Vice Squad
Sunday, March 07, 2004
A quibble with the host

In an earlier post, the Vice Squad host Jim Leitzel argues that cost-benefit analysis has a rather limited role in evaluating policies that involve jailing people. I agree, although I think that this role, while limited, is still quite significant. However, more relevant to the theme of Vice Squad, I do not agree with Jim’s apparent implication that drug possession is obviously a victimless crime that deserves no jail punishment. Presumably, the proponents of drug prohibition think that drug users impose costs on the rest of us (i.e., create negative externalities). One may or may not agree with that view, but it is clearly out there. True, a big part of the argument in Dr. Miron’s paper that I discussed here was that many of the costs that are added up in the COI studies are not external costs, but private costs of drug users. Still, some of those costs such as the cost of health treatment paid for from public funds impose costs on everybody. Moreover, the proponents of prohibition would argue that drug use is associated with increased crime. Again, one may not agree with that argument. I, for one, think that prohibition does a poor job at limiting drug use and it creates more crime than would most forms of legalization. But the prohibition proponents’ arguments cannot be simply dismissed.

One could perhaps say that drug possession by itself certainly doesn’t hurt anybody. But this is not a good argument. Our legal system in general routinely punishes people, often deservedly, for activities that have not hurt anybody yet but increase the probability of doing so in the future. Drunk driving is one of such activities, not to mention attempted murder. And there are good reasons for such punishments (see, for example, David Friedman’s Law’s Order, pp. 74-82) .

I stress that all this is not to defend prohibition, but to take the arguments of its proponents seriously. The major point of cost-benefit analysis of drug prohibition is that the potential benefits of prohibition are highly uncertain and may not even exist at all, while many of the costs are clear and substantial.

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