Crimes of the Other War

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War Crimes: The Consequences of Prohibition
by Jeffrey A.
Miron (Oakland: The Independent Institute, 2004); 109 pages; $10.85.

the past several decades economists, perhaps more so than any other
group of professionals, have been largely united in their criticism
of American drug policy. On numerous occasions, prominent economists
such as Milton Friedman, Gary S. Becker, and Walter Block have called
publicly for the legalization of illicit drugs such as marijuana,
cocaine, and heroin. Furthermore, opinion surveys have repeatedly
found that most economists, if not in favor of outright legalization,
do endorse a change in policy toward replacing criminal penalties
for drug possession with civil fines. Most recently, a study published
in the inaugural issue of Econ Journal Watch affirmed this consensus,
noting, “Most economists [find] the current policy [of criminal
drug prohibition] to be somewhat ineffective, very ineffective,
or harmful [and] agree that the policy should be changed in the
general direction of liberalization.” Disagreement, when it
exists among economists, is generally based on the direction and
degree of liberalization, with support existing for a range of policy
alternatives, including decriminalization, medicalization (putting
drug control in the hands of physicians rather than law enforcement),
subsidized drug treatment, and legalization.

Boston University economics professor and Independent Institute
research fellow, Jeffrey Miron, falls squarely into the legalization
camp, basing his determination on a “dispassionate … economic
analysis” of drug prohibition – using “economic reasoning
to determine the likely effects of prohibition on drug use, crime,
health, productivity, product quality, and other outcomes.”
Miron’s assessment? U.S.-style drug prohibition increases violence
and other societal harms (e.g., overdose deaths among drug users,
the transfer of wealth to criminals, diminished respect for the
law by the public, and an overall encroachment upon all citizens’
civil liberties) while only modestly reducing illicit drug consumption.
“The bottom line,” he writes in Drug War Crimes: The
Consequences of Prohibition, “is that legalization, with
drugs treated like all other commodities, is the best policy for
society overall.”

most discussions of drug policy “take as a given that reduced
drug consumption is beneficial,” Miron argues that “this
assumption does not follow from standard economic principles.”
Rather, according to the author, “policies to reduce drug consumption
make sense only if their benefits exceed their costs.” Therefore,
the right question for policy analysis, he believes, “is not
whether drugs are sometimes misused but whether policy reduces that
misuse, and at what cost.” Judged by this standard, it’s
clear that criminal prohibition “is almost certainly the wrong
approach” because it fosters a plethora of undesirable and
negative societal consequences, while only marginally decreasing
use. Consequently, virtually any liberalization of existing policy
will achieve a better balancing of costs and benefits, though “none
is obviously better than simply legalizing drugs,” Miron concludes.

further support this determination, Miron asserts that most negative
consequences associated with drugs derive from their prohibition
rather than their consumption. “Contrary to popular views,
[illicit] drugs do not differ radically from a range of other commodities,
and the distinctive characteristics do not explain the effects of
drug prohibition on the market for drugs,” he writes. “The
markets for commodities that display similar characteristics but
are not prohibited (like cigarettes and coffee) fail to exhibit
the features of the market for illicit drugs. Conversely, the markets
for commodities that do not display these characteristics but are
often prohibited (like gambling and prostitution) exhibit many of
the same negative features as the market for drugs. Thus the case
for [legalization] is strong.”

course, Miron’s rationale in no way suggests that all of the
negative elements associated with drug use would dissolve under
a system of legalization. Naturally, a small fraction of users would
continue to harm themselves and occasionally others under such a
scheme, as occurs now for any number of legal goods. However, Miron
believes that most users “would obtain benefits that exceed
any costs, and the enormous externalities imposed by prohibition
would disappear.”

he addresses his critics, many of whom will no doubt argue that
none of the author’s arguments conclusively “proves”
that legalization as a policy is preferable to prohibition. Miron
admits as much, but rebuts, “Nevertheless, the arguments and
data mustered for legalization are of far greater quality and objectivity
than any brought to bear for prohibition. A critical question, therefore,
is which side bears the burden of proof?”

answer to this question, Miron maintains, is in fact conclusive.
In a country based on founding principles of individual liberty,
there is no reason to give prohibition the benefit of the doubt.

tradition should make legalization – i.e., liberty – the
preferred policy, barring compelling evidence prohibition generates
benefits in excess of its cost…. A serious weighing of the evidence
shows instead that prohibition has enormous costs with, at best,
modest and speculative benefits. Liberty and utility thus both recommend
that prohibition end now; the goals of prohibition are questionable,
the methods unsound, and the results are deadly.

8, 2005

Paul Armentano [send him mail]
is the senior policy analyst for the NORML Foundation
in Washington, DC. This article was originally published in the
November 2004 edition of Freedom

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