The Daily Tar Heel
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The Daily Tar Heel

Some people might have been shocked in September when several UNC students were arrested for selling cocaine. And, if the charges prove true, they probably weren’t making the best career choice in the world. I wouldn’t be too surprised. After all, illegal drugs are big business.

In 2003, the United Nations estimated that the global illegal drug trade was worth nearly $322 billion. Cannabis is America’s top cash crop, with a market value greater than corn and wheat combined. In a survey of more than 1,700 UNC students I conducted through Facebook, cannabis use was consistently more common than tobacco use.

Laws prohibiting recreational drugs haven’t eradicated demand, as is obvious from the size of the market. Unlike the markets for office chairs, television sets or dish towels, the drug market is strongly linked to violence. But, contrary to drug warriors’ claims that drug use is the primary cause of such violence, it’s the drug war itself that’s largely to blame.

Most businesses operate within the scope of the law. Laws create rules for securing property rights, enforcing contracts and guaranteeing peaceful transactions.

But prohibition forces the drug business far outside of any legal framework. Without courts to settle disputes or police to protect ownership, drug dealers must resort to enforcing their own rights through violence.

Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron, after analyzing U.S. murder rates and anti-drug enforcement, found that the murder rate is 25 percent to 75 percent higher than would be the case without prohibition. Faced with direct government antagonism, it should be no surprise that drug dealers reach for a gun rather than dial 911.

Prohibition — regardless of the substance — enriches violent killers. Al Capone’s vicious criminal enterprises were fueled in large part by illegal liquor sales. The ruthless Pablo Escobar became one of the richest men alive by exporting Colombian cocaine and killing anyone who stood in his way. In Afghanistan, some provinces had completely eradicated poppy production. Now, as the Taliban struggles to fund its insurgency, it accounts for more than 90 percent of the world’s opium trade. And near our southern border, crackdowns on the sale of marijuana have led to 18,000 deaths in Mexico since 2006, according to the BBC.

Pablo Escobar’s policy was “silver or lead,” meaning you either were on his payroll or a target for assassination.

But his maxim works just as well to describe the outcomes of legalization versus criminalization. Drugs could be legalized, allowing legitimate and peaceful businesses, like Amsterdam coffee shops or California dispensaries, to take the place of violent criminals and terrorists. Public health could also improve; Portugal legalized drugs in 2001 and has seen declining drug use and more treatment for addicts, according to Time magazine.

But if governments continue their policies of prohibition, would-be businessmen will be crowded out by deadly thugs.

Rather than spend money on treatment of serious drug addictions, we’ll waste it on enforcement that only encourages dealer ruthlessness. We need to choose which world we prefer: the “silver” world of commerce, or the “lead” of an endless war.



Tom VanAntwerp is a senior business major from Gastonia. E-mail him at


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