Thank the DEA for Crystal Meth

If there is one book every prosecutor, LEO, and judge should have to read it is The Economics of Prohibition by Mark Thornton (available for FREE here). TEOP explains, with a precision and clarity that can only be found in economic theory, the set-your-watch-by-it predictability of Prohibition’s horrible externalities. That is, what terrible things happens every time a government chooses to make popular recreational drugs illegal. (Spoiler alert- cartel violence, black markets, mass incarceration, corruption, inter alia). Today’s dreadful consequence of prohibition is the “potency effect”.

From the brilliant Mark Thornton via

Economics provides the best explanation for the surge in popularity of meth despite the disproportionate danger of its use. Increased enforcement of drug laws, backed by increased penalties, led to higher prices and decreased availability of preferred recreational drugs such as marijuana and cocaine. High prices and periodic shortages led drug dealers and consumers to find substitutes — ersatz goods that would produce similar results but at a lower cost.

The scourge of crystal meth is another example of the “potency effect” or what has been called the “iron law of prohibition.” When government enacts a prohibition, increases enforcement, or increases penalties on a good such as alcohol or drugs, it inevitably results in substitution to more adulterated, more potent, and more dangerous drugs.

In the case of crystal meth, authorities have tried to restrict the supply of the basic ingredient, which is a common component in cold medications. They required that such medications be sold in pharmacies from behind the counter and limited to a one-month supply. More recently, some states have required that buyers be tracked electronically to prevent purchasing from multiple pharmacies.

In response, meth producers have recruited large numbers of intermediaries, including their friends, relatives, college students, and even children and the homeless. These recruits buy the cold medicine and can sell it to the labs for a 500 percent profit. A review by the Associated Press shows that thousands of people are being lured into this drug trade. “Law enforcement was surprised,” St. Louis County Sgt. Tom Murley said. “People that normally wouldn’t cross the line are willing to do so because they think it’s such a sweet deal, and because of the economy.”

Fortunately, in addition to answers and explanations, economics can show us the path away from this now decades-old trend — the trend toward more potent and more dangerous drugs. After all, a certain portion of society will, regardless of legal restrictions and enforcement, choose to use drugs. So the solution is quite simple, really: end the drug war. Less enforcement and lower penalties would reduce the price of marijuana and shift demand from crystal meth back to marijuana, a drug that has few of the problems associated with meth.

When a meth lab operator (MLO) is apprehended, our criminal justice system puts all responsibility, punishment, and impetus to change behavior on the MLO and his smurf friends. During punishment the government stands up with a smug sense of bueracratic moral certainty and declares said MLO a scourge on society, solely responsible for his actions, and worthy of a lengthy sentence. The defense lawyer tries to rehab the client, and seek mercy on this individual for his choices. More often that not, MLO goes away for a few years or decades, taxpayers foot the bill, a new MLO takes his place, and the perpetual assembly line of drug arrests, prosecutions, and convictions continues unabated.

If the MLO is responsible for cooking the ice, shouldn’t the DEA be accountable for creating the ice industry? I’d love to argue, but probably never will, that the MLO and his merry band of smurfs wouldn’t be here if we had ended this drug war nonsense years ago, and let market forces provide the preferred substances in a regulated market environment. But for the government’s drug war, crystal meth wouldn’t have a market, or even have been invented in the first place.

Want to end smurfing, backyard meth labs, and the inane Sudafed registry at CVS? Regulate and tax the “preferred recreational drugs”. Otherwise don’t act surprised when a new potent drug comes down the crack/ice pipeline. It’s not just “evil” dope cooks who deserve society’s wrath, it’s the failed policies that guarantee a future supply of dope cooks.

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