Drug War Crimes: The Consequences of Prohibition

by | Aug 19, 2004

“In the United States, there are now more than 318,000 people behind bars for violations of drug prohibition, more than the number of persons incarcerated for all crimes in the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy and Spain combined,” writes Jeffrey A. Miron, Professor of Economics at Boston University, in his new book Drug War Crimes: […]

“In the United States, there are now more than 318,000 people behind bars for violations of drug prohibition, more than the number of persons incarcerated for all crimes in the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy and Spain combined,” writes Jeffrey A. Miron, Professor of Economics at Boston University, in his new book Drug War Crimes: The Consequences of Prohibition.

On any given day, that means that the number of people locked up in America for drug violations is just about equal to the total number of people living in Pittsburgh. The official population of Pittsburgh in the 2000 U.S. Census was 334,563.

All told, in excess of 1.5 million people are being arrested each year in the United States on drug-related charges — overwhelmingly for possession, not selling. That’s more people arrested each year for breaking U.S. drug laws than the total number of people living in Harrisburg, Buffalo, Norfolk, Durham, Spokane and Cleveland combined.

Of these 1.5 million drug-related arrests, a full 1.2 million are for possession-only. Touching only a small fraction of the nation’s estimated 28 million drug users. As Miron explains: “Many arrests for possession occur because the arrestee violated some other law — prostitution, theft, speeding, loitering, disorderly conduct, and so on — and was found to possess drugs. Thus, otherwise law-abiding citizens who wish to purchase and consume drugs face minimal risk of arrest or other sanction.” The cocaine in the purse of a downtown hooker, in other words, is more likely to be spotted by the cops than the cocaine in the glove compartment of those who go about their business in more leafy sections of the country.

America’s war on drugs has also proven to be especially good at rounding up the small fry while letting the big fish off the hook. “Mandatory sentences,” explains Julie Stewart, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, “are filling federal prisons with low-level offenders instead of the kingpins they were supposed to catch.”

With over 2 million people now locked up, the U.S. prison population is now the largest in the world, much of it the result of the war on drugs. At over 700 per 100,000 residents, for example, the U.S. incarceration rate is more than seven times higher than the rates of incarceration in Germany or France. On top of the price of inequitable enforcement and the $33 billion that the U.S. government is spending annually to enforce drug prohibition, Miron contends that the war on drugs has been more effective in fostering corruption among public officials than in reducing drug consumption.

Arguing that the war on drugs is a poor method of reducing drug use, Miron pulls together the evidence to show how prohibition has increased the level of street violence, expanded health risks for drug users, drained criminal justice resources away from more serious crimes, diminished civil liberties, restricted the medicinal uses of drugs, generated insurrection in drug-producing countries, and speeded the transfer of massive amounts of wealth to criminals.

The costs, in short, have exceeded the benefits. Miron’s answer: “Liberty and utility both recommend that prohibition end.”

Ralph R. Reiland is the B. Kenneth Simon professor of free enterprise at Robert Morris University in Pittsburgh.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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