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Reassessing the war on drugs: Patrick Basham

While a policy analyst with the Fraser Institute, Patrick Basham presented the following speech at a conference in Edmonton in 2000 entitled “Reassessing the War on Drugs." Basham’s remarks are part of a growing body of intellectual work opposing the war on drugs from a conservative perspective.

Patrick Basham - September 30, 2009

Why's there so much crime? Because so many addicts must spend their days stealing the large amounts of money -- on average, between 500 and a thousand dollars a day -- needed to buy their drugs.

Why are the drugs so costly? The only reason is their illegality. The street price of cocaine and heroin is usually from 50 to 100 times the pharmaceutical cost of producing the drugs. The risks incurred by the black market suppliers and dealers are rewarded by the exorbitant retail prices paid by users.

In 1997, 2,000 Canadians went to jail for simple marijuana possession. Cumulatively, hundreds of thousands of Canadians have criminal records for possessing small amounts of cannabis. Of course, the scale of the American problem is much worse. In the US, there are more than 1 million drug arrests per year, including half a million marijuana-related arrests. Today, 50 percent of all American prison inmates are drug offenders. In 1980, there were 50,000 US drug prisoners; today, there are 400,000.

What makes this situation particularly frustrating is the fact that drug treatment and rehabilitation programs are both cheaper and more effective than prisons at conquering drug addiction and the social dysfunction which may accompany it. For every dollar invested in a good drug treatment program, seven dollars in social costs are saved.

Perversely, in my opinion, prison sentences for drug offences, designed to suppress the illegal drug trade, frequently rival the sentences for murder and rape. The results are overloaded courts and prisons. Consequently, violent non-drug prisoners may be released early to make room for non-violent drug offenders. Apparently, somewhere, at sometime, on someone's blackboard, this made some kind of sense.

Increasingly, then, we're realizing that the criminal justice system is the most expensive method of intervention in the drug area. But the expense might not appear so onerous if it produced results. However, all of the evidence suggests criminalizing drug users doesn't work.

You see, in practice, the drug trade is like an old mattress -- whenever it's pushed down in one area, it springs up in another. This is because drug use is insensitive either to price or to punishment. Both historians and sociologists know that the demand for drugs rises and falls largely according to social factors impervious to the efforts of governments.

Drug use, like alcohol consumption, is sensitive to social mores, education, and the perceived health risks.