Perhaps the “war on drugs”, initiated by President Nixon in the 1970s, was worth starting, in part for the reasons Posner gives. I say “perhaps” since I have always been skeptical of the war, particularly in light of the disastrous American experience with prohibition of alcohol between 1920-1933. Whatever one’s views on the initial case for making drugs illegal, the cost has been tremendous, and in many aspects unanticipated. Moreover, and this is the crux of my discussion, the costs of this war go far beyond those estimated in the recent study by Miron and Waldock discussed by Posner.
These authors do a good job of estimating the amount directly spent by the United States in fighting the war on drugs. They calculate about $41 billion is spent on this fight by state and local governments, and by the federal government, through policing efforts, the cost of court personnel and buildings used to try and convict drug offenders, and the cost of the guards and other resources used to imprison those convicting of drug offenses. They also estimate that a similar amount could be raised in tax revenue from “sin” taxes on drug use if that became legal. These estimated direct costs of the war are significant, yet they are regrettably only a small fraction of the total social costs due to the war on drugs.
It is no accident that much of the drug trafficking is found in poorer black and Hispanic neighborhoods since high school dropouts and other low earners are attracted to becoming involved in the drug trade. The result typically is a sizable deterioration in the quality of living in drug-dominated neighborhoods, with residents often terrorized by the drug dealers. No one to my knowledge has estimated the social cost of neighborhood deterioration due to drugs, but it is likely very high.
Drug prices are much higher than they would be if drugs were legal- probably much more than 100% higher for most drugs- because drug traffickers must be compensated for the risks of going to jail and the violence from being in the drug business. The high prices of drugs tend to reduce drug use, but it also makes life very difficult for anyone who does become a heavy user. Since the cost of maintaining their drug habits and addictions often overwhelm their earnings, many heavy users turn to prostitution and other crimes to get enough money to pay for their drug use.
Most sellers of illegal drugs are high school dropouts who on average do not earn much from their sales, and they also face the risk of jail time. However, they continue selling drugs because their legal opportunities are limited, and also because occasionally a small time seller rises up in the drug organization and makes it big. Legalization of drugs will very likely increase the high school graduation rate because it would reduce these illegal opportunities for dropouts. As a result, drug legalization would radically reduce the numbers of young uneducated persons going into the drug trade, and increase their numbers in better paying legal jobs since they would be better qualified for these jobs. This would be another important indirect benefit from legalizing drugs.
Perhaps, however, the worse results of the American war on drugs are found in its effects on other countries, especially Mexico, Colombia, and other Latin American countries. Mexico is also engaged in a war on drugs, but it is a war almost entirely fought against drugs shipped from Mexico into the United States. The overwhelming majority of drugs that are either produced in Mexico, or that enter Mexico from other countries, are destined for shipment across the border to the United States. The two main drugs shipped from Mexico are marijuana and cocaine, the same two drugs that Miron and Waldock show constitute the vast majority of drugs used by American consumers.
Mexico is engaged in a real war, with advanced military equipment used by the drug gangs; often the gangs have better weapons than the army does. The casualties have been huge: an estimated 30,000 + persons have been killed in recent years as a result of the drug violence, far greater than the combined deaths of American and allied forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many of these deaths are of drug cartel members, but a considerable number also are of soldiers and policemen, journalists, and innocent bystanders.
After the drug lords discovered that they are very good at violence and intimidation, they expanded geographically and into other activities. They have spread out from concentration in enclaves near the border or in the West of Mexico into many other areas, including major cities like Monterrey. Some towns have become uninhabitable, as former residents fled from the violence, some entering illegally into the US. Drug lords have taken control in many places of prostitution, gambling, extraction of monies from businesses for “protection” services, and indirectly also various local governments.
Colombia has fought a long and bloody war against its drug cartels that involved many deaths on both sides, including civilian deaths, and a major drain on government resources. A good part of the country had been fully under control of the drug lords. As in Mexico, the drugs produced and refined in Colombia were almost entirely shipped to the United States. Fortunately, the government finally appears to have won the war, at least for the present.
No one has estimated the social cost of American drug policy on Mexico, Colombia, and other countries, but it has to be immense. Perhaps these countries should just allow drugs to be shipped to the US, and put the full burden of stopping these shipments on American enforcement agencies. The American government would protest, but such a result would provide a clearer picture to the American people of the full cost of current policy, including the major costs imposed on other countries. One can hope that then we will get a serious rethinking of the American war on drugs, and some real political movement toward decriminalization and legalization of various drugs.