David Borden, Executive
Director, [email protected]
Every now and then a candid
comment by a public official reveals the sheer incoherence of the government's
anti-drug strategy. The latest such remark came from UN Secretary
General Kofi Annan. The topic was opium in Afghanistan. Annan
informed attendees at an Afghan opium conference in Pakistan this week
that the anti-opium drive in Afghanistan was counteracting itself by driving
up the price opium fetches on the black market, making opium growing more
attractive for farmers.
I would have told them to
expect that to happen, if they had asked me. Or they could have asked
officials involved with eradication in other countries. But that's
where it gets really incoherent.
The economic theory behind
supply-side anti-drug efforts is that reducing the drug supply or increasing
the danger in providing drugs will drive up their prices. Higher
prices, it is thought, will then reduce demand -- supply and demand, Econ
101. (Of course prices have dropped dramatically during the decades
the supply-side drug war has been waged. But that's another issue.)
I was surprised to learn,
then, that the bureaucrats coordinating interdiction on the ground in nations
like Colombia or Peru or Bolivia are not trying to drive the prices up,
but rather down. Or at least some of the time that's what they're
doing. They've experienced the same phenomenon that Kofi Annan this
week reported for Afghanistan. So instead of driving prices up, which
would make growing more lucrative, they want to reduce the prices to make
it less so.
But if prices are made to
fall, how does that serve the overarching goal of increasing prices?
One hand is pulling in a different direction from the other, and it doesn't
add up. But it's important to understand why this is happening.
It is happening because drug
warriors are fighting a futile battle, against a force of greater power
than any government can master. Large numbers of people, in the US,
Europe, and elsewhere want to use drugs made from opium, have the ability
to pay large sums of money for those drugs, and are willing to do so.
Demand at such a level creates supply. Therefore someone will grow
the opium, process it into heroin, and distribute it to the world's heroin
users, regardless of what governments try to do about it -- also Econ 101.
And so any supply-side measure
against drug supplies will ultimately end up serving the mechanisms of
the market in one way or another. But because policymakers and drug
war generals can't admit this, they are driven to all extremes of intellectual
contortion to create an appearance of having an approach that just might
work -- if only they are given more funding to attempt it. Pushing the
prices up didn't work? Let's try pushing them down. Pushing
the prices down didn't work? Let's try pushing them up. Pushing
the prices up didn't work? You get the idea.
In a time of international
terrorism, the world can scarcely afford to squander its resources indulging
in such fruitless foolishness. To do so in Afghanistan, where the
worst of the terrorism has been organized and where the anti-drug campaigns
risk losing us the hearts and minds of people whose help we need to stop
it, is particularly offensive. Instead, opium and its products should
be legalized, its profits brought into the licit economy where they can
be channeled in ways that foster stability and lawfulness rather than undermine
Which makes it time for our
leaders to be truly candid. And then for them to act on it.
-- END --
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