Home Political The War on Drugs is a Failure on Every Level

The War on Drugs is a Failure on Every Level


The goal of the war on drugs is to reduce drug use. The specific aim is to destroy and inhibit the international drug trade — making drugs scarcer and costlier, and therefore making drug habits in the US unaffordable. And although some of the data shows drugs getting cheaper, drug policy experts generally believe that the drug war is nonetheless preventing some drug abuse by making the substances less accessible.

(VOX)The prices of most drugs, as tracked by the Office of National Drug Control Policy, have plummeted. Between 1981 and 2007, the median bulk price of heroin is down by roughly 93 percent, and the median bulk price of powder cocaine is down by about 87 percent. Between 1986 and 2007, the median bulk price of crack cocaine fell by around 54 percent. The prices of meth and marijuana, meanwhile, have remained largely stable since the 1980s.

heroin price

Much of this is explained by what’s known as the balloon effect: Cracking down on drugs in one area doesn’t necessarily reduce the overall supply of drugs. Instead, drug production and trafficking shift elsewhere, because the drug trade is so lucrative that someone will always want to take it up — particularly in countries where the drug trade might be one of the only economic opportunities and governments won’t be strong enough to suppress the drug trade.

The balloon effect has been documented in multiple instances, including Peru and Bolivia to Colombia in the 1990s, the Netherlands Antilles to West Africa in the early 2000s, and Colombia and Mexico to El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala in the 2000s and 2010s.

Sometimes the drug war has failed to push down production altogether, like in Afghanistan. The US spent $7.6 billion between 2002 and 2014 to crack down on opium in Afghanistan, where a bulk of the world’s supply for heroin comes from. Despite the efforts, Afghanistan’s opium poppy crop cultivation reached record levels in 2013.On the demand side, illicit drug use has dramatically fluctuated since the drug war began. The Monitoring the Future survey, which tracks illicit drug use among high school students, offers a useful proxy: In 1975, four years after President Richard Nixon launched the war on drugs, 30.7 percent of high school seniors reportedly used drugs in the previous month. In 1992, the rate was 14.4 percent. In 2013, it was back up to 25.5 percent.

past-month illicit drug use seniors

Still, prohibition does likely make drugs less accessible than they would be if they were legal. A 2014 study by Jon Caulkins, a drug policy expert at Carnegie Mellon University, suggested that prohibition multiplies the price of hard drugs like cocaine by as much as 10 times. And illicit drugs obviously aren’t available through easy means — one can’t just walk into a CVS and buy heroin. So the drug war is likely stopping some drug use: Caulkins estimates that legalization could lead hard drug abuse to triple, although he told me it could go much higher.

But there’s also evidence that the drug war is too punitive: A 2014 studyfrom Peter Reuter at the University of Maryland and Harold Pollack at the University of Chicago found there’s no good evidence that tougher punishments or harsher supply-elimination efforts do a better job of pushing down access to drugs and substance abuse than lighter penalties. So increasing the severity of the punishment doesn’t do much, if anything, to slow the flow of drugs.Instead, most of the reduction in accessibility from the drug war appears to be a result of the simple fact that drugs are illegal, which by itself makes drugs more expensive and less accessible by eliminating avenues toward mass production and distribution.

The question is whether the possible reduction of potential drug use is worth the drawbacks that come in other areas, including a strained criminal justice system and the global proliferation of violence fueled by illegal drug markets. If the drug war has failed to significantly reduce drug use, production, and trafficking, then perhaps it’s not worth these costs, and a new approach is preferable.