to agree with Tom on the culture aspect of the war on drugs. However, I do think that if we free regulation, then at least the pervasive violence seen due to cartel warfare will reduce.

  8. Gabriel Odom says:

    Jack is absolutely correct here.

    Why are these drugs illegal in the first place? There are some mind-altering drugs which, understandably, have been made illegal (PCP, meth, bath salts, etc.). However, the majority of drug consumption is alcohol, caffeine, marijuana, cocaine, and morphine. Of these, 4 of the 5 are legal – given the right circumstances. I am all in support of de-regulation of the drug trade. The whole reason they are expensive and dangerous (except for alcohol) is because the supply is heavily controlled.

  9. H. James Prince says:

    “I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence, or insanity to anyone, but they’ve always worked for me.” – Hunter S. Thompson

    We should just go the way of Portugal – legalise everything. Their violent crime and addiction rates have fallen dramatically. http://www.salon.com/2012/08/13/worlds_best_drug_laws_salpart/

  10. Benedict Popplewell says:

    The illegal status of drugs does not keep many people from acquiring “illegal” drugs. Drugs are readily available to anyone who wants to get their hands on them. The War on Drugs is terrible policy. It incarcerates addicts who instead should be treated for their addictions.

  11. Gabriel Odom says:

    Popplewell, you are absolutely correct. Nixon followed in Johnson’s footsteps – he declared war on an idea. We can never beat an idea.