Is the war on drugs worth the candle?


The phrase “not worth the candle” refers to occupations, games etc. that were thought so lacking in merit that it wasn’t worth the expense of a candle to create enough light to partake in them.  The war on drugs has now gone on for long enough that a sober evaluation based on experience of the benefits and costs of continuing ought to be possible.  If we can restrain our knees from jerking from long enough to perform that evaluation.

In the United States, the rate of marijuana posession arrests per 100,000 people rose from 146.2 in 1980 to 233.8 in 1998.  The Beckley Foundation Drug Policy Programme provides more statistics in this vein, “Over the first 70 years of the twentieth century the US incarceration rate was characterized by a relative stability, with approximately 100 per 100,000 citizens suffering imprisonment at a given moment. The following 35 year period has seen a steep rise in this rate, with the figure reaching 491 per 100,000 in 2005. (US Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2005). More recent data suggests that this has risen still further since then”

I am not now, nor have I ever been, a user of illicit drugs.  Nor, for that matter, am I a habitual user of licit drugs (Caffeine and other stimulants found in energy drinks being an exception to this).  Indeed, I consider voluntarily taking recreational drugs to be profoundly foolish.  However, I think the time is approaching when western societies need to rethink their approach to the use of recreational drugs.  The drug problem is only getting worse, not better and I am beginning to rethink my support for the war on drugs and ask the question “what harm is being done BY the war on drugs and is it exceeded by the harm done by recreational drug use?”

First there is the cost of incarceration.  Incarcerating people costs money and has opportunity costs in resource use such as use of land, employment and construction materials etc. etc. etc.

Then we must address the cost of increasing jail populations; are parole boards making more lenient parole decisions for the purpose of reducing prison population pressure? Is this leading to the premature release of more serious offenders?  Further, what proportion of societies resources ought to be diverted to the punishment of miscreants and should we fashion our law enforcement activities so as not to exceed that proportion?

There are more opportunity costs on the enforcement side.  Does it make sense to divert so much of our law enforcement manpower to the pursuit of the war on drugs?

Then there are the individual costs.  We are robbing individuals of years of their lives without convicting them of harming any other individual.  More, their careers are permanently curtailed by the stigma of a drug possession conviction.  What might those individuals have achieved, contributed to their society, had not those years been taken from them? had not their career been blighted by a drug possession conviction?

It is my belief that we need to be asking the question, what do we gain from incarcerating people on drug possession charges and is that gain worth what it costs to do so?  Note that while I am not yet ready to say that it is time to end the war on drugs but that it is time to have a robust and open debate on the merits of the question.  This means addressing the arguments that people make on this issue rather than questioning their personal morality for making the argument.

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