Gary Becker and Kevin Murphy on the Failure of the War on Drugs

In this Wall Street Journal column, Nobel Prize-winning economist Gary Becker and his colleague Kevin Murphy do an excellent job of summarizing the failures of the War on Drugs:

President Richard Nixon declared a “war on drugs” in 1971. The expectation then was that drug trafficking in the United States could be greatly reduced in a short time through federal policing—and yet the war on drugs continues to this day. The cost has been large in terms of lives, money and the well-being of many Americans, especially the poor and less educated. By most accounts, the gains from the war have been modest at best….

The total number of persons incarcerated in state and federal prisons in the U.S. has grown from 330,000 in 1980 to about 1.6 million today. Much of the increase in this population is directly due to the war on drugs and the severe punishment for persons convicted of drug trafficking. About 50% of the inmates in federal prisons and 20% of those in state prisons have been convicted of either selling or using drugs. The many minor drug traffickers and drug users who spend time in jail find fewer opportunities for legal employment after they get out of prison, and they develop better skills at criminal activities….

The paradox of the war on drugs is that the harder governments push the fight, the higher drug prices become to compensate for the greater risks. That leads to larger profits for traffickers who avoid being punished. This is why larger drug gangs often benefit from a tougher war on drugs, especially if the war mainly targets small-fry dealers and not the major drug gangs. Moreover, to the extent that a more aggressive war on drugs leads dealers to respond with higher levels of violence and corruption, an increase in enforcement can exacerbate the costs imposed on society.

As Becker and Murphy point out, the costs of the War on Drugs abroad are even greater than in the US:

Mexico offers a well-documented example of some of the costs involved in drug wars. Probably more than 50,000 people have died since Mexico’s antidrug campaign started in 2006. For perspective, about 150,000 deaths would result if the same fraction of Americans were killed. This number of deaths is many magnitudes greater than American losses in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined, and is about three times the number of American deaths in the Vietnam War. Many of those killed were innocent civilians and the army personnel, police officers and local government officials involved in the antidrug effort.

Over the last few years, both public and elite opinion have begun to turn against the War on Drugs. This has already led a few states to legalize marijuana. In time, it will hopefully lead to broader change.