Legalize Marijuana Laws: A Hard Look at the Costs of Drug Prohibition

With landmark measures for marijuana legalization recently passed in Washington and Colorado, Americans are taking a hard look at the costs of drug prohibition in money and lives.  

The New York Times reports that nearly $1 trillion has gone to Mexican cartels since 1980, whose wars have cost as many as 100,000 lives. This invites a fiendish and compelling arithmetic: for every $10 million spent on cartel drugs at the border, a life is taken. A normal human body contains five liters of blood, and a standard "drop" is fifty millionths of a liter. This means that for every $100 spent on the cartels' drugs at the border, a drop of a murdered man's blood drips from his wounds or congeals within his corpse.

Of course, the Mexican drug trade is notoriously violent — surely, one may protest, both money and moral responsibility are diluted as the product works its way down the supply chain. Costs of most drugs for the individual user can be ten-fold higher than at the border, and perhaps half the drugs come from some other source. So let's do the math in the U.S.: according to PBS, Americans spent about $80 billion on drugs each year between 1988 and 1998. Over the period of the War on Drugs the number of homicides in the U.S. has averaged roughly around 25,000. The proportion that is drug related (referring to disputes over drug money or territory, rather than intoxication) varies from place to place. The Times estimated that in the New York City area it was 20% to 25% in the early 1980s and 35%-39% later in the decade, while a Yale review cited a rate of up to 53%. As a very crude approximation, that leaves us with $80 billion spent on drugs yearly leading to 8,000 homicides in the same period — the same price of life as in Mexico. Though there are some significant inconsistencies in the data that could use further explanation, the $100-per-drop figure seems supported by two entirely different sets of numbers.

The numbers are different for legal drug distribution. In Los Angeles, where medical dispensaries have been criticized for providing marijuana to a wide range of users without a true medical need, and the city council voted to shut down the dispensaries following two murders, each of 800 dispensaries was paying $1 to $2 million in tax revenue alone — suggesting that the system is suffering roughly one murder per billion dollars of income, 1% of the figure for the illicit trade, despite its peculiar circumstances. More importantly, there is the moral difference that the money goes to those at risk of being murdered, not those committing the crimes.

There are many places to lay the blame — on the assassins, without question — on dealers, without whom a market cannot exist — on the politicians who started Prohibition in the first place and continue it despite decades of failure — on prosecutors and police who deliberately execute a strategy of pushing drug prices as high as possible while leaving demand untouched, indeed, perhaps even higher than ever. Voters weighed in on this last Tuesday. But it is the individual consumer who has the power to stop the gangsters' trade today. Far better products have been boycotted for much poorer reasons.

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Mike Serfas

Mike Serfas received a Ph.D. in molecular biology in 1999, and has done basic research in systems ranging from colon tumors to butterfly wing patterns.

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