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July 3, 2009 -- New Scientist (US)

|Science in Society:

Police Crackdowns May Encourage Drug Use

By Jim Giles

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive


TOUGH policing of the illegal drugs market may have the perverse effect of making drugs more affordable and thereby encouraging people to use them, according to a new model of the dynamics of this market.

Its creators, a team of economists led by Manolis Galenianos of Pennsylvania State University in University Park, stop short of calling for police to soften their approach because this would also have adverse consequences. But for law enforcers whose aim is to discourage drug use, the findings hint that tough policing alone may not be the most effective way to tackle the problem.

The model is based on the interactions of a hypothetical population of buyers and sellers. Unlike other models of the market in illicit drugs, it takes into account two factors that are crucial to the way sellers and buyers act that tend not to be present in conventional markets.

One concerns the way consumers judge quality. In the market for electronic goods, say, consumers generally have access to reliable information about the quality of the product. In contrast, heroin users often have no way of gauging the quality of a purchase before they use it.

The second concerns what is known as "search cost". While buyers of TVs can easily switch shops if they don't like a seller, drug users face an increased risk of arrest every time they search out a new dealer. So in Galenianos's model, buyers make purchasing decisions without considering whether they could get higher-quality drugs at a lower price from somewhere other than their usual supplier.

The model produces results that resemble some of what is seen in real drug markets, suggesting that it provides a useful reflection of the real world. It also throws up fresh ways in which dealers and addicts may relate to each other, and some unexpected ways in which these ties can impact the price of drugs.

In one example, the model is used to simulate what happens when the number of police is increased. The researchers assume this would make it even more difficult than usual for buyers to find a new seller.

When they add this effect into the model, some dealers respond by lowering the quality of the drugs they sell; they can get away with this because their customers become especially reluctant to look elsewhere. But more dealers react by working harder to build a good relationship with customers, because finding new ones has become harder than before. They do this by raising the purity of their drugs, making it cheaper for users to get the same hit.

Buyers became unwilling to switch supplier, so sellers lure them in by offering purer drugs

The team, which has submitted its results for publication, concludes that rigorous policing may encourage drug use, and suggests that discouraging dealers from selling stronger drugs may be a better way of restricting drug use.

One strategy for achieving this might be to hand out longer sentences for selling stronger drugs -- though team member Rosalie Liccardo Pacula, an economist at the RAND Corporation in Santa Monica, California, points out that care would need to be taken in following this route. Weaker drugs can be more dangerous than pure ones if the substance used to dilute them is toxic. Before the model can drive policy it needs to incorporate more details, such as differences in behaviour of individual buyers, Pacula says.

Will politicians take notice of such a model? Will Brownsberger, a drug policy specialist who sits as a Democrat in the Massachusetts House of Representatives, is sceptical. Even if more detail is added, economists will struggle to get the attention of drug policy-makers, he says.

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