The Limits of Supply-Side Drug Control

by Peter Reuter

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American drug policies are heavily supply-side oriented--they aim primarily to restrict the availability of illegal drugs. But these control efforts have failed to put cocaine or heroin beyond the reach of committed users. There seem to be inherent limits to supply-side policies: Although enforcement has become tougher and the risk of being imprisoned as the result of being a regular dealer has probably quintupled, the prices of drugs have fallen by half since 1980. Trying to eradicate source-country production is particularly unpromising--refiners have every incentive to offer a high enough price to get back the land and labor to meet the needs of the market, because the price of cocaine production is so small compared with the street price. Smugglers' adaptability has also limited the success of drug interdiction. On the demand side, very few anti-drug programs for kids have been shown effective, and mass media programs are difficult to evaluate. Finally, the cost/benefit ratio for addict treatment programs is reasonably high. We should think less of eliminating the drug problem than of finding ways to manage it better.

Originally published in: The Milken Institute Review, First Quarter, 2001, pp. 14-23.

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