Prohibition versus Legalization: Do Economists Reach a Conclusion on Drug Policy?

By Thornton, Mark | Independent Review, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

Prohibition versus Legalization: Do Economists Reach a Conclusion on Drug Policy?


Thornton, Mark, Independent Review


The policy of prohibiting the sale and consumption of cocaine, heroin, and marijuana is of great public interest, with much debate about the effectiveness of the "war on drugs" and alternative policies such as legalization, decriminalization, drug treatment, and medical marijuana. Economists have been at the forefront of the debate, criticizing the effectiveness of the war on drugs, drawing attention to its "unintended consequences," such as violent crime and the corruption of police and public officials, and proposing alternative policies, such as drug legalization and decriminalization.

Milton Friedman (1972, 1980, 1984, 1989) has long advocated the legalization of drugs. Gary Becker (1987, 2001), George Shultz (1989), Thomas Sowell (1989), and William Niskanen (1992) have also endorsed liberalization. Both Milton Friedman and Gary Becker have been awarded the Nobel Prize in economics; in the Reagan administration, George Shultz served in the president's cabinet, and William Niskanen served as the chairman of the President's Council of Economic Advisors. Given that these noteworthy economists are associated with conservative politics, it might seem that a bipartisan consensus prevails on the direction of reform in drug policy.

Do these views represent the economics profession's views? Are they indicative of the views of economists who are actively engaged in research on drug policy? Or might they be a minority view? After all, the economists I have mentioned are strongly associated with the Chicago school of economics and a policy agenda of economic liberalism. Furthermore, only one of the endorsements, Gary Becker's, comes from an economist whose primary research is related to drug policy (via his study of addiction). Therefore, it is less than obvious that their views reflect those of the profession at large or of economists who research this issue.

In order to answer these questions, I conducted two surveys of economists' policy views: one of the profession as a whole and the other of economists who are actively engaged in drug-policy research (table 1). I then examined the results of both surveys in the context of the demographics of the profession and public-opinion polls on drug policy.

Economists Are People, Too

In 1995, I surveyed 117 randomly selected professional economists who belonged to the American Economic Association. The findings were initially reported in Thornton 1995, 73. Subjects were randomly selected from the 1993 biographical listing of members of the American Economics Association. I randomly selected one subject from alternating pages of the directory, contacted that person by phone, and interviewed him or her.

Of those who offered an opinion, 58 percent favored a change of public policy in the general direction of decriminalization. When asked to choose from among five policy options, only 16 percent of economists favored complete legalization. Among the economists who gave a response other than keeping the status quo, 71 percent favored either legalization or decriminalization. Less than 2 percent endorsed measures stronger than longer prison sentences and increased enforcement budgets. Thus, the survey shows that in 1995 a majority of economists, though not a strong consensus, favored changes in public policy in the direction of decriminalization.

Above-average support for decriminalization is prevalent among economists specializing in monetary theory, public finance, and labor economics. Business economists were the strongest supporters of prohibition. Among nonacademic economists, those working for private institutions were more likely to support decriminalization, whereas those working in the public sector were more likely to support the status quo or increased enforcement. Age and rank appear to be largely unrelated to policy preferences. The evidence also suggests that economists trained in the Chicago, public-choice, and Austrian traditions are more likely to support legalization, so ideology or training may have a strong influence on policy views. …

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Prohibition versus Legalization: Do Economists Reach a Conclusion on Drug Policy?
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