Critical Thinking Exercise #2: The Drug War

Written by Dr. Gary Potter

Unless you have been living under a rock you are aware of the fact that the United States has been engaged in a War on Drugs for the past three decades. One of the cornerstones of that Drug War has been a policy of zero tolerance which results in large number of arrest.  The idea, of course, is that arrests will deter people from using illegal drugs and incapacitate those who sell and manufacture drugs.  Let’s briefly review the facts:

First, we have certainly enforced the drug laws, at least against some drug users in some places:

  • In 2007 police made 1,841,200 drug arrests in the United States.
  • 1,519,000 of those arrests were for simple possession, not trafficking, manufacturing or selling drugs.
  • 872,200 of those arrests were for possession of marijuana.
  • Between 1980 and 2007 we have arrested 35,282,000 people in the United States on drug charges.  82% of those arrests were for simple drug possession.

But, have those arrests done anything to reduce drug use or drug law violations?

  • By 2008, 114 million Americans age 12 or older (46% of the population) reported that they had engaged in illicit drug use. 14% of them reported regular use of illicit drugs.
  • In 1992 3.1% of high school seniors reported the regular use of cocaine. In 2007 5.2% of high school seniors reported the regular use of cocaine.
  • In 1992 12% of high school seniors reported that they used marijuana.  That percentage increased to 19% by 2008.
  • Of high school seniors in 2008 42.6% reported using marijuana/hashish; 7.2% reported using cocaine; and 1.3% reported using heroin.

In addition to intensive street-level enforcement, the drug war engaged in interdiction and crop eradication policies.  The idea is that if enough drugs are seized and if enough illegal crops are destroyed three things will happen:

  • The price of drugs at both the retail and wholesale level will rise, thereby reducing use.
  • The quality of illicit drugs will decline, thereby turning consumers away from the drug market.
  • The profits of drug traffickers will be negatively impacted encouraging them to get out of the business.

But, the question remains, have these polices worked. Let’s look at drug prices and quality first.

Table 1: Retail Heroin (the heroin sold to users on the street)

The cost of a gram of heroin in 1982 (retail)

The purity of a gram of heroin in 1982 (retail)

The cost of a gram of heroin in 2000 (retail)

The purity of a gram of heroin in 2000 (retail)

$3,300

4%

$2,100

25%

Table 2: Wholesale Heroin (the heroin sold to drug traffickers)

The cost of a gram of heroin in 1982 (wholesale)

The purity of a gram of heroin in 1982 (wholesale)

The cost of a gram of heroin in 2000 (wholesale)

The purity of a gram of heroin in 2000 (wholesale)

$865

59%

$113

59%

Table 3: Retail Cocaine (the cocaine sold to users on the street)

The cost of a gram of cocaine in 1982 (retail)

The purity of a gram of cocaine in 1982 (retail)

The cost of a gram of cocaine in 2000 (retail)

The purity of a gram of cocaine in 2000 (retail)

$423

36%

$212

61%

Table 4: Wholesale Cocaine (the cocaine sold to drug traffickers)

The cost of a gram of cocaine in 1982 (wholesale)

The purity of a gram of cocaine in 1982 (wholesale)

The cost of a gram of cocaine in 2000 (wholesale)

The purity of a gram of cocaine in 2000 (wholesale)

$125

70%

$26

80%

Whether you are a drug user of a drug trafficker the drug war has made drugs cheaper and has actually increased the retail quality.

Has the drug war impacted the profits of drug cartels? Well, consider these facts:

  • The international drug trade generates about $400 billion in international trade and constitutes 8 percent of all international commerce.
  • Colombian drug cartels bring $7 billion in drug profits back into the Colombian economy annually. Colombia’s legal exports return profits of $7.6 billion annually.
  • Almost all (98 percent) of Bolivia’s foreign exchange earnings from international trade come directly from the coca market.

Question:  Evaluate the effectiveness of the drug war. Has the war on drugs achieved any of its goals? Has it made the “problem” of drugs better or worse? Is it worth the 35 million arrests of drug users from 1980 to 2007?

Published on February 11, 2014