19 Steps to a Better Drug Policy
Mark Kleiman outlines a “Better drug policy in nineteen easy steps” on his blog and fleshes them out considerably in the cover story of this month’s The National Interest. He promises “something … to offend almost everybody.”
His focus on alcohol abuse as part and parcel of the drug problem is spot-on:
And alcohol is a drug, one that ranks high along most dimensions of risk. Among intoxicants (that is, excluding caffeine and nicotine), alcohol abuse accounts for more than three-quarters of total substance abuse in the United States, and for more death, illness, crime, violence and arrests than all illicit drugs combined. A drug abuse control policy that ignores alcohol is as defective as a naval policy that ignores the Pacific.
Given how ineffective Prohibition was in the case of booze–and how universally that is acknowledged–it’s interesting that it remains the tool of choice decades later for illicit narcotics.
All illicit markets are bad; just how bad depends on the size of the market, the flagrancy of the distribution mechanism, and the social mix of users and dealers. At relatively low cost, regulation and prohibition can be effective in preventing the emergence of new problem drug markets, and sometimes in keeping drugs already entrenched in some areas from extending their geographic reach. But once a drug has an established mass market, more enforcement cannot greatly shrink the problem; existing customers will seek out new suppliers, and imprisoned dealers, seized drugs and even dismantled organizations are replaced. Moreover, the effectiveness of enforcement tends to fall over time as the illicit industries learn to adapt. We have 15 times as many drug dealers in prison today as we had in 1980, yet the prices of cocaine and heroin have fallen by more than 80 percent.
Nor, interestingly, is medicalization a panacea:
Drug-use prevention efforts are very cost-effective because they’re very cheap. But they aren’t very effective; even the best programs, combining school-based and community-based efforts, reduce the rate of initiation by no more than a quarter, with no assurance that spending more would produce bigger effects.
His solutions for addressing the problem are, as promised, controversial. From my decidedly non-expert perspective, at least, they make sense at least as a starting point for discussion. They’re lengthy and detailed enough to defy excerpting, so I’ll leave it to the reader to click the link and ready.
This proposal, though, will draw fire from the libertarians most likely to buy off on the rest of Kleiman’s policy suggestions:
Raise the tax on alcohol, especially beer. The average excise tax (Federal plus state) on a can of beer is about a dime. The average damage done by that can of beer to people other than its drinker is closer to a dollar. Those costs consist mostly of crimes, accidents and the health care costs redistributed through insurance—and the one-dollar figure doesn’t count the costs to the families and friends of drinkers.
Of course, not all drinks are created equal; a dollar per can would be too high a tax on the great majority of drinkers whose drinking does no harm, and too low on the dangerous minority. But in the words of an old Chivas Regal advertisement, “If the extra money matters to you, you’re drinking too much.” (Note that the optimal tax level would fall if we denied alcohol to bad drunks.)
Raising taxes is also among the best ways to reduce heavy drinking by teenagers, for whom price is often a major consideration.
I don’t drink canned beer. But I buy pretty decent bottled beer in half-case quantities, generally on sale somewhere around $15 per 12. A tax of $1 a bottle would therefore nearly double the price of the beer I drink and would more than double the cost of Miller Lite, Budweiser, and the like. I can’t imagine the industry would stand for that.
I wonder, too, if doing this wouldn’t have unintended consequences. In my own case, I’d likely increase the ratio of really high end beers in my refrigerator (I’m partial to Beligians). One suspects, though, that those drinking beer for the high rather than the flavor would instead opt to redirect their investment into hard liquor or marijuana.