Drug policy is deja vu all over again
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Drug Policy is Deja Vu All Over Again. Stephen T. Easton Simon Fraser University and The Fraser Institute. To set the stage for today’s discussion:. We need to go back a little to see how future history will treat us by remembering the last prohibition. Remember the Last Great Prohibition.

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Drug Policy is Deja Vu All Over Again

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Drug Policy is Deja Vu All Over Again

Stephen T. Easton

Simon Fraser University


The Fraser Institute

To set the stage for today’s discussion:

We need to go back a little to see how future history will treat us by remembering the last prohibition

Remember the Last Great Prohibition

  • Canada prohibited the consumption of alcohol from 1917 to 1922 (more or less)

  • The United States prohibited the consumption of alcohol from 1918 to 1932

The Consequences

  • As an enduring testament to futility,

  • Recall that the “Untouchables” is still running on TV.

History anyone?

  • There they are, deeply committed to fighting what is now a legal and respectable line of work: brewing and distributing alcohol.

  • So, sip your Chardonnay, have a brew, or mix a retro martini and applaud Elliot Ness and the Untouchables as he fights your kind of crime.

A Message to Current History

  • We cannot prevent people from consuming illegal substances that they want

  • It is a war that was lost in the 1920s and 1930s and is being lost again

  • Let’s take a look at the facts

Lifetime Numbers

Current Users

Business is about Resource Allocation

  • What do we do in a “business” oriented approach?

Business is about Resource Allocation

  • We look at the harm inflicted.

  • We look at the difficulty of enforcement

  • We reallocate resources so that they reflect the observation that an additional unit of effort yield the same payoff in each activity to which we are committed

Business is about Resource Allocation

  • We spend too much time and money on vainly trying to control the uncontrollable -- Elliott Ness and you.

  • We spend too little time in preventing, educating and remedying those who are in misery with drugs.

  • Incidentally, our policy makes available large sums of money to people who violate the law.

So Is Drug Control Really about the Harm they do?

  • Let’s ask about what is currently legal:

  • Tobacco and

  • Alcohol

27% of the Canadian Population Currently Smoke (Tobacco)

72% of Canadians Use this Formerly “Prohibited” Substance

What is the Putative Effect of Behaviours such as Smoking and Drinking?

What is the message?

  • Clearly, the harm the substance may do is not the criterion by which we determine illegality.

  • Even with the poignant story over the weekend, nobody is suggesting banning cars that can drive fast simply because some do drive fast.

The futility of trying to stop drugs from the production end

  • Let us take the most obvious example of drug production that absorbs police energy:

  • Marijuana Production

  • It is profitable

  • It is easy.

Some Costs of Production

So Why Do It?

  • Cost $100,000

  • Value of Crop $50,000

  • 3 Crops a Year!

  • Value of $150,000 on a Cost of $100,000.

  • A very good return on capital even with these very, very conservative assumptions

There is lots of money in marijuana, not to mention the other drugs

  • Marijuana alone probably nets at least $700 million into producers’ pockets -- just in Vancouver.

Drug W and Charges Canada and British Columbia, 1998

What does the pattern mean?

  • In BC marijuana possession is in some sort of legal limbo.

  • How the Courts proceed is anyone’s guess

  • It is not just we, the general public who are confused about “crime” and “punishment”

So is our money well spent?

  • It is pretty clear that enforcement in the case of marijuana (and most other drugs) has not limited their accessibility -- just ask at any local high school, not only at Hastings and Main.

  • Many producers use drug money for other undesirable ends (just like Al Capone)

What if we legalize drugs?

  • We will end the supply of money to people who use it for bad ends.

  • More people will “do” them. Yes, but we can treat/educate in the open.

    • Just imagine if alcohol was still illegal. Replay Hastings and Main multiplied by a factor of 70!


  • We have a problem. We have been trying to interdict the supply and punish users and suppliers.

  • Prohibition does not seem to work and is very costly -- as detailed by others here.

  • The costs of the alternative, if alcohol prohibition is a model, are worth considering.

Oh yes, as an economist

  • If it is legal, we get to measure it, tax it, and regulate it, something we simply cannot do when it is illegal.

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