Friday, November 22, 2013

A Cost/Benefit Analysis of the War on Drugs

It's my belief that even operating under a number of different conventional political ideologies, the War on Drugs (hereafter WoD) is a functional failure, and should be scrapped for wholesale legalization of production, distribution, sale, possession and consumption.  While my own beliefs lead me to point out that in a liberal society, the presumption on any voluntary activity is on legalization, the great and escalating cost, most importantly the human cost, of the WoD compels me to drop the ideological rhetoric and adopt a non-partisan, "Does it work?" approach in hopes of building a larger coalition to rid ourselves of it.

Initial disclaimer: I reference wikipedia as a convenience.  In some cases I tried to track down the original linked source, but if you want to dispute the stuff there, be my guest.  We can have that argument.  I'm taking the liberty because this is a blog post, not an academic paper.  I make no claims about the inherent accuracy of information found in any source posted.

Special thanks at the start to Tal Arrowood, who providing some thoughts and edits.

Hopefully my biases won't get the best of me.  Here we go.  If I've made a strawman of your beliefs, let me know.

Costs of the War on Drugs

1. Cartels and Civil Instability in Latin America

We're all pretty familiar with the idea of drug cartels operating in Latin America.  For decades now, they've been a subject of periodic news coverage, pop culture treatment, and US political ire.  But the reason drug cartels exist, is because people demand drugs (particularly in rich countries like the US), and there exists no legal mechanism for their production, distribution and sale.  But it's easy to keep that as an abstract thought.  To push to the back of your mind just what it means to be living in a country plagued by drug cartels.

Consider Mexico.

The official toll of Mexican drug violence in the six years of former President Felipe Calderon's tenure is 60,000 (1).  It may well be higher, as there are an estimated 100,000 total homicides counting missing people, unsolved murders, etc (2).  Alfredo Corchado, a Mexican-American journalist working for the Dallas Morning News covering the activity of the cartels in Mexico, puts the number at more than 80,000 (3).  To put that in perspective:


You have to go back to the world wars and the Civil War to find wars that produced more American casualties.  This is not exactly an apples/apples comparison, of course.  One the one hand, while the numbers include civilian deaths, the American wars were not fought on American soil.  But I don't include the numbers to compare the overall deadliness of the wars, but to force you to consider how you feel about American dead in wars, and then think those thoughts for our neighbors to the south.  Mexico is in a state of effective war, with all the incumbent terror.

How much terror?

In a panel on Mexican drug violence, the NY Times' Mexico City desk reporter, Karla Zabludovsky, shared that police in Mexico are often seen wearing masks to hide their identities (5).  Other targets of the cartels include journalists that report on Mexico's drug violence.  Note that I didn't say those that report on Mexico's drug cartel.  Zabludovsky says journalists often fear reporting on the violent activities that arise because of drug cartels, even without attribution to the cartels themselves.  So it is not uncommon to come across the scene of a shooting, but then never read about it later.  That or anonymous Twitter users report the event (this was a particular focus of that Cato panel).

(image source: 6)

The previously mentioned Alfredo Corchado had a well-publicized death-threat issued against him by cartels (7).  Thankfully they have not carried out their threat.  But here is a depressing list of journalists killed in Mexico since 2000 (8).

The people who report the news and the people who protect and serve live in fear of these cartels.  Corruption is rampant in various levels of Mexican government according to Corchado's work.  And all of this is, in large part, to supply drugs to countries like the US.

Now it is too simplistic to say the cartels would vanish if the WoD were truly ended (including legalizing production, distribution and sale).  After all, we still have moonshiners in America, and the cartels have other revenue streams like human trafficking.  But it's clear that most of their revenue comes from the illicit drug trade (citation needed - but I'm not gonna dig for one - they're called "drug" cartels for a reason), and if there were a legal market for those illicit drugs, most all of the demand would be met by that legal market (taking into account the elasticity of how users would respond to differences in prices - taxes would have to be set with an eye towards minimizing black market activity).  The chance of citizens of Mexico to live a normal life may hinge on our willingness to end the WoD.

A note on enforcement: attacking the drug cartels directly seems not to have worked.  Those 60,000 official deaths occurred over a period of time in which the Mexican administration waged direct war on the cartels.  While corruption may be partly to blame for their failures, there's been no lack of violence between the army and cartels themselves, and very little to show for it.

2. Gangs and Gang Violence in the US

Of course, not all of the black market violence is south of the border.  When the drugs come to America, they must be distributed by someone, and gangs are the primary distributors of drugs within the US, according to the Department of Justice (9).

Not all of the drugs the gangs profit from are from outside the country.  Manufacture of drugs like methamphetamine, as we all know, can take place just about anywhere.  The drug trade within the US takes a small part of the violence we see in Mexico and imports it to the US.  While it is very difficult to account for gang violence, it's estimated around 1,900 people are killed each year in America because of it (10).  Some large portion of that because of the illicit drug trade.

3. Loss of Civil Liberties and Police Militarization

A recent news item told of man subjected, against his will, to multiple anal cavity probes.  All because a police officer saw him "clinching his buttocks" as he got out of his car.  This was supposedly probable cause for a search, which never turned up any drugs (despite a drug dog "alerting" - more on that later).  There's plenty of reporting and commentary about the incident out there, like this (11).  But while it's a particularly egregious example of how the WoD has gone wrong, it's far from the only one.  There's another very instructive example.  We're all fortunate though, that this time it happened to someone with the means to fight back.

i) Cheye Calvo

You may remember the story of Cheye Calvo, but if not, it starts with his being the unwitting victim of a drug smuggling ring.  The ring operated to distribute drugs by shipping them to the target area to random people, who have no idea they're going to be getting the drugs.  They're delivered while the people aren't home, and an inside man with the delivery company lets someone know at the other end to make the rounds and pick up the packages.  If something goes wrong along the way, it's not traceable to any of the people on the receiving end, since the drugs are going to the victims' addresses.

This time, the police manage to intercept one of the packages.  They decide to surreptitiously deliver the package themselves, and then raid the home when the people take it inside.  This duty falls on Prince George's County Police.  The person on the receiving end was Calvo, who was mayor of the town in which he lived: Berwyn Heights, MD.

After the mayor got home and took the package inside, completely unaware of its contents, his home was broken into by a SWAT team, which immediately shot his two dogs, including one that was running away, as they threw the mayor and his wife on the ground and held them at gunpoint as they ransacked their house for four hours.  You can read his account here (12).

The bit about the dogs being shot is tragically routine.  Radley Balko write about civil liberties issues and police abuses, and coined the grim hashtage #puppycide for tweets involving such incidents.  Here are the search results (13).  There's also a Kickstarter campaign underway to fund a documentary on the practice (14).

Raids like that on Calvo's house exist because of the WoD.

ii) Paramilitary Police Raids

The existence of paramilitary police raids puts multiple lives at risk.  Not just criminals.  Not just police.  But innocent civilians.  The Cato Institute started mapping incidents where these kinds of raids occurred.

Initially, the use of paramilitary equipment and tactics by law enforcement was rare.  It was introduced as a way to mitigate situations in which there is imminent danger to peoples' lives.  The term S.W.A.T. (Special Weapons and Tactics) dates back to Philadelphia in 1964, but gained notoriety in Los Angeles, where Inspector Daryl Gates was a prominent supporter of the teams (15).

They were used to great effect to put down the heavily armed Symbionese Liberation Army in LA in 1974.  In a report following the incident, some important rationales were given for the necessity of the heretofore unusual approach to police work: "the emergence of snipers as a challenge to civil order; political assassinations; and the threat of urban guerrilla warfare by militant groups." (quoted from wikipedia - tried to track down the pdf, but it's a dead link in the page - would like to find it somewhere).

Indeed, these seem to me like reasonable instances where police need to have a unique set of equipment and tactics. What is most notable about the list is what it doesn't cite as a main impetus: drugs.

And yet, the primary use of SWAT teams around the country today is in enforcing drug warrants. In response to the Calvo raid, the Maryland legislature passed a bill that would require reporting of how SWAT teams were used in Maryland, and the data began to come in.

For the last half of 2009, SWAT teams were deployed 804 times in the state of Maryland, or about 4.5 times a day. In Prince George’s County alone, which has about 850,000 residents, a SWAT team was deployed about once a day. According to an analysis by the Baltimore Sun, 94 percent of the state’s SWAT deployments were to serve search or arrest warrants, leaving just 6 percent that were raids involving barricades, bank robberies, hostage takings, and other emergency situations. Half of Prince George’s County’s SWAT deployments were for what were called “misdemeanors and nonserious felonies.” More than one hundred times over a six-month period, Prince George’s County sent police barreling into private homes for nonserious, nonviolent crimes. Calvo pointed out that the first set of figures confirm what he and others concerned about these tactics have suspected: SWAT teams are being deployed too often as the default way to serve search warrants, not as a last resort.

That excerpt is from Radley Balko's book Overkill: The Rise of Paramilitary Police Raids in America (17).  While not all such raids are focused on drugs (sometimes it's to breakup home poker games (18)), Balko figures a great majority of them are.  And the consequences, not just to innocent canines, can be lethal.

a) Cops killed in raids

The person breaking the law is not the only person that can be harmed.  The homes that cops are breaking into may contain armed people.  Some may be guilty of some crime.  Others may be completely innocent.  But when people break down your door and are not dressed in normal police uniforms, it's not hard to imagine why armed citizens respond to what they think is a home invasion when someone points an MP5 or a shotgun in their direction after breaking in in the middle of the night.  The raid map chronicles officers killed or injured during the raids.

b) Innocent civilians killed in raids

The raid map also captures completely innocent civilians who were killed in raids on wrong homes, or who were minors in the homes at the times of raids.

One of the worst cases was the killing of Kathryn Johnson of Atlanta in 2006.  Police entered the home in plainclothes at night with a no-knock raid.  Johnson fired out the door over the heads of the invaders, who responded by sending a hail of bullets into the house.  The officers falsified reports that drugs were found at the home, and this was used to justify the raid initially.  Then they planted marijuana at the home after the shooting.  After Johnson was shot, she was handcuffed as she lay dying. (19)

iii) Civil Asset Forfeiture

One of the incentives for conducting raids on homes, and also often raids on people in their cars and business is because of civil asset forfeiture laws.  These laws, which are in the place at the federal level, and in the state books (with North Carolina being a noted, blessed exception) allow property to be confiscated if there's a nexus to criminal activity.  This seems like facially unconstitutional in light of the fourth amendment and fourteenth amendments to the Constitution.  Property is seized without substantive due process.  Drugs are often used a pretense.

In August of this year, the New Yorker described a town that was particularly notorious in how they confiscated property of people traveling through the town.  One family was even threatened with having their kids taken away if they didn't relinquish the cash they were traveling with (20).  The WoD facilitates these kinds of takings by providing two notable mechanisms available to police.

a) False Alerts

SCOTUS, in their wisdom, has ruled that you do not require reasonable suspicion to walk a drug dog around a car that has been stopped for any kind of violation.  The idea being that this does not constitute an invasive search, since the dog is just examining odors being emitted out from the car.

This becomes problematic as drug dogs have been shown to falsely alert to the presence of narcotics.  In some cases, this is based on the subtle cues given by handlers based on their own expectations.  A UC-Davis investigation found this particular type of false alert common (21).

And in some cases, it may be more nefarious.  Russ Jones is a former narcotics officer with experience dealing with police dogs.  He now is a part of the organization called Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP).  (22)  He has come out and said that a drug dog is trained to satisfy his handler.  And if the handler wants the dog to alert, he has cues he can use to make him alert.  That alert is then used as probable cause to conduct a full search of the vehicle.  Which all makes a mockery of the probable cause requirement, if a cop can just get a dog to give it to him whenever he wanted.

b) Drug Laced Cash Seized

Another tactic used by law enforcement is in testing cash for the presence of drugs.  When people travel with large amounts of physical cash, they may be conducting perfectly legal business.  But that money can be seized without due process if it is found to contain traces of drugs.

The problem is this: a whole lot of our money contains traces of drugs.

The Institute for Justice, a libertarian leaning public interest law firm has a series of statistics on their website about how problematic seizure based on traces of drugs is.
Scientists, in studies stretching back to 1987, have consistently found that a third to 97 percent of all bills in circulation are tainted by cocaine.[3]  The latest study, presented in August 2009 to the American Chemical Society, found cocaine on 90 percent of 234 banknotes from 18 U.S. cities.  The findings, arrived at by means of a new method of gas chromatography, confirm numerous previous studies.[4]
In 1987, a Drug Enforcement Agency scientist found that one-third of all money at the Federal Reserve Building in Chicago had traces of cocaine.  The study recommended “that trace analysis of currency for general enforcement or seizure be stopped.”  

A California woman had her cash seized by Nebraska police when dogs indicated the presence of drugs on the money, despite finding no evidence of drugs on her person or in her automobile.  Thankfully in this case, the judge ordered the seized money returned (24).

The incentive is clear when local departments get to keep large amounts of the cash.  Sometimes they desire the money because they're inadequately funded.  Other times they desire it for more personal gain.  NPR wrote of a Georgia Sheriff that hired inmates to build a house.  It was accused the house became a personal party house for the Sheriff (25).  The story in the New Yorker highlighted other ways in which LEOs benefited from seizing assets.

While I think civil asset forfeiture is a violation of due process rights in the first place, it is largely enabled by the WoD.

4. Mass Incarceration

It is an often-quoted statistic that while the United States has about 5% of the world's population, they have about 25% of the world's currently incarcerated.  I have a bit of trouble with some of the details there, mainly because I do not trust the accounting of highly populated, autocratic regimes.  However, the raw numbers are scary enough.  It is indisputable that the US has the highest incarceration rate of any purported liberal democracy (26).

(image source: 27)

According to Saki Knafo at the Huffington Post

The problem: There are 219,000 inmates in the federal prisons system -- compared with 25,000 in 1980. About half are there for drug offenses.


Note the mention there, by the way, of the disproportionate treatment of cocaine and crack-cocaine, and of the need to reform mandatory minimum sentencing.  Both issues I am very concerned about, but are slightly outside the scope of this piece.

5. Increased Danger from Drugs Themselves

Part of the rationale in prohibiting drugs is that people irrationally make choices that pose a danger to themselves.  Even if, for the sake of argument, all negative externalities of drug use are nullified, some would still argue for the prohibition of drugs to protect people from themselves.

But what if the drug prohibition introduces harms to the drug users we're concerned about?

In a legally regulated open market, the amount of information about drugs, and the reliability of their content, would be greatly escalated.  If you purchase a bottle of vodka, you will know from the label whether it is 40% alcohol by volume, or 50% alcohol by volume, or higher.  Likewise, you can be almost perfectly certain that the bottle contains ethanol distilled from grain and water.  However, when you buy a drug from someone at the corner, you don't know if the cocaine is cut with some cheap powder that may prove deadly.

In recent years, deaths across the world have been linked to fake ecstasy (29 , 30 , 31).

The track-record of open markets in ensuring reliability and open information about product formulation is not perfect, but it is remarkably high.  While we often debate the efficacy of various degrees of regulatory intervention into markets, bringing drugs into the open market and out of the black market will help protect people from faulty and potentially more lethal products.

6. Criminalizing Addicts

Along the same lines, our concern for those struggling with drug abuse should lead us to ask what we may do to most effectively help them.  But accepting help means admitting to use.  As hard as it is to admit to being an addict, we have added the additional hurdle of requiring drug addicts to admit they are law-breakers as well.

7. Fiscal Cost

Last, and I would argue, least in my lists of costs of the WoD is the direct fiscal cost itself.  The Cato Institute estimated:

...legalizing drugs would save roughly $41.3 billion per year in government expenditure on enforcement of prohibition. Of these savings, $25.7 billion would accrue to state and local governments, while $15.6 billion would accrue to the federal government.
Approximately $8.7 billion of the savings would result from legalization of marijuana and $32.6 billion from legalization of other drugs.

Still, I think this is relatively minor in comparison to the tremendous human cost outlined in the other points.

Benefits of the War on Drugs

1. Lowered Use

So far, I haven't addressed the prudence, wisdom or morality of using any of the currently prohibited drugs.  That's beyond the scope of what I'm addressing.  In fact, I'm going to continue with the rhetorical assumption that use of drugs is bad - in whatever way you want to take it.

So one benefit of prohibition would be limiting the use of illicit drugs.  It is an intuitive expectation that the prohibition of illicit drugs leads to less use of illicit drugs.

But to what degree?  It's clearly not a binary phenomenon: with prohibition we have no drug use, and with no prohibition we do.  It turns out this is a complicated matter which I'll address later.  For the moment, lets assume that it does.

This has implications beyond those for the individual user.  The use of drugs produces externalities (as with any activity).  Some may be good, but I think most are bad.  I would wager most people reading this would agree with that, though we may argue over the degree.

Directly under the influence of drugs, users may pose a danger to others.  Most illicit drugs will impair driving, an activity that requires attention and coordination.

Aside: not all illicit drugs will - if the guy coming in the other direction has had trouble sleeping lately, I might would rather prefer he be on a small amount of amphetamines than not.  This is why the Air Force has Fly/No Fly pills (also called Go/No Go pills).  The fly pills are dextroamphetamine.  Their use is controversial, but the rationale is apparent (33).
Beyond that, people high on a variety of different drugs may see a behavioral change to the violent, including drugs like cocaine, PCP, or alcohol (whoops - maybe we'll talk about our past experiments with prohibition later).

Chronic depressant use may induce a lethargy that depresses a person's economic contribution to their family and everyone else around them.

And almost every single drug carries a risk of overdose from toxicity, asphyxiation, injury from impaired activity, etc.

Another aside: there has still never been a single confirmed case of direct overdose from the use of cannabis (34).

Anyway, you may have noticed that I'm not including references for the harms posed by drug use.  That's because I'm willing to accept them for the sake of argument and stack the deck against myself.

All that being said, any accounting of the costs and benefits of the WoD must include the amount to which drug use can be restricted, and the concurrent reduction in the negative externalities of said drug use.

2. State as Provider of Moral Censure

I think this particular line of reasoning is somewhat out-of-step with the political preconceptions I bring to the issue.  But it will resonate with traditional conservatives (and ironically, maybe with progressives as well, if you swap out some of the normative terminology (or maybe even if you don't!)).

To many people, drug use represents something more than just a casual, imprudent or selfish (or all of the above) indulgence.  It is, in fact, morally wrong.  And within their political ideology, things that are clearly morally wrong, or perhaps sufficiently morally wrong, should not enjoy the legal freedom to exist.  Even if all penalties were stripped, and drugs were totally "decriminalized", the very existence of an unenforced, un-penalized, but still official censure that contained the legal imprimatur of the state would contain value.  It is a signal that as a society, we do not condone the activity.

Again, I do not share this view of the role of the state.  But for those that do, legal prohibition has a very real value.

Disputed Results of the War on Drugs

1. Restricted Minor Access

I think a very, very large majority of people would agree that it is a legitimate goal to keep mind altering drugs out of the hands of kids (in the context of recreational use).  Nearly as many will identify this as a legitimate public policy goal.

But does the WoD serve this function?  It's not immediately obvious to me that a drug sold in a legal, regulated market would be more available to minors than a drug sold exclusively in the black market.  This is anecdotal, and reliant on my memory (so essentially: rubbish - feel free to skip ahead), but it seems to me, looking back, that in Middle and High School, marijuana was as easy to acquire as alcohol or tobacco.  Now this is just one person's experience, and I was only ever interested in acquiring one of those three things (tobacco).  But still, given the legal availability of alcohol and tobacco, and the much larger ratios of the adult population that used those substances compared to marijuana, one would expect them to be comparatively plentiful.

I think there's a logical explanation for why that might not be the case.  Adults, when given the option to acquire any item, would prefer operating through a legal market over a black market, all else being equal.  Even in the face of excise or other sales taxes, with differing people responding differently based on how they value legality, the risks of lawbreaking, the perceived quality, blah blah blah.

Point is, almost every adult who buys alcohol or tobacco does so through the legal market.  Vendors in these markets have a decided interest in complying with age related laws (and their own moral reasoning).  Not all retailers do, of course, but compared with the incentives faced by the illegal drug dealer, the difference would be dramatic.

But this is still an empirical question.  And shame on me for rambling this far along without finding the data.  Problem is, I don't know the data, and I haven't yet found much reliable data, so I'm just relating my own intuition.

2. Lowered Use

I put lowered use in the section on the benefits of the WoD.  It is not clear, though, the degree to which prohibition lowers drug use.  Empirical evidence is hard to come by, but we do have a couple of examples to consider.

i) Portugal

In 2001, Portugal passed a law removing the criminal penalties for possession of drugs, treating all such cases as administrative.  This is not the widespread legalization proposed in ending the WoD, but it may give some clue as to the effect changing drug laws can have.

The results have been mixed, with many sides of the argument picking and choosing and spinning.  Overall drug use increased slightly, but was down among teenagers.  HIV incidence rate among users dropped steadily, as the decriminalization was pared with harm reduction efforts (aside: for which money would become available as would-be felons are routed out of prison and into treatment programs).  Various statistics and claims and analysis can be found here (35) and here (36).

What did not happen was an explosion of drug use.

ii) Drugs are Cheaper and More Pure

According to a recent report, drugs around the world are cheaper and more pure than ever, suggesting competition is driving down prices and driving up quality.  If the WoD was successful in separating willing consumers from willing buyers, scarcity would drive prices up.  But don't trust my analysis, the researchers have said as much themselves:

They found that illegal drugs have become cheaper while their potency has increased, indicating that efforts to control "the global illegal drug market through law enforcement are failing."

Mixed Results of the WoD

The massive reduction in costs associated with policing the WoD is a burden we need to get off the public fisc.  That said, a lot of that money goes into employing lots of people.  I don't mean to confuse costs and benefits here, but it must be considered that large swaths of bureaucracy and law enforcement would become redundant.  On balance, in the long-run, this would be an improvement.  But considerations could be made, particularly for those trained up in law enforcement.  The blow could be softened to a great degree by reducing headcounts by attrition (closing open positions instead of hiring people to fill them), and by providing retraining assistance.  As for the companies that make money making products and providing services tied to the drug war, there may be capital sunk into those enterprises which cannot be retrieved.

But all of that ends up being arguments to end the WoD sooner rather than later.  The longer you wait, the higher those sunk costs rise.  Just as no one wants to be the last person to die in a losing war, no one wants to invest the last dollar in the cottage industry that was enabled by it.

Thanks to Tal for pointing out that particular result, which was missing from my initial consideration.


Tens of thousands of lives lost.  Communities in Latin America terrorized.  Youth in America turned into felons.  Homes broken into.  Property seized on flimsy pretense.  Governments around the world corrupted.  Users afraid of seeking treatment.  People killed by black market knock-off drugs that are more dangerous than their pure counterparts.  A trillion dollars spent (38).  And drugs are still used and readily available.

What are we getting for all this?  How is this worth it?

Now you may think it's necessary to reform.  Maybe trim some around the edges.  Start with legalizing marijuana, because maybe you know marijuana is safer than alcohol anyway and it just kinda makes sense.

While that may be a step in the right direction, legalizing marijuana will do nothing to address most of the problems.  People don't need treatment for marijuana addiction, a drug with little physical dependency.  And drug cartels aren't fighting in the streets over meager crumbs of a cheap drug that grows better in Canada.

I know this is radical.  And I may well be wrong.

One big gotcha against my point: legalizing production in the United States may not completely eradicate illegal activity in other countries if they do not change their laws.  However, I would say 1) if the US changed its drug laws, it would drastically increase the likelihood of other countries in our hemisphere of doing the same.  Usually the US is applying pressure to prevent Latin American countries from exploring legalization. 2) While the US does not have the climate of, say, Colombia, I am sure a legalized cocaine industry would perfect growing coca leaves, or in acquiring raw material through legal channels.

I also recognize that it's really hard to weigh these things in a balance.  It's a lot of anecdotes, with some data thrown in.  It's fuzzy and messy.

But this is what I believe.  When I stack up the pros and cons, I don't see how drug prohibition works.  I don't see how it works for families.  I don't see how it works for communities.  I don't see how it works for our nation.

BTW, there are two other matters that come to mind that escaped mention here, but I think are important.  One is the lesson of alcohol prohibition.  The other is the way in which our WoD has a disproportionate impact on the poor and minorities.  I think the first issue is generally well understood by most people.  The second is one that deserves more attention, perhaps in a future blog post.

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