Pouring money into quicksand AKA the war on drugs

These dire economic times call for radical economic measures—if politicians are looking to fix the budget, let’s look no further than our country’s archaic drug policy. There are far-ranging positive implications by reducing funding for the behemoth that is drug enforcement, and the incarceration that results from it. I am not by any means condoning the use of illegal drugs, or saying that we should stop funding anti-drug education programs. There is simply a smarter, more economical way to deal with users of illegal substances.

First, I’d like to address that very problem of users—they are harming their bodies, not those of anyone else—by ingesting drugs. This is with the assumption that the substance use is not a catalyst for a user’s possible illegal behaviors (domestic violence, assault, robbery, etc.) This is comparable to drinking alcohol, smoking cigarettes, and being anorexic, bulimic, or self-mutilating. Besides the age restriction on legal substances, other bodily harm that we inflict on ourselves is not recommended, but also is not punishable by law. Anyone will agree that these problems, including alcoholism, are best sorted out through counseling.

It would be an outrage if we started throwing people with eating disorders in jail; why is it different when drugs are involved?

Just to place the issue in perspective, let’s discuss what happens when a drug user serves time in prison after being charged with drug possession: they painfully suffer withdrawal. Then, after their time is served, they will relapse once they are released. This is the case for a large majority; some overdose upon release, and of these some do it intentionally. (An interesting report on post-release relapse: http://www.ascpjournal.org/content/pdf/1940-0640-7-3.pdf)

And this whole time, American taxpayers are footing the bill to incarcerate people with drug-related charges (which according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, constitutes over 50% of the current prison population). Drug users should be viewed as troubled people in need of rehabilitation, not criminals.

Secondly, besides the money the country spends on drug-related incarceration (which was over $17 million PER DAY in state prisons in 2007, and has only increased every year), the Drug Enforcement Agency has a budget of over $2 billion per year. The cost of incarceration, and the cost of employing those who make the arrests, grows each year. Through a simple Google search, anyone can see a second-by-second update on how much money the state and federal governments are spending on “The War on Drugs” each year. It was over $37 billion in total for 2011.

Nixon coined the term “War on Drugs” in 1971. We are now spending billions per year on this “war!” Has anything been won? Besides putting countless people in jail and creating more jobs for those who secure the prisons, no progress has been made. Are people still using illegal drugs? Yes. Are people going to stop using illegal drugs? My answer is no.

What can we do then?

Why, we can learn from a lesson in Drug Policy from Economics 101. When we discuss demand for a certain product, we refer to our willingness to buy a product as being price-elastic or price-inelastic. When we deem a product necessary (like milk, vegetables, or gas) our demand for that product is price-inelastic, because a change in price, however steep, will not result in a huge change in how much we buy. Economists before Prohibition believed that alcohol was price-elastic, meaning that if scarcity of alcohol (since it was made illegal) induced a sky-high price, no one would buy it at all. People would be healthier because no one would consume alcohol, right?

The economists were shocked to discover that alcohol was price-inelastic. The supply was still being made, however restricted, and people were willing to pay extremely high prices for it. The key here is that there is no substitute to the effects of alcohol. Alcohol users deemed the product a necessity. Oddly enough, the principles of economics will also lead us to analyzing total expenditure: more money was actually spent on alcohol when it was illegal.

I believe the same thing applies to illegal drugs now. Drug users are willing to spend any amount of money on their product of choice because there is no substitute. We can assume that total expenditure on illegal drugs now is higher than it would be if substance abuse were not punishable by law. Our efforts to restrict supply—through raids, incarceration, and ingredient regulation—are relatively ineffective. It’s the demand we should focus on! If we can educate children and the public earlier and more frequently, in school and through advertising, of the effects of drugs–then total expenditure will finally decrease. When demand is price-inelastic, decreasing the desire to buy a product in the first place is the only option that will deliver results.

And I know everyone’s sick of hearing this, but seriously, legalizing and regulating weaker drugs like marijuana on a national level is so simple and so obvious.

I put that lightly. We need to legalize and regulate marijuana.

Our economy is tanking. Where are the new industries? We thought solar power, but are now laughing at the dilapidation of Obama-supported company Solyndra. The U.S. has managed to thrive economically due to its ability to innovate, adapt, and drive consumerism forward in the past; now we seem to be running out of ideas.

Well, how convenient that there’s an already-established consumer base awaiting marijuana legalization; several states have already passed the appropriate legislation, so what exactly is the hold up? And not that this is the kicker, and nor is it going to save the economy, but new revenues could be realized through taxes. Researchers estimate that marijuana in the U.S. is a $113 billion business.

Opponents argue that this is immoral; ignoring countless studies that have proven marijuana less addictive than alcohol, less toxic to the body than other pharmaceutical drugs, and has never caused a medically documented death. And yet marijuana laws cost Americans about $42 billion a year in enforcement costs and lost tax revenue, in addition to an arrest every 38 seconds.

The so-called “War on Drugs” has failed, and we need to take the next steps as a country to officially withdraw.

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