By Jeffrey A. Miron
Special to CNN
Editor's note: Jeffrey A. Miron is senior lecturer in economics at Harvard University.
The CNN story that provided the hook for my debate with former DEA official Robert Guttman might appear at first glance to make a convincing case against legalizing drugs like heroin or cocaine; the story recounts the tragic death of a teenager from heroin use. Read the story
In fact, the story illustrates perfectly why legalization makes more sense than prohibition, even for hard drugs.
The incident recounted in the story occurred under current policy: prohibition did not prevent this teenager from using heroin.
As the story emphasized, moreover, heroin prices have fallen dramatically over the past several decades to the point where heroin is available in a relatively pure form at prices most teenagers can afford. This shows that government anti-drug policies have been a dismal failure, since the express purpose of those policies is to raise drug prices and reduce use. Federal and state government have spent hundreds of billions of dollars attempting to enforce prohibition, yet availability and purity are higher than ever while price is at record lows.
Thus prohibition has failed to accomplish its stated goals, and it generates enormous negative side effects.
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One side effect is violence and corruption, as recent events in Mexico illustrate dramatically. In underground markets, participants resolve disputes with guns because they cannot use lawyers or advertising.
A second side effect is accidental poisonings and overdoses, since quality control in underground markets is difficult. In a legal market, potentially dangerous substances come with purity clearly indicated. This does not prevent all overdoses, since some users make poor decisions about how much to consume, but it allows responsible user to avoid excessive consumption.
The prohibitionist view of human nature is that if a potentially dangerous substance like heroin were legal, huge numbers of people would use it a way that harmed themselves and others.
No evidence validates this view. Yes, some people would misuse drugs if they were legal, but most of those people are misusing drugs now. Overall, most people try to avoid stupid or irresponsible risks, whether the substance is legal or prohibited. The difference is therefore the ancillary consequences of the legal regime imposed, and on that criterion prohibition is a disaster.