Failing drug war requires new strategy

This article originally appeared in the Detroit News on June 17, 2001 at

The economics of the drug war dictate its futility. When public policy is pitted against economic reality, reality wins. A new approach to the drug problem is needed because the war on drugs, as it is currently prosecuted, has no more chance of success than a war on geometry.

Drug policy in the United States is largely "supply-side" -- it aims primarily to restrict availability of certain substances. Our supply-side policies include training anti-narcotics battalions to support aerial herbicide spraying of Colombian drug crops, authorizing deadly force for border patrols, detaining travelers suspected of drug activity, inspecting commercial shipments, seizing property of suspected drug dealers, mandating lengthy incarceration for convicted dealers and regulating financial dealings to impede or expose drug transactions.

The cost of these policies is climbing. Drug war spending in the mid-1980s was about $10 billion annually. Today it's more than $40 billion -- $19 billion in state and local spending, and the rest for federal anti-drug efforts in nearly every cabinet-rank department.

These costly policies are supposed to make drugs harder to get, but by that criterion the drug war fails. Peter Reuter, senior fellow at the RAND Corp., writes in a recent Milken Institute Review that cocaine and heroin street prices have declined when adjusted for inflation during the last two decades.

Reuter also found that availability of drugs has not decreased significantly. While the risk of being imprisoned for drug dealing quintupled as the drug war expanded, the percentage of high school seniors reporting that cocaine and marijuana are available to them has remained steady for 10 years and 25 years, respectively.

We spend $40 billion annually to extinguish our $50 billion illegal drug market, so why do we fail? Basic economics suggest many reasons, but here are three:

* The potential to supply drugs is huge. Eradication of U.S.-bound drug crops in Bolivia and Peru in the 1990s merely shifted drug production to other countries, including Colombia, where we are today spending $1.3 billion in similar elimination efforts. And if we somehow manage to wipe out the drug crops there, farmers elsewhere will supply our willing buyers.

* There is immense profit in illegal drugs. Drugs are extremely cheap to make compared with their street prices. The massive price markups compensate dealers and producers for risking harsh legal penalties.

* There is persistent strong demand for drugs. The robust demand that is fairly unresponsive to massive spending on drug interdiction, three-fourths of which is for capturing and penalizing dealers and users.

Is success more likely with a "demand-side" approach?

Demand for drugs decreases if potential users deem drugs unfashionable or otherwise undesirable. Specific drugs go in and out of fashion for reasons that are difficult to shape government policy around, but government policy is not the only choice. Two proven ways to influence drug attitudes and desires -- education and rehabilitation treatment -- can be done by government or private groups.

Private demand-reduction programs are probably more effective. The first line of defense against drugs, parental teaching and discussion, is believed to be the most effective education "program." But the popular government drug program for schools, Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE), is consistently rated negatively by independent studies.

Worse, DARE may lull parents into believing their children learn enough about drugs at school. The National Parents' Resource Institute for Drug Education found that conversations about drugs between parents and children dropped 27 percent from 1991-96 -- strong growth years for the billion-dollar DARE program.

Rehabilitation treatment can stem drug demand, particularly when administered privately. Government drug treatment programs often report a success rate of less than 20 percent. Phoenix House, the nation's largest private, nonprofit drug treatment organization, claims 60 percent success for 70,000 addicts and dependent people over three decades. The Christian program Teen Challenge achieves an 86-percent "cure" rate. Offsetting the cost of treatment, RAND estimates that costs due to crime and lost productivity drop $7.46 for every dollar spent on treatment.

To the tragedy of drug abuse the drug war adds all the tragedies of war-violent deaths, innocent casualties, lost freedoms, squandered resources and corrupted institutions.

Effective drug abatement efforts, especially those intended to reduce demand, must rely on family, religious and other private institutions. Force-oriented government policies aimed at restricting drug supplies will fail as long as there is strong demand for illicit substances. That is economic reality.