Keywords: drugs; economics; cocaine, opium, cannabis, poppies, afghanistan, war on drugs; legalization; Afghanistan; John Polanyi; addiction; pain; morphine; crime
Addictive drugs are, among other things, a business, so those who are waging the “war on drugs” should listen to the economists. But they won’t. Instead, their futile and expensive campaign will continue for several years, mainly because the impetus behind it is ideological, not realistic. Not many political leaders can admit that the fight against narcotics is more harmful than the narcotics themselves. Indeed, the United Nations is holding a conference on drugs, aiming at the world-wide reduction in coca, opium, and cannabis. Additional funding of between $4.3 billion and $5.8 billion will probably be authorized during the meeting.
Unfortunately, as an economist could explain, this expenditure is bound to be counterproductive. There’s a vicious cycle: The money that the government spends on combating drugs actually provides price supports for narcotics. Yes, it is possible to reduce the availability of drugs by driving some dealers out of business, but since that does not reduce the demand, the prices will rise in response, which makes the business more profitable.
Higher profitability in turn increases violent crime. As the business becomes more lucrative, it naturally attracts competitors, so that rival gangs literally fight in the streets and alleys for control of this trade. Already about 60 percent of the inmates of federal prisons are incarcerated because of drug sales or possession. Keeping these people locked up is an extraordinarily expensive proposition, draining money away from responses that might actually help society.
Even if the laws are not immediately changed to legalize drugs, much could be gained simply by reducing the zeal of enforcing the laws. Enforcement inevitably backfires. This should not surprise anyone familiar with the US history of Prohibition — legislation that was meant to protect public well being but which actually increased crime rates.
The War on Drugs is largely waged abroad — especially in Afghanistan, where Canadian soldiers now are fighting and dying. An economics lesson would be instructive in that matter too, for the increased efforts to destroy the poppy crops have failed abysmally. Illegal drugs account for more than one-third of Afghanistan’s gross domestic product, and their poppy crop has increased by about 60 percent during the past year, with some of the profits going to support the Taliban.
Not surprisingly, the Afghan poppy farmers (see photo) are not happy about having herbicides applies to their fields, not about being punished for growing their crops. Their increasing hostility to foreigners exacerbates the political challenge of stabilizing the country.
But the Nobel laureate chemist John Polanyi has written a fine suggestion in the Globe and Mail: “There’s a Way to End Afghanistan’s and the World’s Pain.” It was news to me, but apparently there’s a great shortage of morphine and codeine for medical purposes around the world, at precisely the same time that the Afghan farmers are being punished for producing the opium that is the source of these medicines. Almost all of these medicinal opiates for pain control are consumed in the rich countries, “leaving 80 percent of the world’s population virtually without.”
Polanyi suggests that the Afghan poppies be used to make up the shortfall. He quotes a price estimate for buying “the entire Afghan poppy crop at the current market price, set today by Afghan drug lords, as about $600-million — less than the $780 million the United States budgeted last year for eradication.”
Brilliant idea! These practical changes, affecting both the production and consumption ends of the drug business, can’t cure existing addictions. But they can reduce the suffering caused by the counterproductive efforts to suppress the drug business.