No practicable level of drug law enforcement can raise the prices of mass-market drugs

Mark Kleiman reports on a seminar he attended on drug abuse control policy with this amazingly important post:

As part of my preparation, I had Kenna Ackley, my research assistant, pull together some numbers. Between 1980 and 2004, the number of drug dealers in state and federal prison is up more than twelvefold, from 24,000 to 325,000. Most of that increase is cocaine dealers.

Over that same period. the retail price of cocaine is down about 80% in constant dollars, from $535 a gram equivalent in 1980 to $105 today.

Those numbers convince me of something I wouldn’t have believed: that, under U.S. conditions, no practicable level of drug law enforcement can raise the prices of mass-market drugs.

Although Mark’s been, to my mind, somewhat too cautious in advocating significant reform (see Mark Kleiman gets it wrong), he’s come to an important realization here that needs to be communicated further:

If that’s right, then the right measure of the effectiveness of drug law enforcement isn’t the costs it imposes on the illicit markets, but its effect on the side-effects that result from the operation of those markets: violence, corruption, neighborhood disruption, seduction of minors into illicit activity, and (if significant) financial contribution to terrorist operations against the U.S.

And you’ll find that in every one of those cases, the negative effects are higher under prohibition than just about any other model.

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