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Becker on the Drug War

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Finally, Gary Becker and Kevin Murphy have this article on the drug war.  Becker is a Nobel-prize winning economist who pioneered the use of economic methods to the study of crime.  Becker and Murphy make the case that decriminalization would be a net positive.

The critical question, of course, is whether a legal drug market would result in an increase or decrease in drug use and particularly the number of people becoming addicted to drugs.  Becker and Murphy argue:

The lower drug prices that would result from full decriminalization may well encourage greater consumption of drugs, but it would also lead to lower addiction rates and perhaps even to fewer drug addicts, since heavy drug users would find it easier to quit. Excise taxes on the sale of drugs, similar to those on cigarettes and alcohol, could be used to moderate some, if not most, of any increased drug use caused by the lower prices.
I'm not so sure about the lower addiction rates.  Increased consumption would come not only from lower prices and removal of criminal sanctions but also from the marketing that a seller of a legal product has a constitutional right to engage in.  We have seen that with alcohol and even more so with tobacco.  And the increased consumption of drugs would be a major societal problem even without increased addiction.  More people on drugs means fewer people being productive in a society where declining work ethic is already a huge problem.  I respect Becker's views, but the question is a closer one than he and Murphy portray it.

5 Comments

I too have great respect for Becker's thinking but many of his arguments here are either weak or factually erroneous. While he concedes drug use may increase with legalization, Becker somehow concludes that addiction would not increase with the stigma of illegality removed.

Further, he claims that treatments for drug addiction have been discouraged by the very illegality of the substances. Becker is oblivious to the 3 decades of naltrexone promotion by drug treatment providers. (akin to anatabuse for alcoholics)

The entire passage that you quote is a non-sequitur. I see no reason why lower drug prices would make it easier for drug addicts to quit. And what evidence do we really have that excise taxes reduce the rate of alcohol consumption?

"but it would also lead to lower addition rates and perhaps even to fewer drug addicts, since heavy drug users would find it easier to quit." In other places where drugs have been legalized, addiction increased. In the real world heavy drug users do not want, or are unable to quit. The people pictured at this link were not capable of rational decisions: http://myfox8.com/2012/02/03/photos-faces-of-meth-before-and-after/

I think the "it" refers to "decriminalization" and not to "lower drug prices." Even so, this is an unconvincing point. After discussing AA and commercial "quit-smoking products," Becker and Murphy claim, "It is generally harder to break an addiction to illegal goods, like drugs. Drug addicts may be leery of going to clinics or to nonprofit 'drugs anonymous' groups for help. They fear they will be reported for consuming illegal substances."

I doubt this. There is a Narcotics Anonymous very much like AA, and the police don't stake out the meetings to bust users. There is a lot of treatment going on, much of it court-ordered, and a plenty large-enough market to develop aids to quitting. This is one of the weakest points in their argument.

I still don't buy that decriminalization would lead to lower rates of addiction. That's wishful thinking.

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