Many types of narcotics are illegal in the U.S. Through the threat of jail time, the government attempts to limit the use of certain types of drugs. At some point, however, the costs of preventing drug use begin to outweigh the benefits of this prevention. Therefore, policy decisions must be made that account for the respective benefits and costs, and that utilize preventative resources in the most efficient way possible.
What are the most important and relevant costs that should be accounted for in these decisions? An economic analysis of crime prevention would emphasize focusing on the prevention of crimes that yield high victim costs (i.e. injury, recovery time, lost property, etc.). If the primary benefit of crime prevention is the reduction of victim costs, then effort and capital should primarily be utilized to limit the crimes that hurt victims the most. It would not make economic sense to incur high costs in order to acquire inconsequential benefits, and similarly, it is inefficient to spend tons of tax dollars in order to limit insignificant victim costs from crime.
This gets back to the original topic of drug use prevention. If crime prevention should primarily be based upon limiting victim costs, then analysis of drug laws should similarly focus on the victims of drug use. So, who are the victims of drug use?
One potential victim of illegal drug use is “society.” As a somewhat abstract collection of individuals, it is difficult to genuinely assess these potential costs. However, many would argue that society is harmed by drug use in terms of lost productivity from unemployable addicts. Further, there are negative externalities such as violence that are often associated with drug use.
Another potential victim of illegal drug would be the friends and family members of drug users. As identifiable individuals, the effects on this group of people are much more concrete and quantifiable. The potential harm to this group of people ranges anywhere from physical abuse to lack of monetary provision. It should be noted, however, that drug use does not necessitate the existence of these negative effects. While violence and other costs might often be caused by drug use, they are not universally caused by all drug use. Further, there are already laws that exist to prevent many of these effects (i.e. abuse).
A final potential victim of drug use is the user himself. Of all the groups discussed so far, drug users experience the most direct negative effects of their decision to use drugs. From decreased health to diminished employability, drug users endure the most certain and significant costs of their decision.
If, as I would argue, the drug user is the primary victim of drug crimes, then there are significant problems and inconsistencies with current drug laws in the U.S. Why is the victim being punished for the crime? By using drugs, these individuals harm themselves in many ways and the penalty of prison time imposes additional harm onto these drug users. We don’t impose prison sentences on victims of other crimes, rather, we seek to restore victims and limit their future harm. Therefore, this practice of punishing drug users for harming themselves seems absurd.
Even if you would disagree with my prior analysis and argue that society and/or the friends and family of drug users are the primary victims, there are still significant problems with the current policy. After all, the drug user’s prison time is financed by the very group that he supposedly harms by using drugs. Therefore, rather than restoring these victims for the initial costs of the drug use, taxpayers (namely, society and/or the friends and family) are charged with higher taxes in order to punish the user. And while this punishment may limit some of the negative effects of his initial drug use (such as abuse or violence), it will not provide restitution for the loss of provision to the family or the lack of productivity to society.
I realize that this can be a sensitive issue and I do not intend to offend anybody who has personally dealt with any of the potentially awful effects of drug use. Further, I realize that a stoical analysis of benefits and costs could come across as insensitive and I want to reiterate that this was not my intention. And I also want to note that from a moral perspective, I would never advocate the use of many of these types of drugs. However, I do believe that there are problems with current U.S. anti-drug policies that should be pointed out.
There is a lot more that could be discussed regarding this issue, much of which I am not qualified to expound upon. I did not describe any alternative policies, although there are many that would be more efficient and equitable than the current policies. I did not discuss the particular misplaced incentives, unintended consequences, or specific economic problems that exist in the current anti-drug environment. Furthermore, I did not consider the moral aspect of drug use and the government’s role in legislating behavior. This is a complex matter that would require more than a mere blogpost to fully analyze. That being said, I intended to discuss one aspect of the war on drugs and hopefully, you found it interesting and thought-provoking.
As usual, feel free to leave a comment or send me an email. I’d love to hear your feedback and thoughts regarding this post. Thanks for reading!