Tuesday, November 11, 2008

My napkin says the war on drugs makes no fiscal sense.

If you consider only incarceration, the cost of putting someone into jail for drugs for 2 years is highly variable, but it a reasonable median figure is about $46,000. This counts only the time they serve for their sentence. This does not count the amount of money spent while the person is in the court system, though in the case of problem drug use, some amount of that will probably be necessary whether you put the drug users in jail or not.

On the other hand, a moderately priced detox and rehab facility costs about $800 per day. A heroin user assisted with clonidine or Suboxone usually stays about 3 weeks, for instance. That's $17,600. People on meth may stay a bit longer. People on other drugs will probably stay less time. I would say a nice round figure is about $18,000.

Not only have you already saved $26,000 per person. You could argue that rehab doesn't stick very well, and I would agree. You might have to send them back at $18k/pop, and that starts to add up. On the other hand, prison doesn't stick very well, and the second sentence is often 5 years or more. Now we're talking about $115k for you hardline people, whereas I'm still just spending $18k.

This doesn't take into account other factors. The untold billions spent on interdiction, which itself leads to more jail and another $23,000 per person-year. The violence inherent to a business forced underground by the law. The development of highly organized terrorists intent on protecting what they have. And the costs to all of us in diverted law enforcement and other social resources are difficult to measure, but probably spiral up over a trillion dollars very quickly.

Meanwhile, say a person is half-likely to succeed in rehab and stay clean. If they make median income, we will get about $8,000/year back in taxes from them. Cut that in half, and the drug users themselves pay for their own rehab in just over 4 years.

Let's think about this as adults, please. Yes, drugs have very bad consequences for their users and society. Even marijuana, often regarded as harmless by its proponents, can cause certain people psychological trouble. Yet, our current policy is inhumane, ineffective, and imbecilic.

It's inhumane because the drug users most at risk for causing us problems are often suffering from an undiagnosed mental illness and are self-medicating. Throwing them in jail for this is cruel beyond measure. If you're going to seriously suggest we spend more to throw them in jail than it costs to treat their pain because of a moral position, we'll I'm sorry, but you're a fucking asshole.

It's ineffective because I can cruise to several key points in my city and pick up any drug I want in a matter of minutes. It will take me a few hours to figure it out exactly, but interdiction is a sad joke, despite the unfathomable amount of money we spend on it. The worst part, though, is civil forfeiture laws that give police departments a serious incentive to be corrupt.

It's imbecilic because we just can't afford to be throwing this kind of money away any more. But I love how conservatives preach "fiscal conservatism" and spend trillions on bullshit like this and sinkholes like Iraq.

The answer is not more money--it's total, unequivocal legalization combined with reasonable safety regulation and significant-but-not-stiff taxation. The taxation can also help pay for rehab if my napkin math is off.

The key point is, though, no one serves another day in prison for drugs, and no one is turned away from rehab. If they want it, they can have it--free. If they want a swank joint, then they can pay, but otherwise, we will.

Because it's the only alternative to this madness we have now.

EDIT: $40 billion. I found an offline source that says every year, governments at all levels pay $40 billion on the War on Drugs. $30 billion of it is incarceration. $10 billion on other stuff. That is nearly TWO MILLION three-week stints in rehab. In ten years, we could have the problem of drugs effectively controlled.

My proposal pays for itself. You could raise a ridiculous shitload of money with a 25% excise on recreational drugs. You don't want to go too much higher, because you don't want to encourage bootlegging, though tax bootleggers are not nearly as harmful from a crime perspective as today's drug gangsters. But even that is only half what my state charges on cigarettes, so I think it will work.


cmh said...

What about the net effect on jobs, I wonder?

Interdiction: my wild guess is that law enforcement officers would be able to pay attention to crimes that actually matter, and that no jobs would be lost.

Incarceration: I don't know whether this would reduce demand for prison guards and the like.

Rehab: seems like expansion of rehab/treatment for all those who need it would be a significant job creation opportunity.

I would hope, but have absolutely no evidence to back it up, that this would have the net effect of creating jobs, maybe lots of jobs.

Charles said...

The knock-on effects of ending the war on drugs would be pretty wonderful, yes.