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March 6, 2009 -- Ottawa Citizen (CN ON)

Column: How To Get Me To Shut Up About Drugs

By Dan Gardner, The Ottawa Citizen

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

The illicit drug trade is, despite its illicitness, a trade. It is an economic activity. "It's like in any marketplace," RCMP Superintendent Pat Fogarty told the Globe and Mail this week. The only difference is that "these guys don't resolve things through a court process."

The guys in question are the Vancouver-region gangsters whose brazen and brutal bloodshed has shocked Canadians and prompted the federal government to promise tougher laws. And Supt. Fogarty is right. Fundamentally, the drug trade is best understood not in terms of criminal law. It's economics that count.

Jeffrey Miron, an economist at Harvard University, has been studying the drug trade for 15 years. He stresses that "drug-related violence" has little to do with drugs.

Prohibition of "any commodity for which there's demand leads to violence because the market is driven underground," he said in an interview. "It has relatively little to do with the commodity that is prohibited. It has almost everything to do with the fact that if you make it illegal, people are going to resolve their disputes with violence, not lawyers.

"If we banned coffee, we'd have a huge black market in coffee." And thugs in the coffee trade would be blasting away at each other in the street.

Miron stresses that prohibition is not, as most people assume, like an on-off switch: either a commodity is illegal or it is not. It is a matter of degree. Drugs like cocaine are illegal everywhere but the extent to which the law is enforced and offenders are punished varies widely from country to country. It also varies over time.

That fact is important to researchers like Miron. If prohibition is causing violence, countries that are less strict in enforcing the law should see less violence, while those that take a harder law should see more. Changes in law enforcement over time should be correlated with violence as well.

And that's just what Miron and two colleagues found in a paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Examining data spanning countries and decades, Miron and his colleagues found things like arrest rates, capital punishment and gun laws didn't explain the numbers. But "the hypothesis that drug prohibition generates violence," they concluded, "is generally consistent with the long time-series and cross-country facts."

Miron's conclusion is sobering: If governments respond to gang violence with tougher laws and crackdowns, they will ultimately produce more violence.

Among western nations, none has fought the drug trade harder than the United States. And none has a murder rate close to that of the U.S. Miron thinks that's not a coincidence. "I have one set of estimates that maybe 50 per cent of homicides in the U.S. are due to the prohibition of drugs."

The best way to make a significant and lasting reduction in gang violence, Miron contends, is to remove drugs from the black market. They can be strictly regulated using any of a hundred different policy models. But they must be legalized.

Of course, the police scoff at this. Legalization wouldn't hurt organized crime, they say. Gangsters would just move on to some other lucrative enterprise.

But this assumes there are lucrative enterprises available to organized crime that gangsters are not now exploiting -- in defiance of economic theory and common sense.

It's also contrary to historical experience. "We definitely see crime fall when we make things legal," Miron says.

The most spectacular example can be seen on a chart of the American homicide rate through the 1920s and 1930s. Through the first 13 years of that two-decade period, the murder rate rises steadily -- from seven per 100,000 population to almost 10. But then, in 1933, it begins a steep decline -- hitting six per 100,000 population by 1940.

So a 40-per-cent rise in murders until 1933 is followed by a 40-per-cent decline. What changed in 1933? It wasn't the economy. It was terrible before and terrible after. Anything else? No. There were no significant changes in 1933 that could explain the turnaround -- nothing except the legalization of alcohol and the end of the 13-year mistake known as Prohibition.

Look, I know the police are sick of me writing that their hard work is worse than useless. To be honest, I'm sick of writing it, too. So let's make a deal. Canada spends an estimated $2 billion a year enforcing the drug laws and yet we have very little solid research examining the effectiveness of what we're doing. Not since the LeDain commission issued its report in 1972 has the government taken a serious look at drug policy.

Surely we can all agree that's irresponsible. Drug policy is a critical factor in issues ranging from crime to disease, mental health, civil liberties and international development. At this very moment, Canadian soldiers are dying in a narco-state. Surely it is time for a serious examination of drug policy, from top to bottom.

So let's have a commission of inquiry that can gather the best evidence from all over the world, analyze it properly, and draw conclusions without regard to political expediency.

Let the evidence decide. If the police and other supporters of the status quo are confident they are right, they should welcome an inquiry as a chance to silence the critics.

In fact, that's the deal I'm offering. Call for the creation of an inquiry. Demand wide terms of reference, a serious research budget, and a respected voice to lead it.

Do that and I'll shut up.

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