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Moral crusade, business problem, or something else entirely?

November 11, 2013
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There’s an interesting, though completely fatally flawed OpEd in the Detroit News by former federal prosecutor Mark Osler:

Drug policy: Moral crusade or business problem?

At the root of this failure is a simple error: We have treated narcotics as an issue of morality rather than business. Our efforts have been focused on punishing relatively minor actors through mass incarceration rather than on the very different goal of shutting down drug businesses. A starting point as we reconsider our efforts should be the simple recognition that narcotics trafficking is first and foremost a business.

That means that we need to put business experts in charge of the effort to close down narcotics businesses. This change might make all the difference.

A business expert, for example, would know enough to identify a proper measure of success or failure. The only real way to know if narcotics interdiction is working isn’t how much cocaine is piled up in a bust, or how many people we lock up. Rather, the best measure is an economic one: the price of narcotics on the street. If we are successful at restricting supply, the price should go up (given a rough consistency of demand). Hiking the price is important. We have learned from cigarettes that raising the price of something addictive reduces usage rates. Still, governments continue to measure success by narcotics seized, arrests made, and sentences imposed rather than the street value of illegal drugs.

Mark Osler is right in his criticisms of the moral crusade approach, and also about some of the stupid things we’ve been doing in the drug war (measuring success in piles of cocaine, sweeping up low-level dealers, etc.).

However, the notion of winning the drug war by putting business leaders in charge, while novel, is simply out of touch with reality.

Yes, we would be better off if those involved in setting policy understood economic principles better (supply and demand, etc.) — they’d then realize that the drug war can’t work.

But putting business leaders to work utilizing their business skills to combat drug trafficking is a non-starter, for the simple reason that the black market exists outside the realm (and the civilized rules) of the business economy.

Where business leaders would employ lawyers, traffickers employ gunmen. And so on.

The only way to make this idea work is to take drug trafficking out of the black market through legalized regulation. Then business models would apply and could have a great impact on how drugs were marketed and sold (of course, that’s exactly the kind of thing that terrifies people like Mark Kleiman and Kevin Sabet).

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Pete Guither is the editor of drugwarrant.com

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