Effects of Prohibition, Enforcement and Interdiction on Drug Use
by Jonathan P. Caulkins 
The alleged ‘failure’ of the ‘war on drugs’ is a standard point of departure for discussions of drug law reform,2 but reports of prohibition’s failure – like those of Mark Twain’s death – may be exaggerated. Having a realistic understanding of what prohibition does and does not accomplish in final market countries is prerequisite to informed discussion of the relative merits of alternatives. Prohibition and its attendant enforcement drive drug prices up far beyond what they would be in a legalised market, and that (as well as reduced availability) constrain use and dependence. Applying cost-utility analysis from health economics provides a framework for roughly quantifying prohibition’s benefits from reduced dependence. This contribution argues that plausible parameter values for the United States suggest those benefits may exceed prohibition’s direct costs. Inasmuch as prohibition as implemented in the United States is something of a worst case, with toughness pursued far beyond the point of diminishing returns, this likewise suggests prohibition may bring net benefits to other final market countries. For those who nonetheless want to overturn prohibition, e.g. because prohibition harms source and transshipment countries and/or is unsustainable in the long-run given globalisation’s erasing of international borders, the possibility that prohibition may not simply be a mistake implies a need to adjust rhetoric accordingly. Summary
• The alleged failures of prohibition in consumer/final market countries may be overstated in current drug policy discourses.
• Having realistic goals for prohibition in final market countries is a prerequisite to informed discussion of the relative merits of alternatives.
• The goal of prohibition should not be to eradicate mature drug markets completely; that is not realistic. The goal should be to drive the activity underground while controlling collateral damage created by the markets.
• Higher prices and greater inconvenience can reduce use and use-related consequences, even if it remains physically possible for a determined customer to procure.
• Even granting that prohibition’s costs are enormous, it does not automatically follow that those costs outweigh potential benefits from reduced dependence, because the benefits may also be very large.
• This analysis does not apply to source or transshipment countries.
None of this gainsays prohibition’s costs or limitations. Prohibition clearly fails if it is saddled with the impossible aspiration of eliminating all drug use, but it clearly succeeds at constraining supply and use to an extent. The common drugs (cocaine, heroin, cannabis) are merely semi-refined agricultural products, yet they are extraordinarily expensive in final market countries. The only illegal drug that is used nearly as widely as are the legal drugs (alcohol, nicotine, caffeine) is the one (cannabis) whose prohibition is arguably not taken too seriously.
Prohibition is extraordinarily expensive on multiple dimensions, including budgetary costs, enrichment of criminal gangs and deprivation of liberty. So that prohibition reduces use and abuse does not imply it is good or that it could not benefit from fundamental reform. However, an honest discussion must look fairly at prohibition’s benefits as well as its costs.
Other contributions in this report deal ably with prohibition’s effects on source and transshipment countries,3 so the perspective here is that of final market countries. The focus is on the United States, both for convenience (data availability) and logic; prohibition is implemented in a particularly pigheaded way in the United States, so its performance in the US is something of a worst case.
Drugs differ, and so policies should differ across drugs accordingly. At a minimum, intelligent discussions ought to distinguish between (1) the expensive majors (cocaine/crack, heroin and methamphetamine), (2) cannabis, (3) diverted pharmaceuticals and (4) the minor drugs (LSD, PCP, GHB, etc.). In the interests of space, I address only the first two, paying particular attention to cocaine (which has historically dominated drug problems in the US) and cannabis (which offers the only historical examples of legalisation in the contemporary era).
I discuss evidence concerning prohibition’s effects on those drugs’ supply and price, after first discussing metrics upon which prohibition should be evaluated. I then connect price to consumption, and provide a rough quantification of possible benefits of prohibition in terms of reduced dependence.
What would count as a ’successful’ prohibition?
Having a realistic understanding of what prohibition does and does not accomplish in final market countries is prerequisite to informed discussion of the relative merits of alternatives.
Most countries allow most goods to be produced and distributed by private enterprise through markets. The markets are almost never completely free. Firms have to comply with regulations but, in general, everyone who wants to start a business can. There are exceptions, however, and selling a range of goods is prohibited, including products from endangered species, certain weapons and human organs. Likewise certain services may be prohibited, including the sale of votes and sexual favours.
The goal of prohibition is not and should not be to eradicate the corresponding markets completely; that is not realistic. Rather, the goal should be to drive the activity underground, making it less efficient or, equivalently, driving up the cost of providing the good or service. The combination of higher prices and greater inconvenience can reduce use and use-related consequences, even if it remains physically possible for a determined customer to procure the good or service in question.
Prohibitions generate three categories of cost: (1) costs of enforcement; (2) greater harms per unit of consumption that does occur; and (3) foregone benefits of consumption that does not occur.4 The first two are obvious; enforcement is intrusive and imprisonment is expensive to both taxpayers and those imprisoned, and consumption of street heroin is riskier than is consumption of medical-grade heroin delivered through heroin maintenance programmes.5 The third pertains to the idea of a ’consumer surplus’. Standard economics presumes that customers buy whatever brings them the greatest joy. If that product is not available, they will buy something else. The difference between the joy they could have felt if the banned good were available and what they actually feel consuming their second-favourite object counts as a cost of prohibition.
So if a group of friends would like to get stoned and listen to jazz, but prohibition induces them to go to the movies instead, the difference between how much they would have enjoyed getting stoned and how much they actually enjoyed going to the movies is a loss whose value should be charged to prohibition.
The benefits of prohibition are reduced ’externalities’ and reduced ’internalities’. Externalities are costs one person’s consumption imposes on another. For example, to the extent that alcohol prohibition reduces drunkenness, it might count fewer assaults, greater road safety and less domestic violence among its benefits.
‘Internalities’ are costs that one person’s consumption imposes on oneself. Extreme ’Chicago School’ economists generally deny the possibility of internalities, assuming perfect consumer foresight. An alternative model of human behaviour holds that people are heuristic decision-makers who muddle through life following rules of thumb that work most of the time for most products, but which can be defeated by certain products whose effects bundle immediate gratification with some non-negligible but modest probability of deep pain in the future. Cocaine may fit that description. So might Krispy Kreme doughnuts, as in the adage ’a moment on the lips, a lifetime on the hips’. Opinions differ sharply and perhaps intractably about whether a paternalistic intervention to limit someone’s freedom can ever make that person better off. Parents routinely limit their teenagers’ freedom, ostensibly out of love and concern for their welfare, and modern neuroscience amply demonstrates that the brain’s prefrontal cortex and associated executive control does not reach maturity until around age 25. (And few who are not already polydrug abusers initiate use of a new intoxicant after age 25, so almost all drug-using careers are launched by immature brains.6)
Liberal democratic societies assume that people generally do a fine job of looking out for themselves, or at least a much better job than the government would do. Hence, government paternalism is usually limited to suasion (e.g. the FDA’s advice on healthy eating), ’nudges’ and quality standards (e.g. it is illegal to sell lawnmowers that lack a kill switch).7 Outright bans are less common, but do exist. For example, some countries and some US states prohibit production and purchase of larger firecrackers, mostly to prevent internalities (people harming themselves), not externalities.
Prohibition clearly fails if it is saddled with the impossible aspiration of eliminating all drug use, but it clearly succeeds at constraining supply and use to an extent.
Dependence-inducing substances pose a special challenge to the presumption that consumers consistently act in their own self-interest. Repeated administration of artificial neurotransmitters creates lasting changes in the brain. Dependence is therefore a central consideration. Even though most consumers do not become dependent, dependent users account for a disproportionate share of consumption. Likewise, intoxicants pose special challenges because many decisions to consume intoxicants are made while intoxicated, particularly when ’bingeing’ is common, as with crack.
That holds even for cannabis. According to the 2011 US household survey, about 42 percent of all days of cannabis use are by people who self-report enough problems to meet DSM-IV criteria for substance abuse or dependence (not always dependence on cannabis; the 42 percent figure includes cannabis consumed by alcoholics). For heroin the proportion is likely much higher;8 about 83 percent of heroin in the US is consumed by people who use heroin daily or near-daily, and most of them are dependent.9 I will not attempt to resolve here what value, positive or negative, to attach to drug use in social welfare calculations; that is more of a philosophical debate. Rather, I will look only at prohibition’s effect on consumption, and will remember that for all drugs – legal and illegal – the majority of consumption is attributable to the minority of users who consume on a daily or near-daily basis, many of whom have a clinically diagnosable problem of abuse or dependence. Empirical evidence concerning price increases along the supply chain for cocaine
The prices of illegal drugs increase enormously as they move down the supply chain; those price increases are almost entirely due to prohibition.10 I illustrate this by comparing two agricultural-based psychoactive substances, one legal (caffeine in the form of coffee) and one prohibited (cocaine), and contemplate what the price of cocaine might be if its distribution costs were comparable to those of coffee.
There is sometimes debate about whether distribution costs should be thought of in terms of percentage or cost per unit weight, so I provide comparable data for silver, a legal product whose value per unit weight approaches that of cocaine in South America. The silver data show that when a good’s value to weight ratio is high, the mark-ups in percentage terms are much lower.
Their geography of production is broadly similar. Cocaine bound for the United States is produced primarily in Colombia, with Peru and Bolivia being other major producers. Colombia is the world’s second-largest producer of Arabica coffee – albeit a distant second to Brazil, with Peru also in the top five. Peru has the world’s largest silver reserves and, with Mexico, is either the largest or second largest producer depending on the year (Bolivia is seventh).
I focus on cocaine ’salt’ (meaning powder), so the product at export is already in final form; there is very little processing between export and retail sale (just some repackaging and perhaps dilution, but diluents’ value is trivial compared with that of the cocaine). I likewise consider the prices of silver bullion and rounds, not jewellery or flatware.
The bottom line is clear. The increase in price as cocaine moves down its distribution chain utterly dwarfs that of coffee or silver. Cocaine prices increase by more than $100 per gram. Silver and coffee bean prices increase by less than $0.10 per gram – a difference of three orders of magnitude.
Even if legalisation meant cocaine prices increased along the distribution chain by ten times that much, or $1.00 per gram, the resulting retail prices would still be less than five percent of their current levels. Table 1. Mark-ups Along the Distribution Chain for Legal and Illegal Commodities Sources: Cocaine prices within the US are from Fries et al.11 Other prices for illegal drugs are from the World Drug Report, with UK heroin prices multiplied by 1.33 to adjust for dilution along the distribution chain (e.g. average purity in the UK is 56 percent vs. 42 percent in Turkey).12 Likewise, cocaine percent increases over export factor in that US cocaine prices are given per pure gram.
Some who argue that prices wouldn’t fall so much look at the percentage increases, e.g. between wheat and the price of breakfast cereal containing wheat.13 I would argue that is an incorrect comparison. Converting wheat into breakfast cereal involves significant processing, and distribution costs loom much larger, in percentage terms, for products with a low value-to-weight ratio. But even if cocaine increased by as much in absolute terms as silver ($0.07 per gram) and also by as much as coffee in percentage terms (635 percent), then its retail price would still only be $20 per pure gram, not $175 per pure gram as it is today.
Table 1 also gives mark-ups for cannabis resin (moving from Morocco to the Netherlands) and heroin (from Afghanistan to the UK) to show that the broad outlines of these observations are not specific to cocaine or to the Western Hemisphere.
An amount equivalent to one ’serving’ of cannabis resin, heroin and cocaine all cost about the same in the source country, roughly $0.30 - $0.50, so we define a ‘serving’ of silver as 0.5 grams so its price also falls in that range. But despite similar prices in the source countries, the retail prices are radically different. Distribution of legal commodities is cheap, so their prices increase by far less than do the three commodities whose distribution is prohibited. Traffickers demand $10,000 or more per kilogram to move cocaine from South America to the US; FedEx will ship a kilogram of anything else for $60. While prohibition cannot seal the borders, it succeeds in making drugs extraordinarily expensive. Legalisation might drive source country prices down sharply, and that would lead to a larger percentage increase along the distribution chain, but also to even lower final prices than are described here. Production of all three illegal drugs with current methods is highly labour-intensive. If legalisation allowed producers to own and employ labour-saving capital equipment, production costs might fall appreciably. The differences in price increases across the three illegal commodities are instructive. Cannabis, for which the prohibition is enforced least intensively, shows by far the smallest increase.14 The price increases from export country to final market wholesale price for cocaine and heroin are similar, but the increase from wholesale to retail is much greater for cocaine in the US than for heroin in the UK, which makes sense inasmuch as the US pursues drug enforcement much more aggressively than does almost any other developed country, so the risks and other distribution costs are higher. Cannabis
Cannabis accounts for a modest share of the enforcement effort and other costs of prohibition. Even though it is the most widely used of the illegal drugs, fewer than 10 percent of drug law violators imprisoned in the United States were involved only with cannabis, and incarceration for cannabis offences is even less common elsewhere.15 Nevertheless, cannabis is of interest because there is much better empirical evidence concerning how prohibition affects production costs and wholesale prices, for two reasons. First, there are well-established regimes of partial legalisation. The Netherlands has de facto legalised retail sales of up to five grams.16 Alaska has legalised personal possession and home growing of up to 25 plants. And a number of western US states, including California, Colorado, Oregon and Washington, have legalised medical cannabis production and sale, including via bricks-and-mortar ’dispensaries,’17 with rules about medical eligibility so broad that effectively anyone can buy a medical recommendation from a ‘Doctor 420’.18
Second, two US states (Colorado and Washington) recently legalised large-scale commercial production and distribution of cannabis for recreational, not just medical, purposes. Licensed commercial operation has only just commenced as of this writing in early 2014, so market conditions are still years from reaching a new equilibrium, but considerable effort has gone into estimating what production costs and prices will be in the long-run, because the regulatory agencies need to estimate tax revenues and reach various administrative decisions. These sources provide a range of estimates of production costs and wholesale prices.19 The relevant analyses are summarised in Figure 1. All figures pertain to the wholesale price per pound for high-potency sinsemilla or its equivalent. The red bar on the left was the former price under prohibition ($3,500) in the western states where prices have subsequently fallen.
The grey bars show how wholesale prices fell as the medical industry achieved formal regulatory status under state law.20 It should be noted that federal prohibition remained in place, and both producers and dispensaries were subject to occasional federal enforcement action. These grey bars therefore represent the effect of only a partial lifting of prohibition.
The second bar ($2,000 per pound) is a typical farmgate price quoted by media sources. The third and fourth bars are production cost estimates for existing small and large firms, based on data collected for BOTEC’s work advising Washington State’s Liquor Control Board on its implementation of cannabis legalisation. Small and large in this context means production on 100 vs. 1,000 square metres, respectively. Washington State allows production on up to 2,800 square metres, so some further economies of scale may be realised in the future.
The black bars pertain to legalisation. The first ($490 per pound) is for the supplier of Dutch medical cannabis. It reflects (1) low-volume production, therefore not realising economies of scale (2) of medicine, and so is subject to greater quality control and inspection costs than one would expect for recreational cannabis.21 Figure 1. Production Costs and Wholesale Prices for Cannabis Under Various Scenarios
The next three bars are refinements on the estimates that pertain to a situation in which a state has legalised cannabis, but growers need to remain discreet in order to avoid attracting attention from federal enforcement.22 The last bar, for outdoor farming, assumes full legalisation and production costs comparable to other crops that are transplanted, rather than grown from seed (i.e. it allows for production costs 10-20 times greater than those currently observed for industrial hemp).
We would expect national legalisation in the US to bring production costs below those currently achieved by Dutch medical growers, but how low depends on the dominant form of THC consumption. More expensive indoor growing may be necessary for standard usable cannabis that is sold loose and rolled by the user. Outdoor production may be limited to butane hash oil and other extracts (for vaporisation, direct consumption via ‘dabbing’ or infused in edibles and beverages) and pre-rolled cigarettes, for which appearance matters less, and ‘fortifying’ THC content by adding oils should be possible.
Any of these scenarios, though, involves a decline of over 90 percent in pre-tax wholesale prices relative to prohibition, and taxes large enough to make up the difference would be unprecedented in terms of value-per-unit weight, and would thus be expected to invite large-scale evasion unless the entire regime were designed around the goal of facilitating tax collection.23 Elasticity of Demand
The two previous sections argued that prohibition drives prices up substantially, but driving up prices is just a means to an end; the ultimate goal is to reduce use and abuse.
Economists characterise the effect of price on consumption via the ‘elasticity of demand,’ which measures the percent change in consumption associated with a one percent increase in price. (Elasticities are almost always negative, since price increases suppress consumption, so a ‘bigger negative’ number indicates a greater responsiveness of consumption to price.)
Two recent reviews are relevant: Rosalie Pacula reviews the literature specific to cannabis and Craig Gallet offers a metaanalytic survey of the literatures also concerning cocaine and heroin.24 Both note complexities. Different studies do not always agree, and there are important distinctions. For example, youths tend to be more price-responsive than older users, and the long-run price response is greater than the short-run response. Also, the overall or total elasticity is greater (in absolute value) than are participation elasticities; the latter encompass only prices’ effects on prevalence. However, Pacula concludes that the total elasticity of demand for cannabis is likely to be between -0.4 and -1.25, based on which Kilmer et al. use -0.54 as the single best point estimate;25 Gallett finds somewhat larger values for cocaine and heroin. There are, however, unavoidable challenges when trying to translate an elasticity of demand and a legalisation-induced price change into a projected effect on consumption. First, all historical evidence underpinning elasticity estimates comes from relatively modest price changes within a prohibition regime, and the relationship between price and consumption may be different after legalisation.26 Second, legalisation can affect consumption through a half-dozen or so mechanisms besides price.27 Robert MacCoun estimates these might have bumped up consumption by an additional five to 50 percent if California had legalised cannabis in 2010.28 Third, legalisation-induced price declines would be large enough that assumptions about the shape of the demand curve well away from current prices can radically affect the projected effects on consumption. If one sticks to the linear demand curves drawn on chalkboards in an ‘Introduction to Economics’ class, then the projected effects on consumption will be much smaller than if one believes the demand curve actually curves, as with a constant-elasticity curve.29
Hence, even if one somehow knew that legalisation would reduce retail prices by 75 percent for cannabis and 90 percent for cocaine, and even if one knew those drugs’ elasticities over modest prices changes in the past were -0.5 and -0.75, respectively, it would almost certainly be wrong to project a price-induced increase in consumption of only 0.75*0.5 = 37.5 percent and 0.9*0.75 = 67.5 percent, respectively. Indeed, Caulkins and Kilmer et al. show that one cannot rule out the possibility that the actual increases could be very much larger.30
The next section works through estimates of prohibition’s benefits using arbitrary assumptions that legalisation would double the amount of cannabis use and abuse, and triple those for cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine. Those are plausible and conveniently round numbers, but they should be thought of as place-holders for quite broad uncertainty ranges. The benefit of prohibition-induced reductions in dependence
Based on responses to the 2011 household survey, about 2.6 million Americans meet DSM-IV criteria for cannabis dependence (4.1 million for abuse or dependence), with about 400,000 also dependent on some other illicit drug.31 The true rates may be larger, since household surveys miss some users, and denial is a hallmark of addiction. Nevertheless, if legalisation would double cannabis abuse and dependence, then prohibition should get credit for preventing something like 2.2 million instances of cannabis dependence above and beyond those who are also dependent on other illicit drugs.
The number meeting DSM-IV critieria for abuse or dependence on cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine is harder to know, since so many of them are missed by a household survey. There are, however, new estimates of the number using these substances on a daily or near-daily basis, which we will use as an imperfect proxy for dependence. Kilmer et al. estimate that there were 0.6 million, 1.0 million and 0.3 – 0.6 million daily or near-daily users of cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine, respectively.32 There is some overlap, particularly between cocaine and heroin, so the total number of individuals who are daily or near-daily users of one of these ‘hard drugs’ is about 90 percent of the individual sums.33 Not all daily or near-daily users are dependent, but conversely some of the nearly 1 million additional people who use hard drugs roughly every other day (but not daily or near-daily) are dependent, so there are probably something on the order of 2-2.5 million frequent users of hard drugs in the US who are dependent. If legalisation would triple rates of hard drug use and dependence, then prohibition gets credit for averting something like 4-4.5 million instances of dependence on hard drugs. Valuation of Dependence
In the international health literature, the most common method for quantifying the loss in well-being associated with disease and other health conditions is quality-adjusted life-years (QALYs) lost. QALYs measure both survival probability and the degree of impairment when living with the illness relative to a scale on which 1.0 represents perfect health. Table 1. Very Rough Quantification of the Benefits of Prohibition in the United States from Reduction in Dependence on the Drugs that are now Prohibited
Several studies have estimated the QALY loss caused by dependence itself, as opposed to the various other physical ailments that are often associated with dependence. For example, Mather et al. suggest losses of 0.113 and 0.184 per year of dependence and harmful use of cannabis and benzodiazepines.34 For heroin or polydrug dependence they suggest 0.27 as a ‘[l] ocally derived weight, [that is] slightly larger than GBD weight [of] 0.252,’ referring to Murray and Lopez’s (1996) global burden of disease (GBD) study. Zaric et al. assumed a loss of 0.2 QALY per year spent by injection drug users not in methadone maintenance treatment and 0.1 QALY loss per year in treatment.35 Pyne et al. tried to assess the QALY state of drug dependent individuals directly.36 The 390 subjects with a lifetime history of drug dependence and who had current problems had average QALY scores of only 0.58 and 0.681 out of 1.0, but in a multivariate regression controlling for socio-demographic variables, the effect of lifetime dependence with current problems relative to a ’control group’ of those in the study who did not have a history of dependence was 0.125. Arguably that is a conservative estimate because the control group met the diagnosis for drug abuse and need for treatment (but not dependence). On the other hand, the list of socio-demographic controls was limited, so the 0.125 figure is not a lower bound. We will use values of 0.1 for cannabis dependence and 0.2 for dependence on cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine.
A common threshold test when assessing health interventions is that programmes which save a QALY for $50,000 or less are cost-effective, although this figure may be out of date. One would expect the threshold to increase with inflation and growth in real GDP per capita, but the $50,000 figure dates to the mid-1980s when valuations were $1 million dollars per life.37 If $50,000 was the right figure in 1985, today the right figure might be more like $100,000. Furthermore, the economics literature now favours the so-called ’revealed-preference approach’ which can yield substantially higher valuations on human life. Viscusi and Aldy review revealed-preference studies and conclude that estimates fall within the range of $4 million to $9 million per statistical life in 2000 dollars, which would suggest $400,000 per QALY in today’s dollars.38 I will use $100,000, but understand that figures half as large or two or even four times as great can be defended.
Table 1 translates these parameter values into a point estimate that prohibition may prevent enough drug dependence to warrant spending as much as $112 billion per year, well in excess of the roughly $50 billion per year now spent on drug control.
This quantification is extremely rough, but it has the virtue of being parsimonious, involving only seven parameters. Any reader with a calculator can quickly compute how the $112 billion figure would change if one or more of the parameters were varied. Clearly one can produce benefit valuations below $50 billion. Notably, those who reject the idea that legalisation will have any effect on dependence and/or that dependence involves any loss in quality of life would compute that prohibition offers zero benefit.
Likewise, the $50 billion cost figure pertains to monetary spending. Some might argue that imprisonment causes a loss in quality of life. If the almost 500,000 drug law violators behind bars suffer a QALY loss of 0.5, that is 250,000 QALY lost per year, whose monetised value of $25 billion ought to be added to the $50 billion in financial outlays. Likewise prohibition increases drug-related crime and violence, since the economic-compulsive and systemic crime it creates exceeds the psychopharmacological crime it averts.39 Prohibition also reduces labour productivity (e.g. when a criminal record blocks someone from getting a particular job), although drug abuse does as well, so it is not immediately clear which effect is greater. Similarly, prohibition exacerbates some medical conditions (e.g. from HIV) but averts others. (The QALY calculation above considered only dependence per se, not the physical sequelae of substance abuse, such as heart problems or stroke caused by stimulant abuse.)
An optimist might also argue that legalisation would provide competition for alcohol and tobacco, siphoning users away from those substances, and thereby creating additional benefits. Of course a pessimist might worry that the hard drugs are complements not substitutes for alcohol, at least in the long run, and that increases in cannabis smoking might increase, not reduce, tobacco smoking.
So the purpose of this calculation is certainly not to argue that prohibition offers a net benefit of $112 billion - $50 billion = $62 billion. For many reasons it is not possible to make such a calculation. However, this arithmetic exercise does challenge the presumption that prohibition has failed to serve the interests of the United States and, by extension, other final market countries. Even granting that prohibition’s costs are enormous, it does not automatically follow that those costs outweigh potential benefits from reduced dependence, because the benefits may also be very large.
Furthermore, there is a broad consensus among researchers and increasingly among policymakers that enforcement intensity in the United States has gone beyond the point of diminishing returns. Peter Reuter and I have argued that the United States could cut sanctioning by 50 percent across the board and suffer only a very modest increase in use and dependence, even though eliminating prohibition altogether would lead to a doubling or tripling of dependence.40 If that is correct, then such a kinder, gentler prohibition would look even better relative to legalisation than the table above suggests, and that may be a caricature of the spirit of prohibition as implemented in many final market countries in Europe and Australasia. Conclusion
The central point of the analysis above is that the benefits of drug prohibition in the US – in terms of reduced dependence – may well exceed prohibition’s combined costs in terms of financial outlays and loss of freedom from incarceration. There is enormous uncertainty surrounding every component of the calculations, and intelligent people can disagree about what value to place on averting a year of dependence vs. a year of incarceration, but it is at least plausible that prohibition is actually succeeding from a US perspective. And if the rather extreme and inefficient version of prohibition implemented in the US has merits, the same may be true for prohibition as implemented in other final market countries. Furthermore, one cannot readily ’experiment’ with legalisation; more likely than not, it is an irreversible step.41
What does this imply for the debate over drug policy reform? Even if one were persuaded by the analysis here, it does not apply to source or transshipment countries. If there were a country whose people would have no interest in using a drug, and that country were beset by violence, corruption and other ills from hosting production or international trafficking, then that country might benefit from legalisation, even if final market countries would not. That, simply put, is what some other contributions in this report argue.
There are at least three reactions to the possibility that prohibition benefits final market countries but hurts production and transshipment countries. The first is that the final market countries ought to subordinate their interests to those of source and transshipment countries; that seems far-fetched, as nations tend to put their own interests first. The second is that the final market countries ought to compensate production and transshipment countries for the harms caused, in proportion to their share of consumption. Arguably, that is part of what has motivated some US aid to Colombia, which in recent years has stressed institution-building, not just crop eradication.
Another possibility is that the present international prohibition regime is unsustainable in the long run even if there were some such compensation; over time, footloose international trafficking may migrate to the nations least able to defend themselves, leading to failed states and de facto, if not de jure legalisation. Failed narco-states are in nobody’s interests, so an alternative would be for states that are net losers under prohibition to withdraw from the international control regime, in hopes of being able to control, regulate and even tax legal production.
The country that moves first will bear unusual risks. It may quickly attract production activity from other countries. And its people would be exposed to low prices and high availability before the global society has learned how to nurture anti-use norms that can (partially) take the place of official prohibition. Nevertheless, it seems plausible that some state will become sufficiently desperate that they may take the plunge. If so, then the self-interested policy for other states, particularly distant states, may be to encourage that other country to jump first, and then learn from its tribulations. In legalisation as in software development, it may be prudent to distinguish between aspiring to be on the cutting edge vs. the bleeding edge of reform.
1 The author would like to thank GiveWell and Good Ventures for supporting his work on cannabis policy. The views expressed are the author’s and should not be attributed to Carnegie Mellon, GiveWell or Good Ventures, whose officials did not review this article in advance.
2 See, for example, Global Commission on Drug Policy, ‘War on Drugs,’ 2011, http://www.globalcommissionondrugs.org/Report
3 See, for example, Daniel Mejia and Pascual Restrepo’s contribution to this report.
4 Mark Kleiman (personal communications) argues that lost consumer liberty or option-value is a fourth category, over and above the foregone consumer surplus.
5 For a discussion of these costs see Ernest Drucker’s and Joanne Csete’s contributions to this report.
6 For example, 98 percent of those reporting current cannabis use in the US national household survey report initiating that use by age 25. The corresponding proportions for other drugs are cigarettes 97 percent, alcohol 98 percent, cocaine 87 percent.
7 Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein, Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness (Yale University Press, 2008); see Code of Federal Regulations, Title 16, Part 1205, http://cfr.regstoday.com/16cfr1205.aspx
8 The household survey-based calculation is not informative for heroin, as most heroin is consumed by people who do not complete the household survey.
9 The author’s side calculation is based on B. Kilmer, S. Everingham, J. Caulkins, G. Midgette, R. Pacula, P. Reuter, R. Burns, B. Han and R. Lundberg, What America’s users spend on illicit drugs: 2000-2010 (Washington, DC: Executive Office of the President, 2014). For cannabis in the US, daily and near-daily users account for about two-thirds of days-of-use and 80 percent of the quantity consumed.
10 UN Office on Drugs and Crime, World Drug Report 2013 (Vienna: United Nations, 2013), http://www.unodc.org/unodc/secured/wdr/wdr2013/
11 Arthur Fries, Robert W. Anthony, Andrew Cseko Jr., Carl C. Gaither and Eric Schulman, The Price and Purity of Illicit Drugs: 1981-2007 (Institute for Defense Analysis, 2008).
12 UN Office on Drugs and Crime, World Drug Report 2013 (Vienna: United Nations, 2013), http://www.unodc.org/unodc/secured/wdr/wdr2013/
13 Jeffrey Miron, ‘The Effect of Drug Prohibition on Drug Prices: Evidence from the Markets for Cocaine and Heroin,’ The Review of Economics and Statistics, 85/3 (2003): 522-530.
14 For a detailed analysis of cannabis price increases along the distribution chain from Morocco to final market countries in Europe, see Beau Kilmer and J. Burgdorf, ‘Insights about cannabis production and distribution costs in the EU,’ in Further Insights Into Aspects of the Illicit EU Drugs Market, ed. F. Trautman, B. Kilmer and P. Turnbull (Luxembourg, Publications Office of the European Union: 2013), 389-404.
15 Jonathan P. Caulkins and Eric Sevigny, ‘How Many People Does the US Incarcerate for Drug Use, and Who Are They?’ Contemporary Drug Problems, 32/3 (2005): 405-428.
16 Robert J. MacCoun, ‘What Can We Learn from the Dutch Cannabis Coffee Shop System?,’ Addiction. 106 (2011): 1899–1910.
17 See Rosalie Pacula, David Powell, Paul Heaton and Eric Sevigny, ‘Assessing the Effects of Medical Marijuana Laws on Marijuana and Alcohol Use: The Devil Is in the Details,’ National Bureau of Economic Research, Working Paper 19302 (2013), http://www.nber.org/papers/w19302
. The paper finds that dispensaries are a particularly important component of medical cannabis’s effect on use.
18 O’Connell and Bou-Mater and Nunberg et al. provide data showing that most of those obtaining cannabis recommendations in California do not have serious diseases such as cancer, HIV, MS or glaucoma. T. O’Connell and C. Bou-Mater, ‘Long term marijuana users seeking medical cannabis in California,’ Harm Reduction Journal, 4/16 (2007); Helen Nunberg , Beau Kilmer, Rosalie Liccardo Pacula, James R. Burgdorf, ‘An analysis of applicants presenting to a medical marijuana specialty practice in California,’ Journal of Drug Policy Analysis, 4/1 (2011).
19 Retail prices are harder to project because retailer mark-ups can vary enormously by industry, from lows of 14 percent for gasoline and new cars to 139 percent for optical goods, and it is not clear which existing industries provide the best comparators for the future cannabis retailing industry. See Jonathan Caulkins, Susan Andrzejweski and Linden Dahlkemper, ‘How Much Will the 25/25/25 Tax Scheme Actually Impact the Price of Cannabis?’ Supplement: Retailer and Processor Markup BOTEC Analysis Corp., I-502 Project Report 430-81, 28 June 2013, http://lcb
20 The price decline was apparent in both official reports and user-contributed websites tracking prices. For a colourful description of how the supply expansion affected producers see Walter Hickey, ‘The True Story of the Great Marijuana Crash of 2011,’ Business Insider, 25 September 2013 , http://www.businessinsider.com/the-grea ... 011-2013-9
21 Beau Kilmer and J. Burgdorf, ‘Insights about cannabis production and distribution costs in the EU’ in Further Insights Into Aspects of the Illicit EU Drugs Market, ed. F. Trautman, B. Kilmer, and P. Turnbull (Luxembourg, Publications Office of the European Union: 2013), 389-404.
22 Beau Kilmer, Jonathan P. Caulkins, Rosalie Liccardo Pacula, Robert MacCoun and Peter Reuter, Altered State? Assessing how marijuana legalization in California could influence marijuana consumption and public budgets (RAND, 2010).
23 Jonathan P. Caulkins and Michael A.C. Lee, ‘The Drug-Policy Roulette,’ National Affairs, 12 (2012): 35-51.
24 Rosalie L Pacula, Examining the Impact of Marijuana Legalization on Marijuana Consumption: Insights from the Economics Literature (RAND, 2010) WR-770-RC; Craig A. Gallet, ‘Can price get the monkey off our back? A meta-analysis of illicit drug demand,’ Health Economics (2013).
25 Beau Kilmer, Jonathan P. Caulkins, Rosalie Liccardo Pacula, Robert MacCoun and Peter Reuter, Altered State? Assessing how marijuana legalization in California could influence marijuana consumption and public budgets (RAND, 2010).
26 Caulkins and Lee, ‘The Drug-Policy Roulette,’ 35-51.
27 Robert J. MacCoun, ‘Drugs and the Law: A Psychological Analysis of Drug Prohibition,’ Psychological Bulletin, 113(3) (1993): 497-512.
28 Robert J. MacCoun, Estimating the Non-Price Effects of Legalization on Consumption (RAND, 2010).
29 Jonathan P. Caulkins, ‘Do Drug Prohibition and Enforcement Work?’ White paper published in the ‘What Works?’ series (Lexington Institute, 2000); Caulkins and Lee, ‘The Drug-Policy Roulette,’ 35-51; Kilmer, Caulkins, Pacula, MacCoun and Reuter, Altered State?.
30 Caulkins, ‘Do Drug Prohibition and Enforcement Work?’; Kilmer, Caulkins, Pacula, MacCoun and Reuter, Altered State?.
31 SAMHDA, ‘National Survey on Drug Use and Health,’ 2011, http://www.icpsr.umich.edu/icpsrweb/SAMHDA/
32 Kilmer et al., What America’s users spend on illicit drugs.
33 Jonathan P. Caulkins, Susan Everingham, Beau Kilmer and Greg Midgette, ‘The whole is just the sum of its parts: Limited polydrug use among the “big three” expensive drugs in the United States,’ Current Drug Abuse Reviews (forthcoming).
34 Colin Mathers, Theo Vos and Chris Stevenson, The Burden of Disease and Injury in Australia (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 1999), AIHW Cat. No. PHE 17: 195.
35 G.S. Zaric, P.G. Barnett and M.L. Brandeau, ‘HIV transmission and the cost-effectiveness of methadone maintenance,’ American Journal of Public Health, 90 (2000): 1100–11.
36 J. M. Pyne, T.L. Patterson , R.M. Kaplan, J.C. Gillin, W.L. Koch and I. Grant, ‘Assessment of the quality of life of patients with major depression,’ Psychiatric Services, 48 (1997): 224–30.
37 For a discussion, see W.G. Manning, E.B. Keeler and J.P. Newhouse, ‘The Taxes of Sin: Do Smokers and Drinkers Pay Their Way?,’ Journal of the American Medical Association, 261 (1989): 1604-1609.
38 W.K. Viscusi and J.E. Aldy, ‘The value of a statistical life: A critical review of market estimates throughout the world,’ Journal of Risk and Uncertainty, 27 (2003): 5–76.
39 Jonathan P. Caulkins and Mark A.R. Kleiman, ‘Drugs and Crime,’ in Oxford Handbook of Crime and Criminal Justice, ed. Michael Tonry. (Oxford University Press, 2011), 275-320.
40 Jonathan P. Caulkins and Peter Reuter, ’Reorienting U.S. Drug Policy,’ Issues in Science and Technology, XXIII/1 (2006), 79-85.
41 Caulkins and Lee, ‘The Drug-Policy Roulette,’ 35-51.