Prohibition adds significantly to the cost of illegal drugs. It’s what gives criminals—the cartels and gangs—their monopoly on manufacture and distribution of drugs. Massive unregulated drug profits give criminal syndicates the power to wage murderous war on each other, on innocents in their communities, and on any law enforcement personnel who refuse to be corrupted.
The failed American experiment with alcohol prohibition (1920-1933) as well as similar episodes in dozens of other countries have clearly demonstrated that prohibition doesn’t reduce either use or abuse of drugs. The same is true of our current period of drug prohibition, which goes back to 1961.
Whatever harm drug use may cause, prohibition is far worse. By forcing drugs and drug use into the stigmatized and unregulated underground, prohibition itself is the cause of much of the social and personal harm—huge prison populations, street violence, cartel executions, overdose death, family violence, loss of employment—that has historically been attributed to drug abuse.
“The first unintended consequence is a huge criminal black market that thrives in order to get prohibited substances from producers to consumers…the financial incentives to enter this market are enormous. There is no shortage of criminals competing to claw out a share of a market in which hundred-fold increases in price from production to retail are not uncommon.”
– Antonio Maria Costa, Executive Director of the United Nations Office of Drug Control, 2008
In an article titled “Why All Drugs Should Be Legal—Yes, Even Heroin,” Harvard economist Jeffery Miron says that if the United States legalized drugs, it could save $85 billion to $90 billion per year. Roughly half that is spent on prohibition enforcement. The other half represents taxes that the state could levy on legal drugs.
With prohibition, there are people who are addicted, just as there would be without prohibition. Part of the drug trade is, and likely will always be, demand-driven. Like Starbucks and tobacco shops, drug dealers will continue to be found by users who want their daily fix.
But countries that have stepped back from prohibition have seen reduction in addiction rates; the regulated drug trade is no longer supply-driven. The huge profit incentives are removed from the market.
Substitute treatment for prohibition, and there’s much more available. Treatment is much less expensive than enforcement.
For example, in the U.S. the average cost for one year of drug-assisted addiction treatment is $4,700 per person…compared to prison, which costs $25-$30,000 per year, per person.
The United States National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) estimates that every dollar invested in addiction treatment programs yields a return of between $4 and $7 in reduced drug-related crime, criminal justice costs, and theft. When savings related to healthcare are included, total savings can exceed costs by a ratio of 12 to 1.
Major savings to the individual and to society also stem from fewer interpersonal conflicts; greater workplace productivity; and fewer drug-related accidents, including overdoses and deaths.
Yet we in the U.S. persist in wasting taxpayer money on prohibition. Time to stop it.