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March 16, 2009

Drug War vs. Economic Rationality


Even as college students are warned of destabilizing drug-related violence in northern Mexico as they head off to Spring Break, violence in the War on Drugs made one of their own a casualty.

Derek Copp was shot last week during a search of his Grand Rapids-area apartment by a sheriff’s deputy attached to a regional anti-drug unit. Police haven’t been forthcoming with details, the Grand Valley State University’s family said, which includes what was found and what prompted the shooting.


Mistakes happen, especially in a high-tension law enforcement environment, but the key element to the incident wasn’t the shooting itself. While the headlines about a college student’s recovery have our attention, the lingering issue is what the events that culminated in the hospitalization of an unarmed college student tell us.


Presumably what kicked off the raid was the belief that Copp was selling drugs. That, at least, was the story that began to filter out of Grand Rapids before it was co-opted by questions about why he was shot.


There is no reason at this point, except for the fact that police raided Copp’s apartment, to assume that this is true. What is more important, however, is the question of why a 20-year-old college student is selling drugs out of his apartment building.


The reason is because drugs are illegal. At the heart of every line of reasoning is this fact. College students who sell drugs do so to supplement their incomes, and they carry a pretty hefty profit margin. They wouldn’t be doing it, however, if it weren’t illegal.


American drug policy violates basic principles of economics. It seeks to achieve an impossible goal – eliminating demand and supply – while at the same time decentralizing distribution and sales. Rather than confining the market to a few regulated distribution points that operate during set hours, it has allowed the market to flourish by allowing everyone to become a potential dealer.


And, in truth, this is how things work. Anyone who has drugs – especially marijuana – becomes a potential dealer. You have some, someone else wants some and makes you an offer. You either accept or decline. This can happen anywhere at anytime – over morning coffee, in a library, in a booth at a local bar.


It’s important to note that demand is not at all tied to police interdiction efforts. In fact, the police and government have removed themselves from having anything to do with how the market operates by declaring the product illegal. Demand continues on, unabated by threatened government sanctions, and supply continues to follow. The only contribution the cops make to the transaction is creating a bigger profit margin by adding additional risk for the supplier.


Where has this led us? A couple of years ago, a study was published that found that marijuana was more readily available to high school students than beer or cigarettes. In short, current drug policy is producing results that are the direct opposite of what we should want them to be – drugs that are more difficult to get for demographics most at risk to develop habits that lead to substance abuse and dependency.


Feel free to challenge the results. The problem is that because drugs are illegal, there is no way to verify with any assumed accuracy. Results all depend on voluntary disclosure of activity that is illegal, even if done blindly. This in turn makes it difficult to get our collective head around the very real problem of addiction.


None of this would be erased if Derek Copp is ultimately charged with a crime and convicted to spend 500 years in prison, and none of it would be erased if the sheriff’s deputy were exonerated in the shooting. This makes the incident all the more tragic, especially knowing that the violence that culminated the raid was in pursuit of a policy that has made a problem more difficult to address.


© 2009 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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