Vice Squad
Monday, September 22, 2003
Coca Fumigation Tragedy

Limited but sad vice news in the Chicago Tribune today. A plane crashed in Colombia,
killing its American pilot. The plane was fumigating coca fields. The plane did not appear
to be shot down; presumably, the crash was accidental and may have been abetted
by harsh weather. [This information turned out to be incorrect -- see the update in this
from Tuesday, September 23, 2003.]

In Chicago, a man was stomped to death early Saturday. An alleged attacker is being
held. The stomping is said to have occurred during a dispute over drug money.

One of the components of the Colombian tragedy is the rather substantial element of
futility that accompanies eradication and interdiction programs; see, e.g.,
Peter Reuter, "The Limits of Supply-Side Drug Control." The Milken Institute
Review, pp. 14-23, First Quarter, 2001
. I tend to be reluctant to jump to policy
futility or perversity claims (the terminology is from Albert O. Hirschman's The Rhetoric
of Reaction
: Perversity, Futility, Jeopardy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991),
but in this case the arguments for futility in the medium term are pretty compelling. And
even if the flow of foreign cocaine were substantially trimmed, we would have to worry about
substitution to domestically produced methamphetamine or even increased consumption
of alcohol. And it is always useful to keep in mind that this US-led eradication program in a
distant foreign land is undertaken in the name of making it harder for some of our neighbors
and friends to pursue their personal pleasure by consuming cocaine.

The stomping death is so outrageous that it might be a bit overboard to deem it
drug-law-related. It reminds me of the case in NYC, when a bouncer was murdered by a man
who was enraged by the bouncer's attempt to enforce the then-new smoking ban. A member
of the murdered man's family blamed the killing on the ban, and indeed, that did appear to
be a proximate cause. But a person who is willing to kill someone because he is not allowed
to smoke sounds enough like a walking time bomb that he is almost bound to explode
on someone, somewhere. So while the murdered bouncer probably would be alive today if it
were not for the smoking ban, I think there is a good chance that some other unfortunate
soul might have paid a similarly heavy price from the assailant.

On the connection between alcohol and drug prohibition and homicide, see Jeffrey A. Miron,
"Violence and the U.S. Prohibitions of Drugs and Alcohol." American Law and Economics
Review 1: 78-114, Fall 1999. On my reluctance to jump to futility or perversity claims, see
Jim Leitzel, The Political Economy of Rule Evasion and Policy Reform. London: Routledge, 2003.

Finally, when people were contemplating making drugs illegal, did the sorts of deaths that
were in today's news enter into their cost-benefit analysis?

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