Friday, March 11, 2016

The Social Cost of Drug Use is Grossly Exaggerated

Are there really “externalities” from drug use? When a drug user does harm to a third party, is it correct to say that drug use was the “cause” of that harm?

I want to cast some doubt on the notion that drugs are responsible for significant externalities, and I’d like to cast even greater doubt on the notion that drug prohibition is a reasonable solution to this problem.

If crime is penalized, is it still an “externality?”

There are many mechanisms by which drug use supposedly leads to social harms, but most can be summarized as “drugs dominate the will and turn the user into a criminal or a sociopath.” Supposedly, the drug user loses his mind and becomes irrational and violent. Or perhaps the user’s compulsion to acquire drugs becomes so strong that s/he resorts to economic crimes to pay for the expensive habit. Or perhaps the user drives a vehicle while intoxicated. Or she neglects her children. Or he will disappoint his parents or social group.

No doubt these are all very real harms and it is worth trying to avoid or ameliorate them. However, 1) these are overblown and unlikely consequences for any given drug user and 2) these behaviors are already very heavily penalized! Unpenalized theft would be an “externality,” in some bizarre world where society failed to criminalize theft. The thief gains and a third party (the victim) is harmed. When you appropriately criminalize and penalize theft, those costs are “internalized.” That is, the thief, facing the threat of a penalty that is sufficiently large, faces the full social cost of his action. Some thieves get away with their theft, but the ones who get caught are penalized enough to set a strong example to other would-be thieves. The same argument goes for any other crime: murder, assault, rape, fraud, DUI, child neglect. If the problem is that these behaviors aren’t sufficiently criminalized, then the solution is to address these problems directly. If it is necessary to devote more police resources to solving these problems (likely to work, IMHO) or increase the severity of penalties for those who get caught (unlikely to work, IMHO), then we should explore these solutions. It is extremely inefficient to target drug use, which has at best a tenuous influence on a person’s criminality.

Assuming the penalties for these crimes have been appropriately set, drug-induced criminal behavior is *not* an externality. The potential drug user already faces the threat of a penalty, and moderates their drug use accordingly. It is the same as a potential CO2 emitter facing a perfect carbon tax while choosing how much to emit. The external cost is already internalized, so it ceases to be an externality. That’s not to say there is no harm. When the air is polluted or there is an unnecessary death or beating, somebody surely is harmed. It's just that the polluter (or criminal) pays the social cost of the harm. Suppose we had an appropriately high carbon tax, and suppose drug use induced people toward excessive CO2 emissions. We wouldn’t consider it an “externality” problem or a drug problem. We might adjust the size of the tax to address the problem directly, which is probably what we should do for drug-induced crime.

 If the problem is that people actually don’t understand the causal link, that “crack will turn you into a murderer/thief/assailant with an X/Y/Z% probability”, then the solution is some kind of ad campaign with credible information about these risks. The solution is not a blanket criminalization of drug use.  The potential user with accurate information will grind through the logic: “This habit will turn me into a criminal with probability X, which will almost surely land me in prison for Y years…”(No, he won’t literally do this, but will do so in an approximate fashion.) In this sense drug-induced criminal behavior is already criminalized and the penalty is already built into the cost of doing drugs. It’s already part of the price the user faces. If you object that drug users don’t have the foresight to consider the cost to himself of his future criminal behavior, then you should seriously doubt the entire enterprise of drug prohibition in the first place!  Come up with whatever assumptions you prefer about drug users, their degree of rationality, their behavior, their response to costs, etc.; these assumptions have to be consistent. They can’t contradict each other, which (I think) is what some very confused, very sloppy drug warriors have done. You don’t get to assume that drug users miscalculate the pharmacological risks of drug use but correctly estimate the legal risks. Either their talents for risk-estimation are well-calibrated, or they are not.

Perhaps the large social harms from drug use are due to things that aren’t criminalized. Things like neglect of one’s family or career are either not criminalized or are under-policed. If anyone is proposing we criminalize these behaviors, please suggest a proposal that makes sense, one that doesn’t further destroy the family. Clearly throwing a borderline negligent parent into prison has some harmful ramifications for his/her children, and throwing the same parent in prison on a drug charge has the same effect. If we’re not going to criminalize Behavior A, it makes little sense to criminalize Behavior B which (again tenuously) causes Behavior A.

I’ll say in passing a couple of other things that are relevant to this discussion. Originally this post contained two long sections developing these points, but one big idea per post is enough. First, it’s questionable whether drugs truly “cause” criminality (err..non-drug criminality anyway, the kind with an obvious victim). Certainly they don’t for most people who use them. Indeed for most users, drugs probably have no tendency whatsoever to lead to criminal behavior, and in others it possibly interacts with a pre-existing predilection toward criminality. Some drugs for some people likely *inhibit* criminal tendencies (think a life-changing psychedelic vision quest, which many people have experienced). It makes little sense to summarize this complex causal link as “drugs cause criminal behavior.” It irritates me, the facile way that people assume this causal link exists and is strong enough to justify harsh legal penalties. It’s a conclusion that needs to be argued for, using all the standard tools that social scientists use to tease out causation.

Another obvious point worth mentioning is that many “drug externalities” are actually caused by prohibition. Gang violence, heroin overdoses, HIV epidemics, IV drug use *in general*, economic crimes committed to acquire drugs (because the market price has been raised, an actual *intentional* effect of prohibition), and many other drug-related social harm simply do not exist in a regime of legalization. Or perhaps they exist, but are smaller, and they occur in the light of day where they can be managed. 

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