What You Should Know About Drug Prohibition

Release Date
March 9, 2012


Criminal Justice Rights

In its history, America has experienced two major periods of drug prohibition. This first was the Federal alcohol prohibition from 1920-1933. The second is the current war on drugs, which began in 1971.
According to Prof. Angela Dills, during these periods of prohibition in America, both homicide rates and police enforcement costs increased. This makes sense, as prohibitions never actually eliminate use. Rather, prohibitions convert peaceful and legal markets into black markets. In black markets, when disputes arise over sales territory, product quality, or money, the government legal system is not available. This forces drug dealers to resolve disputes on their own, which often leads to violence.
The violence of black markets, along with the enforcement of drug policy, attracts the attention of law enforcement. Law enforcement is costly, and the time spent enforcing drug laws could have been spent preventing other crimes like murder, theft, and rape. Drug prohibition not only generates more violence and increases the cost of law enforcement, it also distracts law enforcement and puts citizens at greater risk of crime.

What You Should Know about Drug Prohibition
Prohibitions do not eliminate the market for illicit goods. Prohibitions do, however, increase violence and increase the risk of overdose.
The recent history of the United States includes two major periods of prohibition: federal alcohol prohibition from 1920 to 1933, and the current war on drugs, which began in 1971. During both of these periods, we witnessed increases in the homicide death rate that correspond to enforcement of these prohibitions.
Why do prohibitions lead to violence? First, we have to recognize that prohibiting the production or consumption of a substance does not eliminate its use. Almost half of high school seniors report using an illegal substance in their life. Prohibition merely drives the market for drugs underground. Producers operate in a black market, and consumers conceal their behavior.
Economics predicts a variety of adverse effects of black markets. The evidence confirms these effects. In a black market, when disputes arise—over sales territory, over product quality, over correct change—the legal system is not available. Drug producers and consumers must resolve their own disputes and may rely on violence to do so.
The underground nature of black markets has other negative effects. Consumers can’t report their drug dealers to the Better Business Bureau for having sold them low-quality cocaine. The lack of legal, visible options to impugn the reputation of bad-faith drug dealers typically leads to lower quality, and importantly, less predictable quality drugs, increasing the risk of poisoning and of overdose.
Further, law enforcement expends resources to enforce prohibitions. The time that police officers spend chasing drug dealers and users is time not spent catching murderers, thieves, or rapists. Prison space used to house drug dealers and users is space not available for other, more serious criminals. One estimate suggests that homicide rates are 25 to 75 percent higher than they would be in the absence of drug prohibition.
If your goal was to reduce the consumption of marijuana, of cocaine, meth, or heroin, there are other policy choices available. A policy regime such as the one we have with tobacco of high tax rates, minimum smoking ages, and extensive education campaign, could keep the consumption of these drugs relatively low while avoiding the violence and quality issues associated with a black market.
It might seem counterintuitive that prohibitions are not the most effective way to reduce the consumption of a good, but economics points out that prohibitions generate black markets, and black markets lead to other adverse effects.