Drug War

More From George Will on the Costs of Drug Prohibition


In his second column on drug legalization, George Will still does not take a clear position, but he acknowledges several salient facts about prohibition:

More Americans are imprisoned for drug offenses or drug-related probation and parole violations than for property crimes. And although America spends five times more jailing drug dealers than it did 30 years ago, the prices of cocaine and heroin are 80 to 90 percent lower than 30 years ago….

In "Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know," policy analysts Mark Kleiman, Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken argue that imprisoning low-ranking street-corner dealers is pointless: A $200 transaction can cost society $100,000 for a three-year sentence. And imprisoning large numbers of dealers produces an army of people who, emerging from prison with blighted employment prospects, can only deal drugs….

Dealers, a.k.a. "pushers," have almost nothing to do with initiating drug use by future addicts; almost every user starts when given drugs by a friend, sibling or acquaintance…..

Kleiman, Caulkins and Hawken say that, in developed nations, cocaine sells for about $3,000 per ounce — almost twice the price of gold. And the supply of cocaine, unlike that of gold, can be cheaply and quickly expanded. But in the countries where cocaine and heroin are produced, they sell for about 1 percent of their retail price in the United States. If cocaine were legalized, a $2,000 kilogram could be FedExed from Colombia for less than $50 and sold profitably here for a small markup from its price in Colombia, and a $5 rock of crack might cost 25 cents. Criminalization drives the cost of the smuggled kilogram in the United States up to $20,000. But then it retails for more than $100,000….

Cartels have oceans of money for corrupting enforcement because drugs are so cheap to produce and easy to renew. So it is not unreasonable to consider modifying a policy that gives hundreds of billions of dollars a year to violent organized crime.

While noting that "hard drugs" such as cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine account for the lion's share of cartel profits, Will does not broach the possibility of eliminating those black markets and the evils associated with them. (His last column on drug policy suggested he believes that legalizing those drugs would lead to an unacceptable increase in addiction.) But Will does address marijuana law reform, calling medical marijuana "a messy, mendacious semi-legalization that breeds cynicism regarding law." At the same time, he seems open to a more honest (and more tolerant) policy:

Would the public health problems resulting from legalization be a price worth paying for injuring the cartels and reducing the costs of enforcement? We probably are going to find out.

Will notes that public support for legalizing marijuana—currently around 50 percent, according to Gallup—has more than doubled since 1990. 

Will draws heavily on Kleiman et al.'s book, which was published last year. Kleiman and Caulkins–professors of public policy at UCLA and Carnegie Mellon, respectively—are not libertarians by any means, but they are realists who are genuinely interested in the facts, including the actual consequences of prohibition (as opposed to its supposedly noble intentions). Kleiman's approach is summed up in the title of his 1992 book Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results, where he calls for the legalizaton of marijuana via a ration-card scheme. Caulkins has for years been documenting the costs of an excessively punitive approach to drugs and the limits of supply-side enforcement efforts. That a conservative commentator of George Will's influence is paying attention to their work bodes well for the drug policy debate.

I discussed Will's previous column on drug policy last week. Reason's July package on criminal justice included an interview with Kleiman in which he argued that "long prison terms are wasteful government spending."

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  1. Cartels have oceans of money for corrupting enforcement because drugs are so cheap to produce and easy to renew.

    One thing I’ve never understood is how people can talk about drug users as if they are some small and insignificant portion of society, yet go on to describe the immense profits of the drug cartels.

    Look, if large numbers of people weren’t using drugs, large profits would not be made. I’m convinced we’re vastly underestimating the market for illegal drugs in America.

    1. If/when drugs are legalized, and users no longer have to live in the closet with respect to work and family, there are going to be a lot of very shocked people when they discover that some of their most respected and productive people have been using illegal drugs for most of their lives.

      1. when i was in college, one of my friends was a top ranking student at the school. iirc he graduated salutatorian (sp?) or whatever they call the 2nd highest ranked academic student

        his study aid?


        he’d do a line and study. do another and study some more.


        he wasn’t even a recreational user. because he didn’t particular enjoy it and didn’t use it when he was out “recreating” but just for studying

    2. Cartels have oceans of money for corrupting enforcement because drugs are so cheap to produce and easy to renew.

      What I’ve always wondered is how the American public turns its eyes away from a crucial part of this black market: corrupt law enforcement.

      Obviously every LE agency from the CIA, FBI, DEA, all the way down to local PD’s knows that there is an illegal drug market. Despite increased funding, and increased effort combatting it, the market is apparently growing. How could this occur? I posit that many LE officers, if not whole LE agencies are corrupt, and are willing to take taxpayer funding to fight a “war” they don’t actually want to win. Frustratingly, they also probably take money from the cartels.

      Or maybe I’m just being cynical.

      1. You are not at all. Suppose you are a local drug task force. You need to make arrests to keep your job. And I am the leader of a local drug market. I offer you a deal. You leave my operations alone. And in return I rat out my competition giving you a steady diet of busts to make the local news and keep your bosses happy. And I give you a little cash and drugs on the side for your trouble.

        Maybe you are Dudley Do Right and turn that down and do police work the hard way. But my guess is there is a pretty good chance your are not and we do business.

        1. My guess is that the Dudley Do Rights in the po-po have horrible accidents if they try to get in the way.

          More cynical officers undoubtedly realize the War on Drugs is a complete sham, and that they might as well make a few bucks off of it.

          1. I gather that one of the 2 “po” in “po-po” is short for “police”. What’s the other “po” for?

    3. I have always wondered that too. Sorry but I can’t see how the Mexican drug cartels are purchasing Latin America with the proceeds from selling to a few crack whores.

      Drugs are mainstream as hell. Lots and lots of “respectable” people use them. They just don’t generally get on the police’s radar. And don’t, absent really bad luck, ever get arrested for it.

      1. We all know that there are varying levels of intelligence in this world. The more intelligent members of society learned long ago that the best way to not get arrested for drug possession is to either not look like a drug user or be white.

        1. No. The best way not to get arrested for drug possession is to have as little interaction with the police as possible. That means, you don’t commit traffic violations. You don’t get into it with your girlfriend or wife so the police are called. You don’t have fights with your neighbors and give them a reason to call the cops. Generally, you live like a respectable citizen rather than white trash. Do that and black or white you are going to be fine.

          1. yes.


            also, as chris rock says – don’t drive with an angry woman!

            also, helps to live in a state like WA where cops cannot search your car incident to arrest, like they can in most states

          2. Generally, you live like a respectable citizen rather than white trash.

            In other words: “Don’t look like a drug user.”

            My “be white” comment was merely an acknowledgement of the disparate numbers of blacks in prison for non-violent drug crimes.

            1. which of course ignores the disparate #’s of crimes in general committed along various racial lines, as reported by CRIME VICTIMs in the NCVS

              i think there is no case for blacks being treated disproportionately badly based on race.

              class? sure. people who make less money get worse results, ceteris paribus, than those who make more

              and yes, there are a disproportionate # of blacks in prison for ALL SORTS of crimes.

              but this ignores, among other things, that a very high %age of drug related cases come about during investigation of other offenses, and there is zero doubt that all sorts of other offenses are committed at disproportionate rates… again, not according to cops. according to crime victims.

              granted, imo, nobody should be in prison for drug crimes

              1. one thing i forgot to mention is/was the disproportionate sentences for crack vs. powder cocaine, which DID/DO have substantially disproportionate negative effects on blacks vs. whites, because on average blacks are more likely to choose crack over powder vs. whites and vice versa.

                crack gets much stiffer sentences.

            2. In other words: “Don’t look like a drug user.”

              Back when I had long hair and wore jeans with concert tee shirts the cops harassed me every chance they got.

              Once I cut my hair and changed my wardrobe they suddenly started treating me like a human being on the rare chances that we interacted.

    4. And if I were King, the first thing I would do would be to conduct an unannounced drug test of every member of Congress and every staffer. The results would be published and the offenders arrested.

    5. “One thing I’ve never understood is how people can talk about drug users as if they are some small and insignificant portion of society, yet go on to describe the immense profits of the drug cartels.”

      Kind of makes you wonder…if the majority of Americans support the War on/Public Health Approach to Drugs, and legalization is the “extreme, non-mainstream” position that we are told that it is…where does all the demand for drugs come from?

      1. to some extent there is an intersection

        iow, there clearly are some who use illicit drugs but who do not support legalization

        iow, they feel they are responsible enough to use them, but if people had carte blanche to make that decision without legal consequences, that too many IRResponsible folks (unlike themselves) would abuse them and cost society, etc.

        and of course there are the substantial %age who embrace the “daughter test” mentioned here where they ask “would i want my daughter doing drug X?”

        and if they answer no, that’s reason enough for them to keep it criminal

        1. I don’t won’t my daughter to do cocaine or go to Oklahoma, but both should be legal. And, as between the two, I’d prefer she did cocaine.

  2. I wonder how much I can sell my ration-card for.

    1. Now you’re thinking like a libertarian entrepreneur.

    2. Amen. As a complete tea-totaler, I would definitely stimulate the market.

  3. !!! Keep Dope Alive !!!

  4. $3,000 an ounce? Somebody’s getting ripped off: Try about $900 for dough-brick here in California.
    (Not that I care; I never liked cocaine all that much. Snorting it makes me gag, and smoking rock, well… I describe it as a religious experience: you feel like God for fifteen minutes, and feel like hell for a half-hour after that, unless you keep smoking. It runs second to heroin as the drug that costs you the most and gives you the least.)

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