Human cost of the drug war?
October 29, 2007 3:13 AM   Subscribe

Approximately how many people are in prison and/or dead (or not) because of the drug war?

This is more complicated than the FP text would suggest. Google-fu provided me with tons of statistics about the number of people in prison for drug-related charges, etc. However, some percentage of those people would presumably be in prison for other offenses if drugs were legal, right? Sure, dealers would be doing fewer drive-bys without a lucrative illegal market to fight over, but not all of them would have exactly become doctors or lawyers otherwise.

So I guess my question is, has anyone ever come up with an estimated human cost of the drug war, compared to a statistically-suggested U.S. in which drugs are legal? In other words, the result would take the form "7,000,000 more people are in prison than would probably have been otherwise. [source]" If not, how would one go about creating such an estimate and giving it some legitimacy?

Please, no chatfilter. This isn't hypothetical, it's for a personal project of mine. I'm trying to visually express the consequences of the drug war in ways that can't be dismissed as hyperbole, and this is part of one of them.
posted by Riki tiki to Law & Government (5 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Best answer: has anyone ever come up with an estimated human cost of the drug war, compared to a statistically-suggested U.S. in which drugs are legal?

Not a credible one. Few of the key disputes in the "debate" over policy are

1)effect of prohibition on prevalence and use patterns
2)nature of the connection between drug use and crime
3)what would the would-have-been dealers been doing if drugs were legal all along

(1) and (2) will affect your answer a great deal and there's just no firm basis to come up with numbers. It's all speculation, notwithstanding those weak comparisons of cannabis policy/use trends across countries.

All you can note is that the last 25 years have witnessed an explosion in the US prison population and coincide that with the Reagan-enhanced WoD. The key problem is that no country has legal drugs. Even Netherlands' pot policy is half-baked.
posted by daksya at 4:21 AM on October 29, 2007

I think some of your basic assumptions are incorrect which may make it harder to find the right information. You can't make a broad spectrum analysis of "drugs" in the drug war. The issue with the drug war is not that all drugs should be legal. People fighting for legalization are mostly centered around marijuana.

Even in the Netherlands, all drugs are not legal. Narcotics are illegal there although users are not criminalized to the same extent as in the US. You could search for US stats on narcotics which separate dealers from simply being caught with small amounts of the harder drugs.

A legalization of marijuana would make a difference in the number of people in prison but not so much around drug related deaths. Drug related deaths and murders are mostly centered around crack cocaine and meth use so given the legalization of weed, these rates probably would not be affected. But with a Dutch model of treatment of drug abusers rather than incarceration, presumably users would more easily be able to get themselves out of the drug culture.

If you wanted to make an accurate comparison you could study the pre and post incarceration rates of alcohol related crimes during Prohibition. For the US that would give you a pretty accurate comparison with the Drug War.
posted by JJ86 at 6:16 AM on October 29, 2007

Even in the Netherlands, all drugs are not legal.

In the Netherlands, no drugs are legal. The supply side is still criminalized for all drugs, including pot.

Drug related deaths and murders are mostly centered around crack cocaine and meth use

Actually, opioids (heroin, oxycodone..) contribute the most to the tally of drug use-related deaths, by far. And fatal overdoses are much reduced by the legal maintenance of the most refractory heroin addicts as is the practice in Netherlands, Switzerland.. among other places.

Prohibition isn't very instructive since the milieus are pretty different.
posted by daksya at 6:38 AM on October 29, 2007

It's very important to know that a very few of those who are imprisoned for marijuana possession are in fact productive-citizen recreational smokers caught up in a dragnet.

They are mostly well-known miscreants against whom drug dealing or any of a variety of other charges could have been brought, but for which the possession charge was either an expedient plea bargain or struck the prosecutor as a offering a sentence of appropriate severity for the offender's current balance of parasitism and potential for rehabilitation.
posted by MattD at 9:51 AM on October 29, 2007

I'd like to see you cite anything like actual data on that assertion, MattD.

I doubt you'll find a simple number representing the complicated hypothetical you propose, Riki tiki. Places I'd try looking for both general assessments and citations of primary research:

Drug War Heresies by MacCoun and Reuter
Drug War Crimes by Miron
Smoke and Mirrors by Baum
Drug War Politics by Bertram
posted by nanojath at 9:59 AM on October 29, 2007

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