The Harmful Side Effects of Drug Prohibition

There are so many reasons why drug prohibition is objectionable, it is hard to enumerate them all.  In my Utah Law Review article, The Harmful Side Effects of Drug Prohibition, I try to systematically survey just the “consequentialist” arguments against this socially-destructive social policy.    If I were to revise this article today, I suppose I would emphasize even more than I did how destructive the “War on Drugs” has been to the black community, perhaps especially because of the incarceration of thousands of black men, depriving their children of fathers, but also because of how the black market profits from the illicit drug trade supports the gang structure that preys upon the community and sucks up its kids.  Then there is the differential enforcement of drug laws in minority communities.  And I would emphasize how the abnormal profits to be made from black market drugs is systematically destroying the entire political culture of Mexico.  All this to stop some people from getting high.

But, as I said, the problem with assessing the War on Drugs is that there are so many harmful “side effects” of drug prohibition that it is difficult even to know where to begin.  This article is my effort to be as comprehensive about these effects, yet still be accessible.  Here is the abstract:

Some drugs make people feel good. That is why some people use them. Some of these drugs are alleged to have side effects so destructive that many advise against their use. The same may be said about statutes that attempt to prohibit the manufacture, sale, and use of drugs. Advocating drug prohibition makes some people feel good because they think they are “doing something” about what they believe to be a serious social problem. Others who support these laws are not so altruistically motivated. Employees of law enforcement bureaus and academics who receive government grants to study drug use, for example, may gain financially from drug prohibition. But as with using drugs, using drug laws can have moral and practical side effects so destructive that they argue against ever using legal institutions in this manner.

This article will not attempt to identify and “weigh” the costs of drug use against the costs of drug laws. Instead, it will focus exclusively on identifying the harmful side effects of drug law enforcement and showing why these effects are unavoidable. So one-sided a treatment is justified for two reasons. First, a cost-benefit or cost-cost analysis may simply be impossible. Second, discussions by persons who support illegalizing drugs usually emphasize only the harmful effects of drug use while largely ignoring the serious costs of such policies. By exclusively relating the other side of the story, this article is intended to inject some balance into the normal debate.

The harmful side-effects of drug laws have long been noted by a number of commentators, although among the general public the facts are not as well known as they should be. More importantly, even people who agree about the facts fail to grasp that it is the nature of the means — coercion — chosen to pursue the suppression of voluntary consumptive activity that makes these effects unavoidable. This vital and overlooked connection is the main subject of this article.

You can download it here.