Why James Comey’s heroin strategy could just make the problem worse
Christopher Ingraham reports in the Washington Post:
Speaking in Virginia this week, FBI Director James B. Comey pointed to a classic anti-drug strategy to fight the current heroin epidemic: “Our job is to try to crack down on the supply, literally, to be very blunt, to drive up the price to make it less and less attractive for people who are addicted to pills to move to heroin,” he saidalongside DEA Administrator Chuck Rosenberg.
This “supply-side” approach has been in place at the federal level since the dawn of the drug war: The federal drug budget has traditionally emphasized approaches like destroying plants, intercepting drug shipments and arresting the people who sell drugs. The logic is straightforward: You reduce the supply of drugs, those drugs become more expensive, and the higher prices drive down demand and use of the drugs. Economics 101, right?
In the real world, it hasn’t quite worked out that way. Here, for instance, is data on federal spending on supply-side drug control going back to 1981. The numbers are adjusted for inflation to 2012 dollars.
In inflation-adjusted terms, federal supply-side anti-drug spending ballooned from $2.2 billion in 1981 to $15.3 billion in 2012. You can disregard that crater in 2002 — a temporary change to the drug spending calculation was made that year, resulting in a number of significant spending lines removed from it.
Now according to supply-side drug-control theory, increasing this spending should result in a concomitant increase in drug prices. But look what happened to heroin prices, in inflation-adjusted terms, over the same time period — they dropped like a rock.
The inflation-adjusted price per pure gram of heroin fell nearly tenfold, from $3,260 in 1981 to $465 in 2012. The more the feds spent on supply reduction, in other words, the cheaper heroin got (federal data shows that the prices of other drugs, like cocaine and methamphetamines, fell similarly during this period). That’s the exact opposite of what’s “supposed” to happen, and of what Comey says will happen if we crack down on the heroin supply further. . .