Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Monday, 9 August 2010

The opportunity cost of drug law enforcement

One of the things that sometimes gets lost in all the talk about drug laws, harm reduction, classification etc. is the sheer amount of time that the police spend on activity relating to the existing drug laws.

They spend millions of man hours every year, a good chunk of it on arresting and processing people for possession of drugs that were only going to be used by that person. In other words they were not going to harm anyone else. It also includes time spent chasing small time dealers who are supplying drugs like cannabis and ecstasy (the ones that Professor David Nutt says are less harmful than alcohol) to friends and acquaintances.

If drugs were legalised none of this time would need to be spent. That would mean that those millions of hours would be freed up for police to investigate other crimes like burglary, muggings, assaults etc. The sort of crimes that the vast majority want to remain crimes. Unlike for example cannabis possession which 70% of people in a recent survey said they wanted to see legalised in some form.

We have to recognise that if we have these laws, then the police will spend time enforcing them. As any economics student would tell you there is therefore an opportunity cost whereby they cannot spend that time investigating other crimes.

I strongly suspect that if drugs were legalised in this country then crimes such as burglary and mugging would drop dramatically anyway as there would be much less need for problem drug users to fund their habit in this way. However it would likely be a win-win because of the remaining burglary and mugging (and all other crime) the police would have more time and resource to devote to investigating and solving them.

And if 70% of people think that cannabis should be legalised then in what way is the police spending the public's money arresting cannabis users serving all of our interests?

I for one would much rather they spent their time investigating crimes that affect other people such as burglary and muggings and that pretty much 100% of people think should remain illegal.


Antisthenes said...

This is the common sense approach to the problem of drugs however as other bloggers have repeatedly pointed out common sense has long been dead and buried.

Unknown said...

Perhaps elected police commissioners would be able to set priorities in a way that avoids this gross misuse of public funds.

ellen said...

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free speech

Mark Wadsworth said...

Agreed. But you're applying commonsense. Duh! See what Antisthenes says.

John said...

You write "I strongly suspect that if drugs were legalised in this country then crimes such as burglary and mugging would drop dramatically anyway as there would be much less need for problem drug users to fund their habit in this way."

Why?! Are drugs going to be free?

sanbikinoraion said...

Mark (R), I love you, but it's not generally the pot and E users breaking into homes for money to feed their massively addictive habit. Not all drugs are the same!

Jason said...

I agree entirely with this.

"Today, Louise Casey the Victims and Witness Commissioner has spoken freely of how the current judicial system is failing the victims of crime"

So, as we lose police officers due to cuts, and we have victims of crime that are disengaged to the lack of resources, surely it is now time to focus on crime that is conclusive to a victim. Is it not a disservice to fight a lost battle on drug law at the expense of crime that effects so many victims?

Peter Reynolds said...

£19 billion wasted every year in the UK on the "war against drugs".


Tony_E said...

The way I see it there are only two choices - neither perfect or unopposable, but both beter than the current fudge.

1) Make all drugs legal, tax and regulate them for purity and source. Make them available only through licenced sources and chemically tag all licenced sources so that they can be traced (as is done with petrol for example). Anyone caught with unlicenced drugs must face very stiff penalties.

2) Make all drugs illegal with zero tolerance. Minimum sentencing for anyone caught with even the smallest amount of any illegal substance. Dealers get life - without exception.

One or the other - the middle ground is a failure.