A new paper in the British Medical Journal Open reports that illegal drugs have only gotten cheaper and more pure in the last 20 years. The fact that drug availability is on the rise despite a decades-long war on drugs, say the authors, proves that international drug control strategies simply aren't working.
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Using data from government websites and reports, the United Nations Office of Drug Control, and peer-reviewed papers, researchers compared the price and purity of marijuana, cocaine, and opiates from 1990 through the late 2000s. As a secondary measure, they also collected data on drug seizures in supply countries (i.e., countries that produce drugs) and demand countries (like the United States, which consumes a lot of illegal drugs) from 1990 to 2010.
What they found is that even as law enforcement agencies seized larger and larger amounts of illegal drug shipments worth more and more money, drug prices plummeted and purity levels increased:
In the United States, the average inflation- and purity-adjusted prices of heroin, cocaine, and cannabis decreased by 81 percent, 80 percent and 86 percent respectively between 1990 and 2007, whereas average purity increased by 60 percent, 11 percent, and 161 percent respectively. Similar trends were observed in Europe, where during the same period the average inflation-adjusted price of opiates and cocaine decreased by 74 percent and 51 percent respectively. In Australia, the average inflation-adjusted price of cocaine decreased 14 percent, while the inflation-adjusted price of heroin and cannabis both decreased 49 percent between 2000 and 2010. During this time, seizures of these drugs in major production regions and major domestic markets generally increased.
One figure that's particularly striking: While marijuana in the U.S. was getting cheaper and more pure, police seizures of the drug increased 465 percent, from 130,000 kg in 1990, to 720,000 kg in 2010. By 2010, the U.S. was spending roughly $15 billion a year on drug control.
We've known that drug prices are on the decline for a while. Back in 2005, Jonathan Caulkins and Sarah Chandler of Carnegie Mellon University published a chart comparing (declining) drug prices for heroin, meth, and cocaine with (increasing) incarceration rates for drug offenders and (increasing) drug-related emergency room admissions. The resulting chart is pretty horrifying: