Opinions, Column

The “War On Drugs” Is Killing Addicts

It’s human nature to blame the supplier. After all, Adam blamed Eve, and Eve blamed the serpent. Several Massachusetts counties have risen the purchasing age of cigarettes, yet smoking age remains at 18. As long as you don’t buy it, you can smoke it.

We separate consumption from purchasing—we place accountability on sellers, for clearly they should be the ones making sure we don’t make bad decisions. How many times have we heard that we need to stop the inflow of drugs from Mexico and South America? The soldiers of the War on Drugs have embodied the attitude that the supplier is the bane of all their trouble, so the bulk of the efforts have been fought on the supply side. For so long, busting drug dealers has been seen as the real victory. But is it? Not so much. The more we think like that, the more drug addicts we’ll put on the streets.

Let’s take a step back, or a few steps back—actually, take enough steps to end up in Richard Tresch’s microeconomics class. Markets depict the relationship between suppliers and consumers: the less you supply and the greater you demand, the greater the price, and vice-versa. Economists have attempted to model the drug market and have come to several conclusions.

The first one is that when the supply of drugs is reduced, the price of drugs increases. Fair enough: less drugs means people fight more for the reduced quantity.

The second conclusion is that prices have little effect on the quantity of drugs demanded. People want drugs, and they’re going to pay the price.

Finally, the third conclusion, derived from the first two, is that a reduction in supply will actually increase the profits of the remaining suppliers. This is due to a hike in prices coupled with a short reduction in quantity.

Economists everywhere champion this model, but there it’s not completely accurate. The main oversight lies in the failure to recognize drug addicts as a unique demand population. Entering and exiting the population has almost nothing to do with price. Have you ever heard someone say, “I heard the price of molly went down last month, maybe I’ll buy myself a gram, try it out.” That’s absurd.

Addicts start consuming because they’re given their first doses. After that, the addiction kicks and they become part of a fixed demanding population. We all have a friend, or a “friend,” who went from not touching drugs to smoking like a chimney. Nothing will get you out of it but treatment.—nothing will win the War on Drugs but treatment. What they do on The Wire, that doesn’t really do anything.

No matter how much it costs, addicts will keep doing it. The model shows that an increase in price will slightly decrease the quantity demanded. That may be correct, but we have to look at where this reduction comes from in actuality.

The National Bureau of Economic Research published an article saying that a 100 percent increase in tobacco price would result in a five percent decrease of smokers. Drugs aren’t very different. An increase in drug prices fails to reduce the number of users. Rather, it results in addicts consuming a tad less. Is that what we want? Have our addicts consume a bit less heroin, while the number of users is staying the exact same? I’m no expert, but that doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.

In my opinion, however, the ineffectiveness of pushing up the price isn’t what is most troubling. What bothers me is that by putting so much pressure on the supply, we force drug addicts to pay more for what they need—not want, need—to consume. And we’re not talking about your upper middle-class BC kid who smokes too much weed—we’re talking about people who can barely afford feeding themselves and paying rent because they have to buy their heroin. They’re not going to consume less because they can’t—that’s how addictions work. Now two things are going to happen. Either they’ll cut the food budget, or resort to crime. Again, I’m no expert, but these don’t sound like satisfying solutions.

I’m not saying that we need to let suppliers be, let alone legalize drugs. I just think our efforts and money could be better used than how it is. More than $10 billion are spent on this war, and we should use that budget well. It’s time for us to realize that we’re losing our War on Drugs because of our obsession with blaming the suppliers. Not only do I think it’s not helping, but it’s also killing drug addicts. We have to recognize that addiction is a disease, and addressing that problem is the only way we’ll reduce consumption.

Featured Image by Francisco Ruela / Heights Graphics

January 15, 2015