Friday, December 30, 2011

Drug war opportunity costs

From New Hampshire Magazine:
Reducing that access [to marijuana] was John Tommasi's life in the 1980s. An undercover cop in Salem, N.H., he was assigned in 1987 to the New Hampshire Drug Task Force, a state agency funded by the federal War on Drugs. He says the action was fast and furious: "As soon as you arrest one person, there's another five to 10 to take that person's place."
Tommasi was also a pilot and that became his undercover persona: "You're doing great felony work and you're not stuck on the barking dog calls. But at some point I realized I was not having any effect whatsoever. This is having no effect at all. So is this really the right way to go? So I started doing some research."
Tommasi's research was part of earning a Masters Degree in Economics to go with his MBA. His principal conclusion: "We have in economics what is known as opportunity cost. So if I'm working on violations with drugs then I'm not working on, say, burglaries or other crimes. And if you're out there on the drug war, you must be taking the dealers off the streets, right? That's not the case."
Instead, the purity and potency of the drugs had increased while the price had gone down. Tommasi published a report on how much money would be saved if marijuana were legalized. The report drew much public attention and criticism from law enforcement agencies.
Tommasi began teaching courses on the Drug War and is now a full-time professor at Bentley College in Massachusetts. But he's also still a cop: "I do Hampton in the summer and I've arrested people for marijuana because I took an oath to uphold the state laws and my integrity transcends my own personal views." Then Tommasi, the economist, has to add: "But if I make a marijuana arrest, I'm tied up for a couple of hours at the station booking and I'm not keeping peace on the streets of Hampton - and in the summer, it gets busy."
And more:
Opponents of decriminalization often point to the fact that charges of simple possession rarely lead to any jail time. Still, the number of marijuana arrests has been rising steadily. In 1995 arrests for marijuana possession were a third of all drug arrests. Now they are nearly half and that, says Ed Kelly [administrative justice of New Hampshire's circuit courts], creates a big problem. "If we have a courtroom filled with cases like the ones we're talking about - first offenders who are never coming back again and don't have a drug abuse problem - and it takes us all day to deal with those cases, that's a day that we don't have to deal with, say, a very difficult divorce case involving children. So we've got a family in crisis waiting to get into court and us trying to find a day to get that family into court to deal with their issues so they can get on with their lives. And we're dealing with these cases over in the other court room that are going to result in a $500 fine and cost the state lots of money to prosecute. All for what I think is a pretty unclear objective."
It's a fantastic article. Definitely worth reading.