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March 16, 2009
Drug War vs. Economic
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.
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