As part of an introductory course in economics, I used to teach my students about the unintended consequences that usually accompany well-intentioned attempts to make particular transactions illegal. I would draw on current drug policy to link theory with reality.
One thing that I learned from these conversa-tions was that many students felt that discussing drug legalization was immoral. This sort of belief is one of the challenges we’ve faced in confronting failures in our drug policies.
Tuesday’s passage of initiatives in Washington (I-502) and Colorado to legalize recreational marijuana use offers promising signs that change is now in the air.
Research by the economist William Evans and his colleagues, just published by the National Bureau for Economic Research, should also encourage this change, as it spotlights tragic consequences stemming from our over-reliance on criminalizing rather than treating drug addiction.
A backdrop to the Evans study is a large and puzzling gap between black and white males’ high school graduation rates. What’s perplexing is that this gap steadily shrank over a 20-year span; by the mid-1980s it was half what it had been. If progress had continued, we’d now see black and white males graduating at the same rate. Yet since the mid-1980s the gap has grown, and now is about where it was in the 1960s.
Many have attempted to explain this fall in black males’ graduation rates by pointing to changing labor markets, growing income inequality, and declines in urban schools and teacher quality. But no one has come up with much evidence to support their explanations.
Until now. In their study, Evans empirically establish a causal link between the crack-cocaine epidemic that began tearing through urban communities in the early 1980s, and the declines in black males’ high school graduation rates.
But the link they show between crack and graduation rates is not what you might think. It isn’t that as crack came to (largely black) communities, black youth got caught up in the crack culture and the self-destructive behavior and addiction that often result. Crack was never the substance of choice for teenagers.
Rather, Evans traces black dropout rates to the murder and incarceration that quickly accompanied the crack epidemic. As crack spread from the coasts inland over the 1980s and 1990s, cities and states saw the murder rates of young black men double and triple as suppliers fought over and defended their territory. In some cities young, black men faced a greater than one-in-ten chance of being murdered in the near future. At the same time, their incarceration rates tripled and quadrupled.
Based on their analysis of the data, Evans argues that these factors – a higher probability of winding up dead or in jail – influenced black youth’s propensity to abandon their education. “When life around you appears short and brutal, why invest in the long run?” might be the simplest way to sum up their argument and the evidence for it.
What’s important to note is that the violence and imprisonment that accompanied the spread of crack is not a consequence of the crack itself. It’s a consequence of our policy toward it. Evans’ study presents us with another tragic illustration of the unintended consequences of our drug policy. If they are right, our crack policy not only led to higher rates of murder and incarceration, it has and continues to adversely affect the educational choices of hundreds of thousands of black youth.
This study is timely. Over the last few years we’ve dramatically improved our ability to think clearly about drug policy. Without any prompting, my students now regularly and openly cheer the revenue that legalized marijuana could bring. And it’s not just the stereotypic students you might imagine who do this, but others representing a wide range of political beliefs and personal backgrounds as well.
Evans and his colleagues’ research underscores that when it comes to drug policy, moral arguments cut both ways. Hopefully we’ve reached a point where we now recognize this.Katie Baird is an associate professor of economics at the University of Washington Tacoma. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.