What’s wrong with the war on drugs?

What is the single policy change that would bring about the largest reduction in drug abuse and the largest reduction in crime?

Is it

  1. Legalize marijuana, cocaine and heroin?
  2. Increase enforcement and jail the drug kingpins?
  3. Double the tax on alcohol from 10 cents per drink to 20 cents per drink?

According to UCLA crime policy guru Mark Kleiman the right answer is c, double the alcohol tax. He quotes the work of Philip Jackson Cook who predicts that this modest 10% increase in the cost per drink would result in a 6% decrease in alcohol consumption and thus a 3% decrease in homicide and automobile accidents. This is just one of the thought-provoking ideas in the February 9 lecture in  Mark Kleiman’s current UCLA course Crime Control Policy (website).

Kleiman gives an overview of the assumptions that guide American drug policy, and finds that most of them are flawed or outright wrong. A few other points from the lecture:

  1. Perhaps the best discussion of social spread of drug abuse was Abraham Lincoln’s 1842 speech, given to the Springfield Washington Temperance Society. It’s important to understand that drug use spreads through social networks.
  2. Drug dealing is not like violent crime. This is not because drug dealing is “a victimless crime.” You could ask the mother of the drug addict and she would emphatically disagree that it is a victimless crime. Instead the distinction is that when you put a burglar in prison you have one less burglar. However when you put a drug dealer in prison, you are creating a business opportunity for other drug dealers who will move into the vacant market niche.
  3. The big drug abuse problem in the US is alcohol abuse. 8% of US households have a member with drug abuse problem. Seven of those eight are alcohol abusers.

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