Friday, January 19, 2007

America's so called "War on Drugs"

Republican Politics American Style
Published January 18th in Metro Eireann By Chartles Laffiteau

Since I’ve noticed drug use in Ireland has been in the news lately, I want to bring up the 40 year old US led “War on Drugs” and give my own assessment of how it’s going and the way it’s being conducted.
I can describe how it’s going in six words: “It has been a complete failure.” My critique of the strategies, however, being used to conduct this war will take a few more words to describe.
Ever since the mid-1960’s, the US has attempted to stop illegal drug use by primarily using what economists would refer to as “supply side strategies.” By this I mean the US government has tried to stop the illegal use of drugs by interrupting the flow of drugs within the US, interdicting them at the border or ports of entry, or by eradicating them at the source.
Federal and state law enforcement authorities also try to catch drug dealers who distribute the drugs, disrupt their distribution networks and confiscate their property under Federal “Racketeering” statutes, which were originally enacted to help fight organized crime.
But when it comes to using “demand side strategies” to reduce the numbers of drug users who have created the market - and thus the demand - for illegal drugs, government efforts have been uneven and haphazard at best. The authorities routinely arrest otherwise law-abiding citizens for smoking pot or growing it for their own consumption and incarcerate drug addicts who are suffering from a disease which will cause them to re-offend after they are released from prison.
According to most economists, supply side strategies rarely work to reduce the availability of a particular product (in this case illegal drugs) because of a phenomenon called the “balloon effect”. When you attempt to stop development or production in one area, the production picks up somewhere else, so long as demand for the product remains steady.
History has shown that the “balloon effect” is an economic fact of life throughout the world. If demand exists for a product (any product, legal or illegal) then someone will figure out a way to supply that product and make a profit doing so.
Operating in a free market, capitalist oriented society, one would think that the US Government might understand this economic fact of life.
Indeed, some US officials have recognized the problem with their drug control strategies. In 1998, Dr. Ernest Drucker of the US Public Health Service said; “The current model of drug control relies primarily on law enforcement to seize drugs and imprison drug offenders. While these efforts have produced large numbers of arrests, incarcerations and seizures, drug overdose deaths have increased 540% since 1980 and drug-related problems have worsened.”
Let me cite a few examples which will illustrate my point. During the 1960’s growth in pot consumption in the United States and Europe triggered the development of large marijuana plantings in Mexico and Jamaica. Toward the end of that decade, the U.S. government promoted eradication programs in Mexico using Paraquat, a herbicide known to have harmful health effects, which drove away American consumers. This measure created strong incentives to find other marijuana growing sites, and the marijuana crop was then displaced to Colombia.
Colombia subsequently became a major supplier of marijuana imports to the United States in the 1970’s, until the US stepped up law enforcement efforts to stop the smuggling of this drug towards the end of that decade. In turn, Colombian smugglers turned their attention to another drug, one much easier to conceal, called cocaine. They used the same smuggling routes and tactics they had been using for marijuana along with a wider array of methods to disguise their contrband.
Since the demand for marijuana has remained fairly constant since the 70’s, new domestic sources of supply have developed.
Domestic growers in the US operate smaller, harder to detect indoor “gardens” or grow their crops on public lands in US national forests and parks. This domestic variety of “pot” is also more potent than Colombian and Mexican marijuana .
To quote the US Government’s own 2005 National Drug Threat Assessment: “the documented rise in marijuana potency is more a factor of the availability of and demand for better quality marijuana.”
So US drug policies drove the Colombian marijuana smugglers into the cocaine business and helped us to develop domestic sources to supply users with more potent marijuana.
My point here is that the drug war has not reduced the supply of drugs nor made them more costly to obtain. The market prices for illegal drugs follow the same laws of supply and demand that apply to all commodities.
The drug war merely creates an artificially high commodity price, and these huge profit margins have encouraged more drug producers to enter the market. Greater production also creates economies of scale.
So maybe we ought to try another approach. Strategies that are focused on reducing demand for alcohol and drugs are the only ones that have any chance of success in the “war on drugs”. To begin with we should at least decriminalize the sale of marijuana; this would free up law enforcement resources to tackle the more serious problems related to the use and abuse of other illegal drugs like cocaine, ecstasy and heroin. We should also devote more funds to education and treatment of drug addicts to prevent them from committing other crimes to support their habit, since mere incarceration hasn’t stopped them or reduced the problem. If we are truly interested in winning the “war on drugs” we must start treating the cause, - the consumer demand for illegal substances..