by Ben Stone
Recently Robert Higgs was at the Francisco Marroquin University in Guatemala receiving an honorary doctoral degree in the social sciences (Doctados Honoris Causa Ciencias Sociales) for his amazing contributions to the field. While there he wrote this article about the drug war and its effects in Guatemala. Its a nice little article that caused me to remember that the effects of this prohibition and its associated black market are not just a plague on the people of the US, but an illness that hits the poor and weaker countries far harder than most people realize. And without noticing it, this black market sucks a phenomenal amount of wealth out of the economy of the US and into the pockets of criminals that use it to dominate small local economies in third world countries. In pondering this it dawned on me that I haven’t written an article specifically about prohibitions and their results.
In one sense I feel that explaining the negative effects of a prohibition should be unnecessary since the very concept of a prohibition is based on the immoral position that one person or a group of people can rightfully tell another person or group of people what they can and can’t buy or sell. The idea should be repugnant to any civil society! But sometimes I forget that a major portion of my fellow humans just move with the herd and never consider the morality of the individual aspects of the world they sludge through. Easily enough, I could be like that. I don’t use any forbidden substances or have any dealings with them, so I could just look away. Many good people around the world look the other way as their governments take their taxes and use the money to pervert true law and distort the market. For this reason, it’s hard to approach people using purely the moral argument.
It’s an odd thing really. People will agree with you if you say that immoral actions cannot produce moral results. Two wrongs don’t make a right. We all know this and try to teach it to our children. But when you apply this moral standard to illegal drugs, somehow the same person who just agreed with you will stand on the argument that using aggressive violence on innocent people will cause other people to stop using drugs. It’s remarkably counter-logical and yet they cling to it with a level of blind faith any palm reader would drool over. And the funny part is that they will refuse to think about the fact that they are advocating an immoral act for a moral benefit. They are so deeply invested in the immoral solution that they can’t let go of it no matter the consequences.
For this reason, we on the moral side of the argument are forced to try to appeal to the practical desires of the delusional Drug Warrior. We attempt to explain how prohibitions have never worked at any time in history. We try to show them that the result of a government prohibition is always a black market where criminal elements of society always take over and reap huge profits. We try to explain how criminal gangs always dominate black markets and use the funding from forbidden products to fund other criminal activity. We try to show that government prohibitions drive the price of a product up and make it more profitable to produce in higher quantities, therefore resulting in even more availability and more users of the product. We try to use facts to show that the harder the government cracks down on the production, distribution, and consumption of anything all they ever do is make it more profitable for the criminals. We try to show how every dollar invested in the enforcement of a prohibition only causes a more vigorous black market with higher profits for criminals. But the Drug Warrior will simply fall back on a slogan or a myth, put their blindfold back on and continue grazing.
I remember vividly the spring of 1979 when I was 17 years old. Well, actually I remember parts of the spring of 1979 vividly some of it is fuzzy. But I do remember one day in a city park with five friends. We had 2 six-packs of beer and had found a somewhat private area where we were just sitting talking and enjoying the California sun. Up walked two policemen who began their little song and dance routine for us. We remained respectful as they lectured us about breaking the law with our evil beer. When they finished their dim-witted lecture on being good citizens, they opened each can of beer and poured it on the ground. One of my friends thanked them for “giving us a break” and they humbly acknowledged that they were indeed “cool cops” and it was a good thing some other cops didn’t find us first. I looked one of the cops in the eye and asked him if he actually thought that would keep us from getting more beer. He didn’t answer. He just stared at me, angry that I wasn’t groveling at his feet adoring his coolness, but I was incapable of respecting someone who openly stole from me under the guise of “law”. I hadn’t worked in the desert sun for minimum wage to buy that beer to have some costumed thief take it from me and pour it on the ground!
So we hopped in my ’66 Mustang and zipped down to the grocery store where my friends created a bit of a distraction while I stole a case of beer and a bottle of Jack Daniel’s. Then that night I slipped down to the police station on foot with my wire cutters and clipped some of the antennas off of the parked police cars. That’s what you call a net loss of tax expenditures. In my mind I could see clearly the immorality of the police in their enforcement of a stupid prohibition and the guilt of the storekeeper in supporting this thuggery through taxes and through voting for the mayor who appointed the police chief who instructed the cops. I viewed my actions as just retribution for my loss and humiliation.
My logic and my ethics may have needed some adjustment, but the basis of my anger was just. As a partial result of this experience I quit my job and spent the next few years making a very lucrative income skirting the law and using black markets to my advantage. So you can trust me when I say prohibitions take a small problem and create huge problems. Once again Bastiat is proven correct when he asserted that there are seen results of government actions and there are unseen consequences. And generally if the “seen” result is good the unseen consequences are bad. And if the “seen” result is temporary the unseen consequences are long term.
So the moral argument aside, prohibitions simply don’t work. In 1979 powder cocaine was only slightly harder to get than marijuana. Meth was widely available in pharmaceutical quality and “crack” or as we on the west coast called it, “rock” cocaine was everywhere and cheep. However I only knew a couple people that had anything to do with rock or meth because of its potency and the dangers involved in using it. Then in the 80’s a couple popular movies and a popular television show about Miami police focused on the cocaine market and glamorized it beyond reality. The public became alarmed and politician’s typical knee jerk reaction was to come down on the cocaine market. The result drove the price of the product up and made it more advantageous to the black market to sell it in its concentrated form, crack. So the potency of each dose was dramatically increased creating more desperate addicts. In turn the public panicked over the increase in violence and crime related to crack cocaine so the prohibitionist reaction was to focus on “busting the crack houses”. As crack users became more violent, police raids got more and more violent creating the need to militarize small local police forces. As the prohibition of crack cocaine became a profitable industry for police trainers and equipment suppliers, the cold efficiency of the police raids caused another shift in the black market. Crack cocaine became less popular and by about 1999, cheep bathtub meth became a competitive player in the market. So within 20 years government interference in the illicit drug market drove the consumer to prefer a much more dangerous much more potent drug.
Rather than stepping back, examining lessons learned, and solving the drug problem, prohibitionists chose to press on with this idiotic violent path. Mom and pop meth producers were targeted by law enforcement and the morons in Washington DC decided to punish everyone with allergies or a head cold by making over-the-counter cold medicines harder or impossible to get.
So with this new wave of prohibition and vastly energized and militarized push to crush the drug market, every drug user in North America suddenly decided to stop using drugs, right?
Of course not! The now super rich gangs and cartels that have been rolling in cash for 25 years simply shifted meth production away from the mom and pop suppliers and made an offshore industry. There are now drug cartels with individuals richer than the entire country they reside in.
The logical end of this story can fall in either of two directions. The individual people in the rich industrialized nations can wake up to the obvious and demand the State gets its big fat ugly wart covered nose out of the business of prohibitions, or this problem will balloon out of control and threaten civilization itself. If you consider how many people the government has imprisoned for drug crimes in America, how many are currently imprisoned and how many have been through that meat grinder and have been released onto the streets, a staggering percentage of our population has become hardened criminals due directly to this prohibition. At present rate the “war on drugs” is creating an army of dangerous angry criminals that some day will reach a saturation point and there will be no turning back! We will make the French Revolution and the Russian Revolution look like mild footnotes in the chronicles of history if this thing is not stopped!