With these words, famous prohibitionist, Billy Sunday, advented the beginning of alcohol prohibition in the United States with the passage of the 18th amendment in 1919. As can be inferred by his words, Billy Sunday felt that alcohol was the root of all evil, and by making it illegal, prisons and jails would become relics. The results turned out to be anything but what he hoped. As a result of alcohol becoming illegal, the price went from 15 cents a drink in salons prior to prohibition, to 75 cents a drink in Speakeasy’s. As a result, profits soared as did violence between rival bootleg gangs, most notably, Al Capone. The most famous incident being the Valentine’s Day Massacre, where seven members of the rival Bugsy Moran gang were executed. As can be evidenced by the chart to the left, the murder rate steadily increased during prohibition and began to decline only after the Volstead Act was repealed in 1934. According to a study by Professor Jeffrey Miron, Harvard University, consumption did not change between 1933 when the distribution of alcohol was illegal to 1934. Simply, anyone who wanted to buy a drink did, regardless of illegality.
Fast forward to 1972, President Nixon declares war on drugs. Drug prices rise as does violence. The drug of choice is marijuana. This war is affirmed by President Reagan in 1981(Presidents Ford and Carter had more benign attitudes) and we see the rise of cocaine and heroin; more insidious drugs with much higher profit margins that begin to replace marijuana as the drug of choice. As can be inferred, the higher illegal profits beget more violence and we saw the rise of Columbian cartels, the most infamous being the Medellin Cartel run by Pablo Escobar. By making drugs illegal, the unintended consequences have been excessive violence, (in an early 90’s interview, famed economist Milton Friedman stated that if drugs were legal, there would be 10,000 fewer murders/year in the US), extreme profits to drug cartels, foregone revenue on the taxing of legal drugs and by some estimates, the cost of the war on drugs is over $50 billion/year. In A May 13, 2010 FOX news article, they estimated the 40 year war on drugs cost over $1 trillion dollars.
There are other unintended consequences. In a study completed by Benson and Rasmussen, they looked at property crime in the state of Florida. In 1981, property crime was spiking in Florida, 77 incidents/1000 homes. As a result of police increasing their efforts throughout the state, property crime decreased in 1984 to 63/1000, a decrease of 18%. In 1984, President Reagan re-affirmed his war on drugs with federal money. At this time, drug arrests in Florida were 39 arrests/10,000 residents. Police agencies have a limited number of resources. In order to divert more manpower to the war on drugs, there was less manpower to devote to other areas, including property crime. As a result, drug arrests increased to 67/10,000 in 1989, an increase of 72%. However there are costs; in this case, one of the costs was an increase in property crime to 80/1000 homes, a 27% increase.
Have we made any inroads on the War on Drugs? I believe that this can best be exemplified by studies done by the United Nations and World Health Organization in the early part of this century. The study compared teenagers in the United States, and the Netherlands on their drug use. The results to some were enlightening. When asked if they had tried marijuana or hashish in the past year, 5.2% of teenagers, (12 and older) in the Netherlands admitted they had, whereas in the United States, 12.3% admitted to smoking marijuana or hashish. What makes this study surprising, is that marijuana is legal in coffee shops in the Netherlands, and the use of other drugs, (heroin, cocaine etc) is treated as a sickness; in the United States, where many would say are drug laws with mandatory sentences are Draconian, the usage rate was twice that of the Netherlands. Looking specifically at 10th graders, 28% of 10th graders in the Netherlands had tried Marijuana, and in the United States, 42%.
In a recent conference I attended in Budapest sponsored by LEAP, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (www.leap.cc), I had the fortune to meet a police Lt. from Frankfurt, Germany along with a number of representatives from “café fix” (www.caféfix.de), a government sponsored enterprise. Café fix is type of halfway house in Frankfurt, where drug addicts, particularly heroin, can go to “shoot up” in a controlled atmosphere where they can receive clean needles and counseling. As a result, in the period between 1993-2000, HIV in Frankfurt declined by 40%, robbery declined by 20%, court drug cases by 60% and drug addicts amongst drug users declined from 27% to 9%.
A number of conclusions can be drawn from the previous paragraphs; I believe the most obvious is that policy doesn’t determine drug use, but norms, mores and most importantly, education.
I would now like to fast forward once again to New Hampshire, June of 2012. Governor John Lynch veto’s a medical marijuana bill that passed both the State’s House and Senate.
Medical Marijuana is currently legal in 18 states and the District of Columbia. Its medical uses include: the alleviation of nausea and vomiting in chemotherapy patients and also appetite stimulation, the easing of eye pressure for glaucoma patients, epilepsy, MS, arthritis and chronic pain management. In the states where it is legal, it is an inexpensive alternative to other drugs and can be more efficacious with fewer side effects.
Looking specifically at pain management, if marijuana is not legal, the unintended consequence is the use of other forms of pain management which can include percocet, oxycodone and/or vicodin, all highly addictive narcotics that can lead to addiction and death via overdose. To my knowledge, no one has ever died from a THC (the active ingredient in Marijuana) overdose.
Hopefully, current Governor Maggie Hassan is willing to step up to the plate and won’t be afraid of making the big decision to legalize medical marijuana.
Disclosure: I wrote this article not only as an economist but as a 25 year retired police veteran in Salem NH, and the past 10 years as a part time officer in both Salem and Hampton, NH. During my tenure at Salem, I was assigned to the NH Attorney General’s Drug Task Force as an undercover operative. The expressed opinions are mine and mine alone and do not represent the opinions of the Salem, NH Police Department, Hampton NH Police Department, NH Attorney General’s Office or Bentley University.