Copyright, The New York Times Company
The war on drugs sends middle- and upper-class American problems to the residents of poor areas. Nevertheless, the federal government continues the war in earnest.
Almost 20 years ago, an infamous memo by Lawrence H. Summers, at the time the chief economist of the World Bank, stirred a debate as to whether it was appropriate for the United States and other developed countries to pay poor countries to accept dirty industries, toxic waste or other garbage from the developed world.
Both sides in the debate seemed to agree that it would be inappropriate to force poor countries to accept our garbage, without compensation. But that’s very much what the war on drugs does.
The war is an outright prohibition on the sale and consumption of contraband substances in the United States. That prohibition is enforced domestically by federal and local law enforcement and abroad by the United States military.
Some of the most violent battles are fought in Mexico, Guatemala and other countries poorer than the United States (see especially the comments of Gary Becker of the University of Chicago on this topic). The war also foments violence in our poorer inner cities.
Yes, the war makes it more costly for Americans to obtain the prohibited substances. Yet plenty of people in the United States are willing to pay the higher prices – prices far in excess of what it costs to grow, harvest and manufacture the drugs.
The gap between the prices consumers pay and the production costs creates a profit opportunity for someone willing to break laws, battle law enforcement and deliver drugs to Americans.
Some of these contraband entrepreneurs – drug smugglers and dealers – are from poor countries or poor neighborhoods in the United States, so in this way some American consumer dollars make it to poor areas.
Of course, most people in poor areas are not in the contraband business and have no part of the drug industry’s revenue. Yet they suffer enormous harm from the violence and the drug activity.
The war on drugs thus pushes the “toxic waste” of America’s drug consumption into poor neighborhoods with no compensation.
Middle- and upper-class parents are unlikely to witness personally the war’s violence, and they want to discourage their own children from taking drugs. So many of them appreciate that the war makes it more difficult, or at least more expensive, for their children to obtain drugs.
And their appreciation is an important reason why our federal government has yet to legalize drugs and strongly discourages states from doing so.
Legalizing and taxing the use of what are now illegal substances would remove the profit motive for dealers and smugglers, and the revenue might be used to help the residents of poor neighborhoods, as Professor Becker notes. The great challenge to ending the war on drugs is finding a way to give American parents the protection they want for their children.