Math and the Drug War

October 12, 2012

The drug war is one issue that tends to be too hot for presidential politics. You won’t hear any questions at the debates about it, and you can be sure the candidates won’t be talking about it. But there’s a proposal in front of voters here in Washington State this November that has some pretty big implications for the drug war.

But let’s start at the beginning. Why am I writing about this issue on a math blog? The answer is that math is a subject that doesn’t merely exist in isolation. Learning math has political implications, and it’s an issue like this that helps us see it. And math helps us see the issue.

Consider, for example, the July article in the New York Times entitled Numbers Tell of Failure in the Drug War, which leads with this number: the price per gram of cocaine has gone down 74% since the beginning of the drug war; this is particularly sobering when you recall that the defining strategy of the drug war was to raise the price of drugs by cutting off supply.

Okay, so the price of drugs may not have gone up like they were supposed to (the story for cocaine is similar for almost all other drugs), but have we reduced the number of addicts? By this measure, too, the drug war has been a failure. Even as more money has been pumped in to “fight” drugs, the number of addicts has stayed roughly the same.

(Notice the discrepant labels on this graph? There’s some discussion of it here.)

Finally, the war on drugs is and always has been racist, and hideously wasteful. A recent report on marijuana use Washington State gave us some other telling numbers:

Although young African Americans and Latinos use marijuana at lower rates
than young whites, in the last ten years police in Washington arrested African
Americans at 2.9 times the rate of whites, and they arrested Latinos and Native
Americans at 1.6 times the rate of whites.

This racist application of justice has cost my state more than 200 million dollars.

The compelling thing about this issue, for me, is how the numbers tell the story so clearly. I remember hearing a story on This American Life where analysts at RAND came to the conclusion that we were making the wrong choices if lowering drug use was something we cared about: the drug war, as it has been prosecuted, has failed and is destined to continue failing, and creating waste and havoc as it does. (I couldn’t find the relevant radio program, but I did find this summary at wikipedia: “During the early-to-mid-1990s, the Clinton administration ordered and funded a major cocaine policy study, again by RAND. The Rand Drug Policy Research Center study concluded that $3 billion should be switched from federal and local law enforcement to treatment. The report said that treatment is the cheapest way to cut drug use, stating that drug treatment is twenty-three times more effective than the supply-side ‘war on drugs’.” Clinton tried to act, but got hamstrung by the politics of the moment in 1994. But that’s another story.)

Right now, Washington State has a proposition on the ballot to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana. Personally, I hate pot. I’m not interested in smoking or ingesting it, and I tend to feel that people who use it are wasting their time. I find it a dopey and childish habit, and I find pro-pot culture idiotic. Nevertheless, it makes absolutely no sense for marijuana to be illegal. Even if this proposal doesn’t get everything right, I think it’s a step forward, a re-envisioning of how to discourage drug use in a public health and personal context, rather than a criminal one. The math tells us that the drug war has failed. It’s time for a new way forward.

So, I just voted yes on I-502. You may disagree with what I’ve said here. But if you argue against me, I hope you address the numbers.

I also hope to see The House I Live In. Jon Stewart’s interview with director Eugene Jarecki. This is a stunningly good interview.

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