Does Drug Prohibition Work?

11 08 2008

I wrote this article in Feb 07. It discusses some utilitarian and economic arguments against drug prohibition without going into ethical and political theory arguments.

On the 31/1/07, the Australian National Council on Drugs (ANCD) reported that amphetamines use is on the rise in Australia. The past decade has also seen a rise in ecstasy use. However the federal minister for health and ageing, Christopher Pyne was quoted in the media saying “Proof that our approach to drugs is working is in terms of overall illicit drug use in Australia – the numbers have been dropping for the last 10 years,”. Christopher Pyne and/or the media did not quote the source of this data.
However, according to the most up to date “Statistics on drug use in Australia 2004” published by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, “The proportion of the population who had used any illicit drug in the last 12 months fluctuated between 1991 and 2004, reaching a similar level in 2004 (15%) to the prevalence in 1993 (14%)”.
Indeed, amphetamines use has been on the rise for some time: “The proportion of the Australian 20—29-year-old population who has used, or using, amphetamines has increased from 20.9% in 1998 (Adhikari and Summerill, 2000) to 22%, or 624,600 people, in 2002” (Australian Institute of Health andWelfare, 2004).
In terms of fatality rates, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, “Between 1979 and 1999, the standardised death rate from drugs other than alcohol and tobacco increased by 79%, from five to nine deaths per 100,000 persons, driven primarily by increases in deaths of males from opiates”.
So I would be interested where Christopher Pyne gets his figures from. Aside from this, I also think he needs a lesson in scientific method. Even if overall illicit drug use in Australia has been going down, correlation does not necessarily mean causation.
In an Australian first, researchers from the University of New South Wales (UNSW) estimated the amount of money spent by federal and state governments on the illicit drug problem in this country, was a staggering $3.2 billion in 2002/2003.
From my breif research, there appear to be hundreds of articles, books and internet pages claiming various “war on drugs” programs have and always will be a failure. In this article, I wish to focus on the economic cost to the community and to you the tax payer.


Firstly, to jail all the drug users in Australia you’d bankrupt the country. Based on responses to the 2004 National Drug Strategy Household Survey, 38% of Australians aged 14 years and over had used an illicit drug at least once in their lifetime, and 15% had used an illicit drug at least once in the last 12 months. Considering that drug users often buy drugs for a number of friends, this legally categorizes a high proportion of users as dealers. If we were to jail them, we would bankrupt the country. It’s not logistically possible to win the war on drugs.
The recent ANCD publication focused on the rising use of amphetamines. The report claimed that in Australia there are currently around 50 deaths a year that are attributed directly to the use of psychostimulant drugs, including methamphetamine. This pales in significance compared to deaths from heart disease, cancer, car accidents etc. My question is why should all Australians be paying an extraordinary amount in tax dollars towards the drug problem? $3.2 billion dollars for 2002/2003 is out of proportion. The tax money would be better spent on issues that affect all of us or even better still, simply given back to your hard working, honest John Citizens.
Thirdly, the cost analysis conducted by the UNSW does not include the crime that prohibition creates. Prohibiting any substance dramatically raises the risk of selling that substance hence inflating the market value. In terms of illicit drugs, prohibition dramatically distorts the value of drugs such as heroin (easily extracted from poppy seeds), or marijuana (flowers picked off a plant), or amphetamines (manufactured by simple steps such as reduction reactions to pre cursors chemicals such as pseudo-ephedrine). Prohibition creates black market economies and with this comes organized crime. It is highly probable that alcohol prohibition increased crime rates in the US. In 1907, when alcohol was first prohibited in Georgia and Oklahoma, the homicide rate in the United States was 1 person per 100,000 per year. Alcohol use was prohibited nationwide by 1919 and the homicide rate had grown to 8 per 100,000. The murder rate climbed steadily until it peaked at 10 per 100,000 around 1933, when the 18th amendment (alcohol prohibition) was finally scrapped.
A desperate heroin addict may mug you on the street over a substance that costs him $50 instead of lets say about $5 at most. Many drug users of course don’t commit theft. The vast majority of drug users do not commit any violent crimes. However if they are one of the unlucky ones to go to jail, there’s a higher chance they’ll become violent criminals.
Black market economies also don’t have quality control. A drug user has less chance of knowing the quality and purity of their drugs and is therefore more at risk of death because of prohibition.
I would like to finish with what I believe is an exposure of government propaganda. I cannot locate the source, but as stated earlier, Christopher Pyne has recently stated that “overall illicit drug use in Australia is in decline”. Correlation of course doesn’t equal causation, but I assume he is taking credit for the decline in heroin use. Drugs naturally fluctuate in popularity based on public perception from generation to generation. This may partly be the reason why people over 60 years of age are twice as likely to drink alcohol daily. However, I will not focus on this issue. Rather I will focus on claims by government departments that prohibition caused the heroin drought of 2001.
Caulkins and Reuter (2006, Journal of Addiction) point out, “there are few instances in which drug law enforcement can claim more than transitory success”. Wood et al (2006, Journal of Addiction) say, “the pattern of increased law enforcement activity followed by a sustained reduction in heroin availability is so extraordinary that policy-makers would be wise to question whether this pattern is explained by other factors”. Could it be that Australia experienced one of these extraordinary events? The answer is probably no. Researching this topic, I came across plenty of convincing academic literature pointing to the conclusion that prohibition was not a major reason for the heroin drought of 2001. The general shortage of heroin arose from unfavourable weather conditions in the opium growing regions of Burma. And, Asian crime syndicates decided to concentrate on marketing amphetamine-like drugs in Australia rather than heroin. The Australian Federal Police itself has been much more cautious than the Federal Government in claiming success for law enforcement. This is because big heroin seizures in the past including the huge one of 400kg in October 1998 did not lead to a heroin shortage. The high amount seized for the period of 1999-2000 (734 kg) was a mere 12% of total estimated imported heroin. Therefore it is unlikely to have had a major impact on supply.
If you wish to improve the quality of life in this country, it’s time to question the real costs and benefits of drug prohibition.

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2 responses

11 08 2008
Mike Harmon

Just wanted to say HI. I found your blog a few days ago on Technorati and have been reading it over the past few days.

20 08 2008
Tim R

Cheers Mike.
I’m very busy lately so can’t post too often, but I’ll hopefully have time to think through some issues properly and get my thoughts on paper.

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