The war on drugs, tobacco style

What happens when officials decide to ban tobacco inside a prison? Exactly what happens when you ban drugs in the outside world.

Here is Gary Becker’s take on the war on drugs, written for a general audience on the Becker-Posner blog.

Roland Fryer, Paul Heaton, Kevin Murphy, and I have written an academic article on the impact of crack cocaine. It’s not so favorable towards the war on drugs either.

I’ve never been a staunch proponent of legalization, but over the last few years I have been increasingly coming around to the idea. My primary concern is that the politicians will blow it, but for my undergraduate economics of crime class the current paper topic is to do a cost-benefit analysis of legalizing marijuana, so I don’t want to spell out my concerns and make the assignment too easy for them!

(Thanks to Dean Strachan for pointing out the Black Market Smokes article.)



Think of it this way:
If you have a disease, does it make sense to take a medicine that does very little to cure the disease, but that has massive harmful side-effects?

Most of the drug-related problems you cite are a consequence of the illegal status of drugs.

You even admit that the war on drugs has failed, but argue that we must continue trying.

Innocent Bystander:
It does seem that the logic and the politics are not in agreement. "Soft on crime" is a label that no politician wants. So while it is indeed circular reasoning (drugs in themselves are only a crime because they are illegal. Heck, the former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court was a drug addict), it is going to be an uphill battle to change anything. Demogogary and fearmongering are quite effective political weapons.


My lecturer has done a lot of research into the economics of marijuana. Find it here:

One of his findings is that it is a substitute for legal drugs. So to the extent that legal marijuana will result in a reduced price, it will also reduce demand for alcohol and tobacco.


The war on drugs is a cure which is worse than the disease. Yes drugs are bad, and in an ideal world nobody should abuse them.

The war on drugs may prevent us from winning the war in Afganistan.

The war on drugs creates an economic space for criminal gangs.

The war on drugs does not prevent drug abuse.

Tobacco use has declined without making it illegal.

The war on drugs drains valuable resources that could be put to better use elsewhere.

The cure is worse than the disease.

Bruce G Charlton

In a paper called 'Diazepam with your dinner, sir?' - - I argue that psychoactive drugs ought to be regarded in a more thoroughly economic framework; since the marginal consumption of drugs is sensitive to price, access, legality, safety and other economic variables.

Drug consumers are rational in the sense that they seek certain types of psychological effects - such as relaxation, or intoxication. But consumers have few legal, affordable and accessible options (alcohol, almost exclusively).

Alcohol is the only legal non-prescription intoxicant, yet alcohol is more harmful than marijuana (in health terms and also especially in terms of social harms such as violence and road accidents).

We need to stop thinking in terms of 'drugs versus no drugs' because this rally means acepting the status quo of which drugs happen to be legal and off prescription.

We should instead think in terms of choices of drugs, ensuring that safer drug substitutes are made available to consumers by changes in the law (and, in prison, changes in access).

Given the choice, most people would choose the safer drug options.



Forget the economics. The best reason to legalise marijuana is for it's added enjoyment to sex.

Slam dunk, really.

Innocent Bystander

What disturbs me - and what might be worth looking into - is the incredible doublethink the public has going on about this issue. Roughly half the country is willing to legalize marijuana period, and if you worded it the right way, you could probably pass a bill making possession a ticketable misdemeanor it right now. Most Americans are aware of how broken the system is. Most are bright enough to understand (even if they're afraid to SAY it) that the "War on Drugs" is responsible FOR the drug culture. If you sit down and discuss this with them, one on one, they say, yes, that totally sucks, something needs to be done...

...yet they just CAN'T bring themselves to vote for someone who's "soft on drugs." The slightest whiff of a loosening of drug laws, and all of this flies right out of the electorate's head and they go elect the cro-magnon who's promising to jack up manditory first time sentences again. (for the children) And they pat themselves on the back and only later start to wonder why it is we have the highest per capita incarceration rate in the world.

If we could find a way to break down that mental block, whatever's causing it, we could do real good.



The day weed is legalized is the day I'm no longer alcoholic.


And the day your wife will no longer be frigid.


She doesn't understand me.


I have to disagree.

Drugs sell. They make you feel good. They addict you. You MUST have them. You will do anything to get them -- children take a few dollars from their parent's wallet all the way up to killing. The bad way outweighs the good.

Why are they illegal? Because they are ultimately a destroyer of lives. Making them legal will not take away the addiction or the damage they cause. Rather it will give people afraid of the consequences of drug use the opportunity to try them -- after all maybe they aren't so bad, they are legal after all. The government wouldn't legalize them if they were really bad for you.

We don't throw up our hands and say we can't stop murder, let's legalize it because our fight against murder is failing. We continue to do all in our power to stop it.

What we have failed at is personal responsibility. Drugs may be the cause of violent crime in the inner cities, but the drug lords make their money from the people who have it -- the middle class. People do not feel responsible for causing the death of the poor woman in Ecuador used as a mule to carry drugs across the border. They don't see that their enjoyment of a little pot directly effects the supply which effects price which effects the willingness of people to kill for money.

We have failed in moral outrage. We have failed in respect for ourselves. We have failed to convince the middle class that the evil is entirely too real and they are responsible. Convince the middle class and the money goes away for the suppliers. The government money to "wage the war" can then be spent on the underlying problems facing the poor and needy.



Drinking alcohol is a couple of thousand years old tradition. But it was "expensive" till the industrial revolution. So it was not a social problem.

Similar to tobacco. It was not a social health issue till it became easy to buy everywhere.

My guess is that legalized drugs will follow the trend. It will be cheaper. Most of people will chose not to over use. It will be a social health problem, like tobacco and alcohol is nowadays.

Most criminal will find other activities with high risks and high profits.



Seriously, I've never seen more circular reasoning, are you being sarcastic? If so you are amazing.

"Drugs sell. They make you feel good. They addict you. You MUST have them."

How then, do you suggest we

"convince the middle class that the evil is entirely too real and they are responsible"

And, what do you that would cost?

Paragraph 2 ("Why are they illegal...") glitteriest of glittering generalities, can you claim 100% experimentation rates with alcohol and tobacco, which some would argue induce more severe societal and personal malaise?

Paragraph 3 ("We don't throw up our hands...") reddest of red herrings. Apples and oranges.

The "poor woman in Ecuador" undoubtedly earning the going wage rate and practicing her best option given her alternative choices. If anything, legalization will bolster her standard of living. At least international monitors of labor standards would surely prohibit the practice of donkey freighting from Ecuador to the U.S. on the grounds of animal cruelty alone. And just wait until Christmas at her house the year the international brotherhood of donkey teamsters gets off the ground.

"They don't see that their enjoyment of a little pot directly effects the supply which effects price which effects the willingness of people to kill for money."


"The government money to “wage the war” can then be spent on the underlying problems facing the poor and needy."

Don't you remember the state of being "poor and needy" was eradicated after the sweeping success of prohibition?

Or we could take the money devoted to the war on drugs and give it to the "poor and needy" (mutually exclusive?) tomorrow right after we legalize drugs and gather up a good deal of excise taxes; all the more revenue to dole out to the "poor and needy".



Off the top of my head, I think any model needs to take the following into account when doing any kind of cost/benefit analysis:
1) The cost of unenforceable laws. How much does it cost society when we have laws that are either impossible or politically unfeasible to be uniformly enforced. Certainly it reduces the trust in law enforcement in general.
2) Loss of personal liberties. This one is the most trumpeted by legalization proponents. I'm not sure how I could place a dollar amount on what I think my constitutional rights are, but I'm not sure that the drug war is the sole cause of this loss. Certainly enforcing any vice laws will involve some loss of personal liberty for someone.
3) Penalties that seem extraordinary for the crime committed. This is I think is partially a byproduct of (1). Higher penalties for a lower probability of getting caught and convicted, not for a more severe crime. Society seems to be shooting for a fair expected value of time served, not actual time served.
4) Secretiveness. The drug war causes many other crimes to be obfuscated from view. A drug user is much more likely to be secretive about all aspects of their lives, and is much less likely to become an informant for a violent crime witnessed in conjunction with drug dealings. There are strong incentives for non-drug users to ignore signs of casual drug use.
5) Removal of law enforcement funding from other activities. A drug-enforcement SWAT team could be traded for many extra officers patrolling the streets. Also the need for these units and special equipment to be utilized whether they are justified or not in order to continue funding.
6) Mission and funding creep. As happens with any self-perpetuating bureaucracy, but this makes realistic analysis of legalization options to be met with increased skepticism from the drug-enforcement community. The laws create their own powerful lobby.
I think (1) and (5) are the most important, and (6) is the biggest barrier.



Excellent look at the economics of a smoking ban. I wonder how this will apply at Sandia national laboratory. Their site wide smoking ban goes into effect March 1st.

I'd also like to point out that a pro-drug legalization governor was elected and re-elected in New Mexico. Ex-Governor Gary Johnson has a very progressive and adamant view about legalization. The drug war will continue until a critical mass of the population understands the data presented here.



Another thing:
When you say "We have failed in moral outrage," what does that mean, anyway? "Moral outrage" isn't my cup of tea, thank you. Life's too short to waste time with "moral outrage" IMO. "Moral outrage" in my experience is a cause of suffering. I feel much better if I try to think positive happy thoughts. I prefer pragmatic imperical approaches to ideological dogmatic approaches.

So if you want more moral outrage, you'll just have to muster more yourself, I'm afraid.


legalising drugs would be a faux-pas...
u destroy afghanistan and its economy (1/3rd of its economy depended on weed) and THEN u legalise weed.

hmm.. now that US has annexed Iraq.. i wonder what would happen if the world take's sweden's stance, and vows to become oil-free (highly unlikely, but a good mental exercise)... would US 'intelligence' get to 'know' of Iraq's WMDs then?

George S

It's easy enough to say legalize drugs, but how actually would it be done? Would the FDA be in control of the quality? Would the government require warning labels? Legal age limits? Could you grow or produce your own without a permit, testing, or taxation? What is a drug?
And who would take legal responsibility for any damage caused by the drugs? The seller? Today tobacco companies are being held accountable for addiction, health problems and death caused by their products. Tobacco is legal. (Someone noted that tobacco use has declined dramtically in recent years without resorting to making it illegal, but in fact it has been made illegal in virtually all public buildings, transportation, restaurants, workplaces, to minors, etc, etc. It has also been heavily taxed to make it relatively expensive. It has not declined solely through education. Coercion is a large factor as well).

Who then takes responsibility for someone's drug addiction, or the actions they take while under the influence of certain drugs? Or their death due to an overdose? If you say it's a personal responsibility, you would be in a dream world. There is no personal responsibility in areas like nicotine addiction, obesity due to fast foods, alchoholism, etc. Someone else is always to blame. Everyone is a victim.

So the bottom line would most likely be you replace one ineffective bureacracy with yet another bigger and more intrusive one; one set of laws banning drugs with another set controlling them; one set of social problems with another set. You would replace current drug cartels with legal ones, probably no less ruthless (although certainly less violent).

As mentioned above, there are many benefits to ending the War on Drugs, and I think it makes sense to end it. I support ending the fruitless enforcement efforts and the focus on criminalization and prison.
But there are also quite a few unintended consequences that would create different problems, and they need to be recognized and discussed before any legalization. I haven't really seen any of those discussions to date.



George S: I follow the general gist of your argument, and you make some good points about the amount of planning needed for an efficient drug legalization plan. I do think however that making decisions on one policy area (controlled substances) based largely on flaws in another system (torts) is perhaps a poor way to govern. I think policy makers should shoot for realistic goals, yes, but not be hamstrung by hypothetical doomsday scenarios. Perhaps initially it could be limited legalization for drugs like marijuana, it would be only legal to consume what you personally grow, or something similar. Certainly an end to prohibition is not going to come overnight.
A major concern for U.S. interests is the foreign policy fallout of any legalization regime. Should we, once legalized, push for legalization in other countries? Do we withdraw aid from Colombia and other places where we are working to end crop growth? Do we allow cartels to evolve into legitimate domestic business concerns? Do we discourage drug tourists from Canada and Mexico? Will anyone take us seriously if we make this magnitude of a flip-flop?



I wouldn't be worried about foreign policy fallout. Because, in reality I expect the US will be a latecomer in this. Holland and Canada already have more permissive drug laws. I don't about each country (Asian countries are probably more strict than the US, while Europe is less strict). Just because we legalize it would be no reason to push other countries to do the same. They can judge for themselves. I imagine it would spark a debate in other countries.

I think in many ways it would actually help our foreign policy though. It would be great for our war in Afganistan. It would pull the rug out from under certain narco-guerrillas like in Columbia. It would improve our trade deficit. So on the whole I think it would be good.


For a country that proclaims "In God We Trust" and pledges allegiance to "one nation, under God," it's amazing how it repudiates the "fact" that God, in Genesis, states that He created all seed-bearing plants (which includes coca, poppies and cannabis) for humankind's "meat." And while most of them are flowers and weeds, they are part of the world of plants, like trees, which "only God can make." Others in this thread have expounded on the logic--or illogic--of the war on drugs, while others have expressed "moral outrage" that drugs are even used. But the religiosity that infuses Americans proves to be hypocritical in this case.