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Gary Becker Claims that We Have Lost the War on Drugs

By Karl Christian Blank '13  |  february, 2013, Issue 1
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Prof Becker discusses decriminalization of drugs       (Courtesy of Michael Gandy)

Gary Becker, University Professor of Economics and of Sociology, visited the Harper Center on Jan. 25 to lecture on the decriminalization and legalization on drugs. The event was hosted by the Milton Friedman Group and nearly 120 Booth students gathered to listen to the 1992 Nobel Laureate in Economics apply economic ideas such as prices and opportunity cost to the war on drugs.

"Have we lost the war on drugs?" Professor Becker asked the audience as he referenced his recent article in the The Wall Street Journal in collaboration with George J. Stigler Distinguished Service Professor of Economics Kevin Murphy. The answer Becker and his colleagues have arrived at is a definitive "Yes."

"The cost of drugs is substantial," Becker stated, and estimates that prosecution of drug criminals in the US has cost around $40-$50 billion dollars. In fact, the data shows that roughly half of the people in federal penitentiaries and nearly 20% of the people in state prisons are drug-related felons. He also claims that the creation of high violence "ghetto neighborhoods" and a constant high-school dropout rate above 25% over the last 30 years are two of the most relevant and negative consequences of keeping drugs illegal.

Professor Becker cited the example of Mexico, which is one of the countries most affected by the war on drugs. The criminalization of drugs means "cartels have to be good at violence," he argued. As a result, cartels engage in other illegal activities such as political extortions in addition to drug trafficking. The price of this war has been high for Mexico; since the country declared a war on drugs in 2006, it has seen more than 50,000 drug related deaths.

Proponents of the war on drugs claim that it cuts consumption. Becker, however, notes that research shows that criminalization reduces demand for some, but not all drugs. In fact, some of these advocates are the drug cartels themselves, who stand to benefit from the profits of a high-risk high-return industry that would otherwise be less attractive.

Professor Becker also points out that the illegality of drugs tends to increase the addiction per user, because counteractive measures such as nicotine patches for cigarette addicts, are more difficult to have if the product is illegal itself.

As evidence of the positive effects that the decriminalization of consumption of drugs could have, Becker cites Portugal, where for more than 10 years it has been legal to consume small quantities of any drugs. Experimentation would probably increase, but total usage and addiction per user might go down, he notes. The next state would be the legalization on the supply side, and in that, we would see most of the advantages, as we saw after the prohibition era in the United States.

Professor Becker concluded his lecture by stating that there is a strong case for the decriminalization and legalization of drugs and he has become very optimistic on this topic: 20 states have legalized in some way the consumption of marijuana, and current and former presidents of other countries have considered market alternatives to the war on drugs.

Last Updated 2/11/13
Last Updated 2/11/13