11.30.2011

The War on Drugs, In the Style of Satire

One of the great pleasures of running BlawgConomics is the ability it affords me to showcase thought-provoking and interesting content by some colleagues and friends of various political and ideological persuasions. I often find myself wishing that there were more fora for thought and discussion on the internet and elsewhere that provided similar opportunities; media where discussion on topics of the day didn't degenerate instantaneously into name-calling and partisan sniping. Until then, there is BlawgConomics.

Today we are carrying on our proud tradition of featuring the best and the brightest by introducing our readers to Mr. Robert Morris, a recent law school graduate who also goes under the tag of MoFreedomFoundation. Mr. Morris' MoFreedomFoundation avatar is an attempt to explore the facts behind The War on Drugs.

Students of both legal and economic theory will be familiar with various arguments for and against The War on Drugs. Though generalities are tough to make on a topic which is so socially, ideologically, and politically charged, it can nonetheless be argued that economists (and proponents of a law and economics approach) are more likely to be against The War on Drugs than those coming from a straight legal tradition. The former camp looks at the numbers behind what has, in their view, been a disastrous effort while the latter is more likely to cite notions of retribution and deterrence in support of drug regulation.



Mr. Morris falls unabashedly in the group which would consider the drug war to be a spectacular failure from what I suspect he would agree is a fairly standard libertarian viewpoint. That he manages to do so with a bit of dark humor is all the better from our perspective. Part 1 of MoFreedomFoundation's expected three-part series on The War on Drugs can be found below. Meanwhile, Mr. Morris' highly- (albeit lightly-) rated authorial debut can be found on Amazon here.

15 comments:

  1. Fairly standard libertarian is pretty fair. From what I remember of Crim Law though the drug war has failed under deterrence and retribution frameworks as well. Neither I nor the people who get caught up in the criminal justice system for drugs have ever been deterred.

    The Drug War has even failed under retribution. A retribution framework loses its credibility if it is unevenly applied. To the extent that my somewhat unfocused polemic has an over-arching theme it is this: The poor suffer under this regime, the rich do not. Another question under this framework is: Retribution for what? Who is harmed? You can make broader societal arguments, but when one is prosecuted for murder or theft, society is taking retribution for harm done to another. Who is the harmed third party in a drug prosecution?

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  2. Josh Sturtevant30/11/11 23:35

    Hi Rob,

    Thanks for checking in. When discussing what I called 'the straight legal tradition' I wasn't intending to do so in a normative way, but rather merely a descriptive sense.

    In other words, I wasn't intended to say that deterrence or retributive theories are correct in this case. However even if one believes that drug laws lack their intended deterrent or punishment effects, those concepts were/are undoubtedly at least implicit in what we know as the drug war today.

    Now, I believe, as you do, that there are other factors at play when it comes to drug laws. And I believe that is why more analysis is required. However, there are always some who will point/appeal to nuts and bolts law and order in this discussion, so that approach can't be ignored.

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  3. I am never sure what normative means. But yes those concepts are implicit in the legislation. There are very few arenas where the nuts and bolts of legislation are further removed from actual application than they are in this one. Which is exactly what makes the war on drugs so pernicious.

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  4. In discussing the legal theory of the war on drugs, one must inevitably deal with the concept of paternalism in the law.

    Josh's reference to libertarian ideals begins to address paternalism: this idea that the law should deter people from "harming" themselves, or more pointedly, rendering themselves economically "useless".

    In this light, the retributive justification for punishing drug use becomes the idea that a drug user has failed to live up to some arbitrary standard of personal ambition or conduct that has been set.

    It is not difficult to see how the circular reasoning required to sustain this will foster a sense of resentment from those who are being told what they can and cannot do in the privacy of their own homes.

    Additionally, I suspect the economic underpinning of such a theory is generally based on rather audacious assumptions about what man's place in the universe aught to be.

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  5. Josh Sturtevant1/12/11 09:54

    Hi Darren,

    Thanks for stopping by the site. I agree that paternalism undoubtedly plays a huge part in The War on Drugs. This is, in part, why it is so galling to many libertarians.

    I might slightly modify your comment on the economics of the self-fulfilling cycle, however.

    While there are economists who support The War on Drugs, I think (if only empirically) that a large number of mainstream economists have shifted the other way. Even if they are not ideologically for a reduction in drug laws per se, the numbers are just too compelling for many serious people to be able to advocate for the status quo (high spending, tough laws, strong enforcement, high incarceration, all with poor results).

    I guess what I am trying to say is that any economic underpinning of a retributive, justification for continuing The War on Drugs is probably bad economics at this point. So I might say 'an attempted economic underpinning of such a theory...'

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  6. Anonymous1/12/11 11:34

    "Neither I nor the people who get caught up in the criminal justice system for drugs have ever been deterred." -Robbo

    Robbo is uniquely qualified to say whether he has been deterred. But I and many others not caught in the criminal justice system are deterred by the prospect of mandatory prison time.

    A sweeping statement that drug laws do not deter drug use at all is counter-factual and indefensible. A more principled* argument would be: "drug laws deter, but not enough to justify their cost."

    *Still wrong, just more principled.

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  7. Josh Sturtevant1/12/11 11:44

    Thanks for the comment! It is good to see someone taking the other side of this issue from a personal perspective.

    I think that there is definitely something to the idea that drug laws do deter some people...many Americans will follow laws just out of a sense of morality, or an obligation to societal norms. I think that this is fine, and is perfectly in keeping with the idea of personal choice that has made its way in and out of this thread.

    However, I think it is clear that drug laws in their current form do not work to the extent that their advocates would like them to be.

    As long as there is as much money as there is involved in trafficking and selling, and as long as people continue to demand drugs, it is unlikely that laws alone will solve the problem.

    That said, I am curious what your opinion is on current drug laws...ie am I just plain wrong about the ineffectiveness of current drug laws? Or maybe they require reform, but not the kind that Rob advocates for? Should they be even tougher?

    I do not agree with Rob on everything he says about the drug war, but I do believe that it has been unsuccessful, and that something needs to change. Any thoughts on alternatives?

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  8. Anonymous1/12/11 14:29

    Hiyadoin? Now, I don't have a degree in law at all, but I know a few people that have them. So, I guess that makes me completely a non-authority. Despite this, I did notice that the video above speaks about drugs in a general term, but then focuses on "Legalize marijuana now" in the end. I am assuming that the stats pointed out about total prison enrollment among the African American pop. is all encompassing - meaning not specifically weed related. I am curious to know if we were to talk "apples to apples" how many African Americans are jailed due to marijuana related legal issues as opposed to coke, heroin, crack, meth, etc...which are drugs I do see the merits of getting off the streets (see 10am, Jerry Springer). It seems like Mr. Morris is focused on marijuana legalization, but I am thinking that the stats rattled off focus on the whole pie rather than the segment. In any case, I did enjoy this 10 minutes of not working. Bravo!

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  9. Josh Sturtevant1/12/11 14:44

    Thanks for stopping by the site! I actually think that most of these conversations are better off when non-lawyers join in. Sometimes the terms-of-art and nitpicking of those involved in the legal profession overshadow the kind of good old-fashioned common sense than non-lawyers seem to exhibit in large quantities.

    While this doesn't answer your question directly (I will leave it to Rob to explain the stats he used if he drops by the thread again) you can stop by The White House's Office of National Drug Control Policy for more info here: http://www.whitehouse.gov/ondcp/state-map.

    While you are there, you might note that The White House is as interested in alternatives to The War on Drugs as our audience seems to be. Info on such alternative approaches can be found here: http://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2011/11/21/alternatives-war-drugs-obama-drug-policy-and-reforming-criminal-justice-system

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  10. 1. The white house may claim that it is looking for alternatives, but it is, this week, trampling all over California's right to be creative in this arena: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WYANybQlaUc&feature=channel_video_title

    2. The video advocates for legalization of Marijuana because that is the only thing that looks possible in the coming years. I am for a full Portugal-style decriminalization of the other substances as well. There needs to be a good deal of consciousness-raising before we get to that point however.

    3. Those figures are for African-American incarceration as a whole. The actual incarceration for marijuana is harder to parse out. Many have argued that without the drug war the imbalance between incarceration rates would start to balance out.

    4. An excellent economic indicator of the deterrent effect of the drug war is the street price of cocaine. Despite 40 years of enforcement and the seizure of dozens of multi-million dollar shipments, the price continues to plummet.
    http://www.theatlanticcities.com/jobs-and-economy/2011/11/cocaine-plummeting-price-nationwide-drop-violent-crime/474/
    The drug war has been a complete failure.

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  11. Anonymous1/12/11 18:34

    The price of cocaine is a popular but meaningless measure of deterrence. Drug laws punish buyers and sellers - so any decreased supply should be met with decreased demand. That the price is static could as easily reflect that buyers an sellers are evenly deterred.

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  12. OK let's look at more statistics.

    From the article: "Even though cocaine use would slowly decline, general drug use would continue unabated. DAWN statistics show that emergency room visits for illicit drug abuse increased substantially from 1994 to 2009, climbing from 449,964 to 973,000."

    Doesn't look much like deterrence to me.

    50 Billion dollars a year, half a million more people in prison than Communist China, and twice as many people going to the emergency room each year for illicit drug use. Complete failure.

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  13. This woman is kind of blowing my mind right now:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IgM5NAq6cGI

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  14. Josh Sturtevant2/12/11 15:46

    It seems to me that a lot of the arguments on this topic come down to causation and correlation issues which each side can use to their advantage/ the other's disadvantage. The old saw lies, damned lies and statistics comes to mind.

    However, in my opinion, it is tough to argue with the basic numbers of dollars spent on fighting drug trafficking, percentage of the population incarcerated, and illegal drug-related deaths.

    In my opinion, these numbers alone are enough to declare The War on Drugs a losing battle.

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