In a proposal termed SABRE (Substance Abuse Resistance Effort), Virginia Republican governor James Gilmore III is asking the Virginia legislature to get tough in the state’s war on drugs. The governor’s proposals include harsher penalties for drug users and drug sellers.
No one, including Governor Gilmore, would argue that the decades-long war on drugs has been successful in achieving its aims. Hardly a month goes by without law-enforcement officers’ announcing a new record drug bust, which would seem to be fairly powerful evidence that the war isn’t achieving what it’s supposed to achieve. And after all, if the war had already achieved its goals, there would be no point in continuing it, much less escalating it.
The purpose of measures such as those that Governor Gilmore is proposing is to diminish both the demand for drugs and the supply of drugs. On the demand side, the hope is that by increasing the punishment a drug user faces if caught, the demand for drugs will be reduced. The analysis is similar on the supply side. The hope is that drug sales will decline because drug sellers must now face a harsher punishment if they’re caught selling drugs.
All too often, however, the prospect of facing increased punishment doesn’t seriously affect drug users. For one thing, many of them don’t believe that they are the ones who are going to get caught. For another, their addiction often causes them to continue consuming the drugs even though the price has increased; it’s what an economist would call an “inelastic demand curve,” one in which changes in price have a minimal effect on changes in demand.
Harsh penalties on the supply side also have had little effect on the supply of drugs. Why? Because as the price of drugs and the profits from drug sales increase because of a constriction in supply arising from stricter law enforcement, more people are induced to enter the drug trade, which brings supply back up. That is why we see “regular” people, such as airline workers, entering the illegal drug business.
Harsher enforcement of drug laws also has a serious negative consequence in society. In order to get the money to pay for the artificially higher-priced drugs, the user often resorts to violent means-robberies, muggings, thefts, and the like. (When was the last time you saw a wino committing a robbery to get the money to pay for his habit?)
Why then do so many government officials continue to call for an escalation of the drug war? Some officials are well-intentioned. They honestly believe that their proposals will finally stop people from ingesting harmful substances. But should good intentions play a role in public policy, especially when the policy has been tested for decades and has not only failed but also has produced serious negative consequences for society?
There’s an alternative explanation, however, for hasher drug-war measures, one that is based on self-interest. No one can now deny that the two financial beneficiaries of drug laws are drug sellers, who make lots of money selling drugs, and government officials, who make lots of money from asset-forfeiture laws.
For example, in 1998, in Chesapeake, Virginia, local prosecutors collected more than $160,000 in assets, including $80,000 in cash. The money was divided among the state, the police department, and the prosecutors. State officials also get a piece of the action when they help the DEA or FBI in a drug bust; this brought $100,000 to Chesapeake over a three-year period. In Prince George’s County, Maryland, investigators recently discovered that the sheriff’s department kept a cash seizure of $45,000 hidden from county officials for seven years, in the hope that the legislature would enact a law that would enable the sheriff’s department to keep the money.
In a free society, people should ask why the state should have the power to punish someone for engaging in self-destructive behavior. People should also ask why a decades-long war that has failed and that is corrupting society should be escalated. Recently New Mexico Republican governor Gary Johnson called for an end to the war on drugs. Which state will lead the nation by being the first state to do so?