Over at Wonk Blog this afternoon, Harold Pollack presented, The Most Embarrassing Graph in American Drug Policy. I was shocked at that headline. “You mean America has a drug policy?” I said. It seemed always just to have a “lock up poor minorities and militarize the police” policies. It took me a moment to remember that America also has a “prop up oppressive governments” policy. Now all of these policy as done in the name of the “drug problem” but it never occurred to me that we had an actual drug policy.
The graph is not a surprise. As I’ve been arguing for coming up on two decades: the only positive outcome of the drug war is to perpetuate the drug war. In the 1970s, street level heroin was expensive and very unpure. How unpure? How about 3% pure at times. And then in the late 1990, the price had gone down substantially, and the purity was often over 90%. Now, had the purpose of the drug war been to provide heroin users with cheaper and better quality product, then the drug war was a stunning success! If the purpose of the drug war was to lock up as many users as possible, it was a great success! If the purpose was to cause as many users as possible to die of disease and overdose, then it was a huge success! In other words, if the purpose of our drug war was to harm as many people as possible, then we should applaud it. But if the purpose of the drug war was to keep people off of drugs, it has been an unmitigated catastrophe.
Here is the “embarrassing” graph:
I hope that it is obvious that this graph goes about 20 years past embarrassing right to criminal. There is no excuse for this. Law enforcement authorities should have long ago looked at this and thought, “We’re doing something wrong.” But instead, the mythology surrounding drugs causes a situation where there is no winning. If the supply of heroin on the street goes up, the DEA can scream, “We need more resources, drugs are getting more plentiful!” Of course, if there is some short-term disruption of supply, that too justifies more resources, “We’re making progress, give us more money!”
Some people (those who have not been reading me the last 20 years) may wonder why putting more people in jail causes the price to go down. That’s simple economics. The people at the top of the supply chain really have little to worry about. The people who are arrested are the mules and the street dealers. The people who take these jobs are desperate—many of them are addicts themselves. Thus, by incarcerating more of these low-level suppliers, the government increases the prices that these positions pay. More people willing to do these jobs means more product on the street. Greater quantity supply equals lower prices.
Of course, I’m none too fond of what Pollack has to say about the current drug policy. He thinks there is hope. Why? Obama! He actually applauds Obama for a reduction in the “rhetoric” of drug policy. But at least that’s true. He also credits him with a decline in drug incarceration. That doesn’t have anything to do with Obama. That is mostly just that states are running out of money to imprison such a large percentage of their populations.
So let me be clear: there is almost nothing to be hopeful about in the war on drugs. It continues on unabated. In continues on making the problems worse. I have concrete ideas on reasonable incremental changes we could make to improve the problem. And in a reasonable nation, they might be worth talking about. If the federal government would give up its control of drug policy, the states really could be the incubators of innovation. But as it is now, states can’t even liberalize their cannabis laws without the federal government stepping in and arresting law abiding citizens. So if there is to be any real improvement in drug policy, it will start with the federal government getting out of the drug game, which it never should have entered in the first place.