The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism

Illicit Drugs

Libertarians have consistently argued that individuals should be free to consume mind-altering substances such as heroin, cocaine, marijuana, alcohol, and tobacco given that others are not harmed. When we examine spillover harms that are allegedly caused by the consumption of these products, they cannot stand muster. Further, even if some spillovers occur, anticonsumption policies are not warranted because their implementation, it has been shown, invariably imposes even greater costs than drug use. Yet prohibitionist policies persist because they promote the interests of several powerful political groups.

Drug war advocates contend that drug cravings cause people to steal; thus, they argue, controlling drug markets will have the effect of reducing both drug consumption and property crime. However, substantial evidence shows that property crime is not caused by drug use. Surveys of jail inmates indicate that almost half of regular hard-drug users were employed full time before their drug offense was committed, and only 29% reported having had any illegal income, much of which originated as earnings from consensual crimes like prostitution and drug sales. More than half the jail inmates who admitted to regular drug use also said that their first arrest for a nondrug offense occurred an average of 2 years before their first drug use. Similarly, a study of prison inmates found that approximately half who had ever used a major drug and roughly three-fifths of regular users did not consume drugs until after their first arrest for some nondrug crime.

Notwithstanding these statistics, drug enforcement is, in fact, directly linked to property crime. Police resources are scarce, so increased efforts against drugs translates into less effort against other crimes. In Florida, for instance, an estimated 10% increase in property crimes in the period from 1984 to 1989 was due to reallocating police efforts to drug control. Overcrowding of prisons and early release of convicted criminals also resulted from the drug war during this period. Grim consequences abound as violent criminals were released to carry out more violence.

Prohibitionists also argue that drugs cause violence, but research suggests that the causal link is between the criminalization of drugs and violence. Black markets generate violence because participants must enforce contracts using threats and physical harm, rather than the court system. Drug market participants carrying drugs or cash are relatively attractive robbery targets who are not likely to report the crime. Other factors are at work, too. Increasing drug enforcement disrupts local drug markets, causing dealers to seek other markets where violent confrontations with other dealers, one of the standard methods of competition in illicit markets, can erupt. Consider Quebec’s experience when it increased cigarette taxes in excess of 60%. This increase probably caused a minor reduction in cigarette consumption, but also encouraged many smokers to break the law. Soon after the cigarette tax was raised, roughly half the cigarettes sold in Quebec were purchased on the black market, which in turn made smuggling so lucrative that the involvement of organized crime increased dramatically. Armed gangs of smugglers competed for shares of the market. Quebec’s citizens recognized the futility of this war against tobacco, and cigarette taxes were eventually reduced. The events in Quebec followed the same pattern that had prevailed with alcohol prohibition in the 1920s.

The drug war has made Americans more vulnerable to attacks by police. Police corruption is an inevitable consequence of black markets, where so much wealth is at stake. In addition, courts, under intense prodding from drug enforcement officials, have relaxed search-and-seizure standards to facilitate the “war” on drugs. Similar reasons lie behind legislation that has undermined property rights by encouraging civil confiscations, which do not require proof of guilt. The 1984 Comprehensive Crime Control Act contains a section on asset forfeitures that allows local police to keep assets seized during drug investigations conducted with the cooperation of federal agencies, in contrast to many state laws directing such assets into general or special funds. The Department of Justice has gone even further, “adopting” seizures even if a local agency was not involved in a drug raid and passing the seized assets back to the local agency, less a “handling charge.” This policy has had a dramatic impact on how police allocate their efforts. Civil seizures (many apparently from innocent citizens), as well as drug arrests and convictions, have risen sharply in light of these policies. A state law allowing police to keep seizures also has led to an increase in drug arrest rates by at least 18%, thus providing strong support for the hypothesis that the upsurge in drug enforcement after 1984 is a direct consequence of the federal seizure legislation.

For drug prohibition to prove a success, the laws of economics would have to be repealed. Large-scale interdiction of marijuana during the early 1980s had the predictable effect of increasing the price. Because the law of demand dictates that consumers will buy less when prices rise, it follows that they are more likely to turn to substitutes. One study found that young users drank more beer when the price of marijuana increased, which, in turn, led to more traffic fatalities. Another reported a precipitous increase in crystal methamphetamine use after a crop destruction program decimated Hawaii’s marijuana supply. Similarly, states that had decriminalized marijuana during the 1970s had fewer hospital emergencies involving hard drugs. Sellers, looking for an alternative product to sell at the lowpriced end of the drug market during the early 1980s, also turned to more easily concealed cocaine and introduced crack, adopting a technology in use in the Bahamas. Yet a further study shows that—when interdiction efforts are successful—marijuana farmers have developed increasingly potent varieties in their efforts to pack a greater punch in a smaller package that can be more easily hidden. Attempts to thwart the drug trade are no match for entrepreneurial creativity, so why do prohibitionist efforts continue? A number of self-interested political motivations have been identified. The demands of the American Pharmaceutical Association for limits on drug distribution have been a potent factor in keeping the war on drugs alive, as has the desire by some groups to control racial minorities, who allegedly employ illicit drugs to greater degrees than does the population at large. Law enforcement bureaucrats also have been a major source of demand for criminalization. These interest groups have interacted with others, among them temperance groups, to strengthen drug prohibition legislation. The 1984 asset seizure legislation was a product of agitation by law enforcement officials and others whose professional interests lay in keeping drugs illegal.

Bureaucrats advocate directly controlling “a source of blame,” that is, the drugs themselves, for at least two reasons, despite the history of failure surrounding this policy. First, because opposition to these prohibitive policies always exists, when drug enforcement officials fail in their attempts to curtail drug use, opponents can be blamed for limiting expenditures to combat the problem. Second, because the results of current drug policy depend, in large measure, on the efforts of a number of groups and bureaus and the range of possible control methods is large, when the method selected fails, bureaucrats can argue that: (a) they advocated a different method of control, and/or (b) others (e.g., witnesses, judges, legislators who approve budgets, other law enforcement agencies) failed to do their part. Under prohibition, police incentives may be even more “perverted,” however. When police focus on drug control, arrests and drug seizures rise, marking their effectiveness, while at the same time, reported property and violent crime rates will simultaneously increase, thus suggesting that there exists a greater need for even more police services.

The official publication of both true and false information, or “selective distortion,” plays a significant role in all bureaucratic policy advocacy. Selective distortion has been especially notable with respect to the government’s drug policy inasmuch as law enforcement has been the major source of antidrug propaganda. Indeed, given the continued advocacy of prohibition by police and in light of consequences of the drug war, police interests, not the “public interest,” seems to be at the root of the drug war. Thus, whether considered from the perspective of liberty or efficiency, prohibitionist policies cannot be justified.


Further Readings

Benson, Bruce L. “Are Public Goods Really Common Pools: Considerations of the Evolution of Policing and Highways in England.” Economic Inquiry 32 no. 2 (April 1994): 249–271.

———., Brent D. Mast, and David W. Rasmussen. “Deterring Drunk Driving Fatalities: An Economics of Crime Perspective.” International Review of Law and Economics 19 no. 2 (June 1999): 205–225.

Coase, Ronald H. “The Problem of Social Cost.” Journal of Law and Economics 3 (October 1960): 1–44.

Lindesmith, Alfred. The Addict and the Law. New York: Vintage Press, 1965.

Mast, Brent D., Bruce L. Benson, and David W. Rasmussen. “Beer Taxation and Alcohol-Related Traffic Fatalities.” Southern Economic Journal 66 no. 2 (October 1999): 214–249.

———. “Entrepreneurial Police and Drug Enforcement Policy.” Public Choice 104 nos. 3–4 (2000): 285–308.

Miron, Jeffrey A., and Jeffrey Zweibel. “The Economic Case Against Drug Prohibition.” The Journal of Economic Perspectives 9 (Fall 1995): 175–192.

Rasmussen, David W., and Bruce L. Benson. The Economic Anatomy of a Drug War: Criminal Justice in the Commons. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1994.

Thornton, Mark. The Economics of Prohibition. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1991.

Wisotsky, Steven. “A Society of Suspects: The War on Drugs and Civil Liberties.” Cato Policy Analysis, No. 180. Washington, DC: Cato Institute, 1992.

Originally published .