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It would be difficult to make the case that the US war on drugs has been a success. Drug wars and violence are rampant, both abroad – Mexico, Jamaica, Afghanistan, etc. – and in many urban centers in the US. Some of the profits form the drug trade undoubtedly find their way to funding terrorists targeting the US and its citizens. In addition, many jails in the US are overflowing with inmates who have been involved in the drug trade.

Making an activity illegal does not stop people from participating in that activity. This only increases the costs and risks, thus attracting risk-takers, who are possibly prone to violence, into the activity in search of large returns.

The US has three options going forward. The US can continue to do what it is doing, perhaps with more funding. But given the track record to date, this option does not appear to be promising.

A second option is to substantially increase the penalties – fines and prison terms – both for drug distributors and sellers, and users. Many users might be deterred from buying drugs if they knew they faced long prison terms even for a first offence and/or a minor offence. Increasing the costs of doing business and reducing the demand might begin to impact the drug trade in the US – likely the largest consumer market for drugs at this time.

However, this option would require large investments in enforcement and prisons, and judges would have to be given little discretion in imposing automatic, long prison terms. Would these investments be worth the potential benefits? It is difficult to say. Would automatic, long prison terms for supposedly minor offences be constitutional? Again, I do not know.

A third option is legalization. Let the big tobacco and pharmaceutical companies take over the business, and they would. (The appreciation in the share prices of these companies would help reduce the current underfunding of many defined benefit pension plans in the US.)

The US Government also might consider providing subsidies to farmers to shift some of their current production of various agricultural products to opium poppies and coca. (This could result in an improvement in the US trade balance as the US becomes self-sufficient in drugs and might even become an exporter.)

This option would reduce prices and take the business out of the hands of organized crime and other drug gangs around the world. It also would reduce the wealth and power of many tribal warlords in Afghanistan, and reduce the flow of money to terrorists. (A large carbon or gasoline tax in the US would go a very long way towards reducing the other major source of money for terrorists.)

Of course, there would be an increase in drug use with the concomitant increase in social and economic problems. The government could tax drugs, as they do cigarettes and alcohol, to limit the price declines and provide funding to deal with the resulting problems. (Some of the revenues could be used to reduce the massive budget deficit as well.) If the government chose to tax drugs, there would have to stronger enforcement of smuggling to circumvent the new “sin” tax.

Would the potential benefits (new sources of revenues for government, reduction in drug-related crimes, reduction in the prison population, and less money available for terrorists) exceed the costs resulting from greater drug use? I do not know.

But it is unlikely that the status quo is the best policy for dealing with drugs.

PS Another display of incompetence by wannabe terrorists in Sweden. Will the response of the Swedish Government enable terrorists to claim that even failures are successes? The late departed Jimmy the Greek probably would give 5-1 odds that the Swedish Government will do so.

The opinions expressed in this blog are personal and do not reflect the views of either Global Brief or the Glendon School of Public and International Affairs.


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