Abuse Numbers and Number Abuse

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A new Drug Policy Alliance report by Boston University economist Jeffrey Miron takes apart one of the main numbers the government uses to justify its war on drugs: an estimate of the economic costs associated with drug abuse. The most recent estimate was $143 billion for 1998.

Miron, author of the forthcoming book Drug War Crimes: The Consequences of Prohibition, notes that many of the costs the government attributes to drug use–such as spending on enforcement, productivity losses due to incarceration, and HIV-related health care expenses–are due wholly or partly to prohibition. He argues that "at least $93.1 billion should be entirely eliminated from the economic cost of drug abuse, and another $50.4 billion should be at least partially eliminated."

More fundamentally, Miron points out that calculations like these "say nothing about whether prohibition is a good policy" because they do not compare its costs and benefits to those of an alternative approach. Even focusing just on the costs of drug abuse, he observes, "prohibition potentially increases total harm even while reducing drug consumption."

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  1. A big double duh.
    However, today when the government says billions, even trillions, eyes glaze.

  2. It is amazing how Reason focuses mostly on the costs of the war on drugs and ignores the higher costs of the war on poverty (est. $19 trillion…yeah that’s a T…and counting). The war on drugs is foolish, but in comparison to the war on poverty, it is a downright pittance…

  3. One of the most annoying statistics trotted out for things like this is the assertion that drug use reduces this country?s economic production. It?s not that I question the numbers?-they might be very accurate?-I question their relevance to the debate on prohibition.

    Why should we care if there is a loss of production? The drug users who don?t work also don?t earn paychecks, so their consumption will drop accordingly, leaving just as much for the rest of us as before.

    Besides, lots of things affect gross production. Think how much higher our GDP would be if people didn?t watch television, read, or go to church. Prohibitionists might respond that you can?t compare good things like reading or church-going to bad things like drug use. But that?s just begging the question: You can?t argue that drugs are bad because they impair production in ways that are unacceptable because drugs are bad.

  4. I’m with Mark

    based on this type of reasoning we should have a war on leisure time. No relaxing, it costs to much

    Based on govt studies, kickin it, and other “quality of life activities” cost xxx trillion dollars a year. Get back to work, weekends will be suspended until further notice.

  5. every “lost productivity” statistic assumes that the government, or society, owns you and can expect maximum labor out of you

  6. Anon has hit it on the head… Gawd forbid if we lose one man hour to some hippy peacefully warming his couch or an old and decrepid poor guy who can’t get out of bed. Time to start up the labor camps (oh wait, we already have them) and soylent green factories.

    I think this line of thought (if you can call it that) begs the question: Who owns your body?

  7. richard:
    At least there’s a plausible reason for the war on poverty. You can’t create a French aristocracy without sooner or later creating a French revolution. If you don’t make some effort to alleviate the worst effects of social stratification, sooner or later, the “people” will come in the night, slit your throat, and take it anyway.

  8. “Why should we care if there is a loss of production? The drug users who don?t work also don?t earn paychecks, so their consumption will drop accordingly, leaving just as much for the rest of us as before.”

    If they don’t work and don’t earn paychecks, then someone else is going to be paying for them aka the taxpayer. Also, if they’re using drugs and not working, they need to be able to support themselves somehow … possibly through crime? Not to mention the damage that drug addicts can do to children they’re supposedly raising and the future costs to society for having to jail and treat many of those children. These are all costs to society, to you and me.

    I don’t agree with the current way we deal with drug use and the drug war is a joke but drug addiction is a serious problem that has plenty of negative effects on others. It’s not just a matter of “I can put in my body anything I want”. No one would seriously argue for ingesting cyanide and carcinogens but pass the crack pipe. If a pregnant woman wants to ingest Thalydomide and shoot heroin, who are we to stop her?

    Besides people sitting on their couches increase consumption and production. They had to buy the couch they sit on. They may be watching tv. When you and I watch tv, people make money! Get jobs! Leisure time is just as important to the economy as responsible adults working 40 hours/week.

  9. infamouse, your arguments might be valid if all, or even most drug users did what you say. In my experience, many carry on just fine.

    So in the case of the pregnant women, wouldn’t a charge of reckless endangerment be more appropriate? Isn’t that the real crime, rather than the particular way the fetus was damaged? How your example could apply to a guy smoking pot peacefully in his own home escapes me.

  10. Infamouse wrote,

    ?If they don’t work and don’t earn paychecks, then someone else is going to be paying for them aka the taxpayer.?

    True, but it makes for an odd argument: We have voluntarily (through our legislative bodies) obligated ourselves to expend resources to care for drug abusers who cannot care for themselves. We don?t like expending resources in this way. Therefore we will punish drug users in order to reduce the magnitude of future voluntary obligations.

    It?s not a totally invalid argument. In fact, it?s the argument of the parent who threatens to punish his teenage son for staying out late in order to reduce the risk of having to bail him out of jail at some future date.

    I?m not sure the same argument can be applied to free and competent adults.

    (As for some of the other things you mention, I?m not denying that there are other costs of drug use. However, I was just addressing the productivity issue.)

  11. While I?m on a roll, I?m also pissed off at those people who complain about the lost productivity of drug users while ignoring the lost productivity of prisoners.

    In addition to losing the potential production of the prisoners, our economy also loses the production of whatever the prison employees would be doing if they weren?t guarding drug abusers.

  12. infamouse,
    Drug users contribute to the economy. Blown glasswork, sandwich bags, salty snack foods, pizza, pacifiers, glowsticks, bottled water, etc.

    Marge: You’re a life saver, Apu. All the other stores are closed!
    Apu: [gasp] At 11:30? But this is the peak hour for stoned teenagers buying shiny things!
    Jimbo: [observing a roll of tin foil] Whoa, it’s a living mirror … cool hat!

  13. Did the two guys looking for the war on poverty thread finally give up on this wasted thread?
    If not, then, hey, get in touch with your feminine side and ask directions to the war on poverty thread

  14. Mo, I’m terribly worried now because if that’s the contribution of drug users to the economy, then I must be a (super secret– unaware even to myself!) drug user.

    “I?m not sure the same argument can be applied to free and competent adults.”
    We apply this sort of argument to adults all the time. Otherwise, we wouldn’t jail criminals or keep lists of sexual predators. Besides, if they’re serious drug addicts, are they really competent? Or even free?

    “So in the case of the pregnant women, wouldn’t a charge of reckless endangerment be more appropriate? Isn’t that the real crime, rather than the particular way the fetus was damaged? How your example could apply to a guy smoking pot peacefully in his own home escapes me.”
    A charge of reckless endangerment would definitely be appropriate, as would time in a treatment facility for drug addiction. I’m assuming that the inability to stop taking drugs during pregnancy is proof of either lack of fitness to be a parent or evidence of serious addiction. I’m not even sure what a guy smoking pot even has to do with this. I was responding to the idea that we should be able to put anything we want in our bodies. This is just not true. Up to a certain point, this is fine, but when it begins to hurt other people and yourself, then there is a limit. It doesn’t mean I find marijuana use offensive. I don’t, and find the drug war as currently constituted to be more trouble than it’s worth. However, just because it’s costly doesn’t mean we should legalize crack and let Pfizer sell it.

  15. Mo, I’m terribly worried now because if that’s the contribution of drug users to the economy, then I must be a (super secret– unaware even to myself!) drug user.

    “I?m not sure the same argument can be applied to free and competent adults.”
    We apply this sort of argument to adults all the time. Otherwise, we wouldn’t jail criminals or keep lists of sexual predators. Besides, if they’re serious drug addicts, are they really competent? Or even free?

    “So in the case of the pregnant women, wouldn’t a charge of reckless endangerment be more appropriate? Isn’t that the real crime, rather than the particular way the fetus was damaged? How your example could apply to a guy smoking pot peacefully in his own home escapes me.”
    A charge of reckless endangerment would definitely be appropriate, as would time in a treatment facility for drug addiction. I’m assuming that the inability to stop taking drugs during pregnancy is proof of either lack of fitness to be a parent or evidence of serious addiction. I’m not even sure what a guy smoking pot even has to do with this. I was responding to the idea that we should be able to put anything we want in our bodies. This is just not true. Up to a certain point, this is fine, but when it begins to hurt other people and yourself, then there is a limit. It doesn’t mean I find marijuana use offensive. I don’t, and find the drug war as currently constituted to be more trouble than it’s worth. However, just because it’s costly doesn’t mean we should legalize crack and let Pfizer sell it.

  16. Serving long prison sentences doesn’t do wonders for a workers productivity either…

    “Hey boss, I can’t come to work today… or for the next 25 years…”

  17. A lawyer and an economist need to get some money to continue this line of reasoning. A lawyer to think of all the contingencies and an economist to tote up the dollars and cents impact.

  18. The arguments concerning the “cost” of the drug war are founded on the “peace dividend” fallacy. Nobody ever seems all that concerned with the amount of money being vacuumed out of their personal wallets by abuse or drugs, or the prosecution of the drug war. Rather, those who raise the issue assume that the money belongs to “society,” and that if it weren’t going into the lungs, noses, or veins of addicts, or down the rathole of prohibition enforcement, it would be spent on “public goods,” such as welfare, education, medicare, or the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, just to name a few.

    As we saw at the end of the Cold War, however, any “peace dividend” these days is short lived, and quickly diverted toward new military or pseudo-military projects, or other government boondoggles. The “peace dividend” is the carrot that is dangled on the end of a pole that is duct-taped to the head of us good-hearted taxpaying jackasses; the assertion that those nasty addicts are wasting that dividend, which would otherwise benefit us all, produces the righteous indignation that has been a primary fuel of the Drug War, lo these past several decades.

    What I want to know, is when will someone compile and dissect government con jobs, so that we can make that book a required text in our classrooms?

  19. 1) Much of society takes offense at the ‘slacker’ (aka a drug user…pot, alcohol namely) who sits around the house and doesn’t work much.

    They seem startled when informed that 2-4 (or more) people doing this together can subsist just fine with each working a part time low income job.

    However, they may not have the full range of expected consumables in the household, so they are defying Pres Bush’s prescription for a healthy America, “Go out and shop more”.

    2) Yes, prisoners can be unproductive unless they are in one of the growing number of facilities who pimp out their inmates to companies for literal slave labor wages. Beats the hell out of outsourcing to foreign countries. Inmates who complain about the setup can be punished by normal prison rule systems.

    And for the guy who says, “Hey, they’re just paying back to society for their crimes,” we must consider that in the 1of4 inmates who are in for simple non violent drug crimes, the ‘crime’ is created by legislators, not by the offenders themselves. A literal perpetual motion machine.

  20. And let’s not forget about all those prisoners in foreign prisons just itching to take jobs away from American prisoners. Stop the outsourcing of prison labor!

  21. infamouse writes: “It’s not just a matter of ‘I can put in my body anything I want’.”

    Well yes, actually it is. What I put into my body to alter my mood is none of your business.It becomes your business if, say, I get behind the wheel, or if I have toddlers and am watching them whilst downing a fifth of vodka. But unless and until I directly threaten the rights of others, my right to control my own body trumps your interest in my brain chemistry.

    Control is an incident of ownership. To the extent you or the state impinge on my right to control my body, you appropriate and own it. Appropriation of a person’s body requires moral justification that prohibitionists do not and cannot provide.

    This nation (the US.) incarcerates more of its citizens than any other in the world; most of the “criminals” are non-violent drug offenders. Destroying someone’s life with prison is far more harmful than a Friday night toke or line (aside from the fact that it is none of our business whether our neighbor tokes or snorts). In the name of the war on drugs, the 4th Amendment has been severely eroded. Property rights are under strong attack via asset forfeiture, which has bought many a fleet of squad cars and fittingly elegant desks for prosecutors. And again, all of this is aside from the fact that it is immoral to control someone’s body absent a compelling moral justification for doing so, such as the righteous imprisonment of someone who initiated force or fraud against another.

    The essential issue re: drug policy is, in fact, ownership of one’s body, and being able to do with it as one pleases (with ususal caveats about directly interfering with the life, liberty or property of another).

  22. I wrote the above at 1:49.

  23. EMAIL: master-x@canada.com
    IP: 82.146.43.155
    URL:
    DATE: 02/28/2004 10:43:32
    Morality by consensus is frequently morality by convenience.

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