Illegal Drugs and Illegal Immigrants, Part Two

By Peter Burrows 7/13/18

In 2012, the U.S. White House Office of Drug Control Policy asked The RAND Corporation to estimate the market size of four drugs: cocaine (including crack), heroin, marijuana, and methamphetamine (meth). Their report, released in 2014, estimated that, “drug users in the United States spend on the order of $100 billion annually on all four drugs (in 2010 dollars),” a figure they estimated to have been constant for a decade, with big shifts in the drugs purchased, e.g. meth up, cocaine down.

The report did not add the expense of police, judges, prisons and street crime associated with illegal drugs. Of course, there is no way to put a price on the hundreds of deaths associated with drugs, from cops to gang-bangers to innocent bystanders.

Neither did the report add the cost of the chaos and carnage our appetite for drugs causes in Central and South America. This is a national disgrace. Those of us who want absolute control of our borders must realize we have a moral obligation to people escaping the violence that we are responsible for. These people should be granted asylum, at least temporarily.

The problem is that then EVERYBODY trying to enter America will claim drug cartel hit-men are chasing them. The solution is to legalize the sale of marijuana, heroin and cocaine.

This is NOT a new idea. Nobel economist Milton Friedman made the case for legalization decades ago. Here are excerpts from an interview he gave in 1991 on “America’s Drug Forum,” a PBS talk show. (Available on You Tube. You will understand why Friedman didn’t like being called “conservative.” Questions and answers paraphrased for brevity.)

Question: How would America be changed for the better if drugs were legalized? Friedman: I see America with half the number of prisons, half the number of prisoners, ten thousand fewer homicides a year, inner cities in which there’s a chance for these poor people to live without being afraid for their lives, citizens who might be respectable who are now addicts not being subject to becoming criminals in order to get their drug, being able to get drugs for which they’re sure of the quality.

Question: What is the proper role of the government in this? 
Friedman: The proper role of government is exactly what John Stuart Mill said in the middle of the 19th Century. The proper role of government is to prevent other people from harming an individual. Government, he said, never has the right to interfere with an individual for that individual’s own good. The case for prohibiting drugs is exactly the case for prohibiting people from overeating. We all know that overeating causes more deaths than drugs do. If it’s in principle OK for the government to say you must not consume drugs because they’ll do you harm, why not that you must not overeat? (Friedman then made a similar case against skydiving, skiing, i.e. where do you draw the line on personal behavior.) 

Question: Is the drug problem an economic problem? 
Friedman: No, it’s a moral problem. It’s a problem of the harm which the government is doing. The prohibition of drugs produces, on average, ten thousand homicides a year. It’s a moral problem that the government is going around killing ten thousand people. It’s a moral problem when the government turns people into criminals for doing something we may not approve of but which harms nobody else, e.g. being arrested for smoking marijuana, being thrown in jail, having their lives destroyed.

If you look at the drug war from a purely economic point of view, the role of the government is to protect the drug cartel. What do I mean by that? In an ordinary free market, potatoes or beef, anything you want, there are thousands of importers and exporters. Anybody can go into the business, but it’s very hard for a small person to import drugs because our interdiction efforts make it enormously costly. The cartels can afford fleets of airplanes, sophisticated methods and so on. By keeping goods out and arresting, for example, local marijuana growers, the government also keeps the prices high. What more could a monopolist want? He’s got a government who makes it very hard for his competition and who keeps the price of his product high.

Legalization is a way for us, as citizens, to stop our government from using its power to engage in the immoral behavior of killing people, taking lives away from people in the U.S., in Colombia and elsewhere, which we have no business doing. Right now, Uncle Sam is also taking property without due process of law. The drug enforcers are expropriating property, in many cases of innocent people. That’s a terrible way to run what’s supposed to be a free country. ——–

I urge interested readers to explore Dr. Friedman’s thinking on the many You Tube clips that are available. Sometimes he goes a little over the top, as when he said the government was “going around killing ten thousand people,” but if confronted, I’m sure he’d smile and say, “Does it make any difference to the victims who pulls the trigger?”

The question to ask is: Will we be worse off with legalized drugs than we are now? I want to emphasize that nobody who favors legalization thinks recreational use of these drugs is a good thing. There will be costs involved, and they will be very visible, but it’s a matter of choosing the lesser evil.

With legalization, we will need to spend a great deal more on rehabilitation and education, but that cost should be compared to what we now spend on incarcerating drug users and purveyors. Plus, rehab needs will probably expand as drug usage grows in response to both lower prices and the removal of legal penalties. How much? Beats me.

Marijuana legalization by different states gives us some insight on what happens to prices and demand after legalization. The website recently discussed pricing and they noted that an entrepreneur could buy a pound of marijuana in legal California and make about five times his cost by selling it in illegal New York. From this it would appear that, so far, legalizing marijuana results in about an 80% drop in price.

The price drop has led to an increase in demand in legal states, but nobody knows by how much since nobody knows how big the black market was. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a substantial increase in marijuana use, but I note that at one time almost 50% of the adults in America smoked cigarettes. Now, less than 15% do. Hopefully, marijuana use will eventually be lower than that.

The biggest obstacle to legalization in the past may have been that there were too many people benefiting from the status quo. I’ll cover that in Part Three, plus look at how synthetic opioids are disrupting the illegal drug business, both for good and for ill.



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