Vice Squad
Wednesday, March 03, 2004
Drug Prohibition and Cost-Benefit Analysis

Guest blogger Michael Alexeev reviewed the costs and benefits of drug prohibition yesterday, and concluded that "the costs of drug prohibition policy are large and most of them are quite certain, while the benefits appear to be modest and are difficult to quantify." So on cost-benefit grounds, drug prohibition does not look like a good policy.

[Note: From here on out in this post I will lean heavily upon the wonderful book, Legalize This!, by Douglas Husak. I have sung the praises of this book before.]

But what if it went with the other way, what if prohibition "worked" (and substantially, not narrowly worked) in a cost-benefit sense? Should we then all jump on the prohibitionists' bandwagon? No. Cost-benefit analysis is capable of hinting at just how bad a policy drug prohibition is, but it cannot justify drug prohibition. Prohibition (as practiced in the US) involves locking people in cages because they are walking around with some illicit drug on them. But locking people in cages cannot be done just because it has "net benefits"; rather, we can only lock people away if they have done something wrong. It might be that we could demonstrate, through cost-benefit analysis, that a good policy (i.e., one that would have positive net benefits) would be to jail everyone who wears a green tee shirt, or who has a tattoo -- but these policies cannot be justified in that manner. Neither can drug prohibition.

To see the limits of cost-benefit analysis, what if we found out today that those people who commit aggravated assault get more benefit, substantially more benefit, out of this activity than we previously thought -- so much more benefit that on net, aggravated assault brings social benefits? Should we legalize aggravated assault? Of course we should not. Notice that for real crimes, crimes that have victims, no one turns to cost-benefit analysis to determine whether we should punish perpetrators. We jail convicted murderers, and would even if we couldn't demonstrate that such a policy passes a cost-benefit analysis. The very fact that we think it is illuminating to examine drug prohibition through a cost-benefit lens indicates that people should not be punished for drug possession.

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