Drugs: America’s Holy War. By Arthur Benavie. Routledge, 178 pages, $29.95.

In 1992, a young man named Flaco was running a small operation on the corner of 110th Street and Lexington in East Harlem that was bringing in six million dollars a year. Flaco ran his business — selling heroin — like a military machine. Several layers of captains, lieutenants, sergeants, and street-level pushers separated him from his product and cushioned him from police.

But then narcotics agents pounced on one of Flaco’s sergeants. Desperate to avoid jail, the man spilled every name and address he could think of. After another six months of heavy surveillance, undercover buys, the full attention of twenty narcotics agents, and the cooperation of two federal agencies, the police finally had a case against Flaco’s army. They arrested fourteen members, including Flaco, and charged them all with federal conspiracy. Many will spend the rest of their lives in prison. It was the most successful operation that the narcotics unit had ever conducted.

Click to read photo caption. Photo by Jason Smith. ©2009 Endeavors magazine.

Almost immediately, though, the heroin started flowing again and a turf war broke out over the vacancy on the corner. The police had already blown their budget; there was little they could do but watch. What’s more, the investigation hadn’t come close to nabbing the real kingpin of 110th Street, a middle-aged Puerto Rican man named Macho. Police failed to stop the drug flow, says economist Art Benavie, but they succeeded in bringing about a wave of violence.

Benavie’s been a macroeconomic theorist for thirty-five years, and spent the last four researching the war on drugs. After combing through research and reading everything he could about illicit drugs, he says that besides being a huge fiscal drain, the drug war is also a major cause of homicides, property crimes, HIV transmission, drug poisonings, and overdoses. “What I learned blew me away,” he says.

That intersection in New York City is a microcosm of America’s drug war, Benavie says. And it’s a losing battle “because of the straight economics of it. You’re running up against the law of supply and demand, which even the most powerful government on the planet cannot repeal.”

When there’s a consumer demand for any product whose legal market has shut down, the black market throws open its doors. “And the motivation to sell on the black market is enormous,” Benavie says, “because the profit margin is enormous.” For example, a kilogram of heroin in Afghanistan or Pakistan — where the opium poppies that are made into morphine and heroin grow — can go for $300; by the time it arrives on U.S. streets, it’s worth $300,000. “That’s a tax-free mark-up,” he says. “How can any law enforcement stand up to that?”

The goal of drug-law enforcement is to reduce the amount of illicit drugs on the street, thereby inflating the prices enough to make them unaffordable for consumers. But even after we’ve spent about forty-four billion dollars a year on the war, drug supply and use in the United States haven’t gone down. And the street prices of cocaine and heroin have been dropping since 1980.

“But if the prices do go up, it’s very dangerous,” Benavie says. “Because then property crimes and murder rates go up, because people have to commit crimes to get these drugs. And here’s the worst part of it: if the price really goes up, it’ll motivate labs to make synthetic drugs such as fentanyl, which can be a hundred times more powerful. If it went up too far, we could have a lethal drug out there that’s much worse even than contaminated heroin.”

The numbers really add up in Benavie’s book, Drugs: America’s Holy War. His statistics, anecdotes, and hard facts are almost overwhelming.

The same push-down-pop-up model of supply and demand makes it especially difficult for police to weed out a specific drug, Benavie says. If one substance becomes scarce, users substitute another — usually more potent — drug. In the 1990s, when the government cracked down on imported marijuana in southern Florida, the price of marijuana rose and drug lords switched their stock to cocaine and heroin, which are far easier to smuggle; the harder drugs were suddenly cheaper and more abundant, and sales skyrocketed. (This crackdown also boosted domestic marijuana-growing, and the United States is now one of the world’s leading producers.)

The same thing happened during Prohibition, when alcohol was made illegal — beer and wine virtually disappeared while whisky and gin became ubiquitous. And studies have shown that when Prohibition ended, the rates of alcohol consumption stayed close to the same. Violent-crime rates, though, plummeted, and the likes of Al Capone and his cronies were out of a job.

The only way to really win the war on drugs, Benavie says, is for the U.S. government to wrest control of the trade from the black market, just as it did with alcohol in the 1930s.

Benavie doesn’t advocate drug use. But the war on drugs, he says, amounts to a very expensive crusade. Warehousing half a million drug offenders who have mandatory minimum sentences puts a real strain on prisons. The average sentence for a nonviolent drug felony is seventy-five months; the average for a violent felony is fifty-six months. Because drug offenders must serve mandatory minimum sentences, wardens routinely grant early releases to violent offenders in order to make room for droves of drug offenders, most of whom are nonviolent.

The war against drugs should actually be a war for public health, Benavie says. Most drug-related deaths are due to contamination by black market suppliers and diseases spread by infected needles. More than a third of AIDS patients in the United States contracted the disease by using infected needles to inject drugs, and many drug offenders contract and spread diseases once they’re in prison, where drugs and unprotected sex are the norm.

Because there’s no FDA approval for black-market products, there’s no way to tell how potent a drug is or with what it’s been mixed. Heroin manufacturers stretch their supplies by mixing in anything from lactose to baby laxatives to strychnine. And any black-market drug, including marijuana, can be contaminated with toxic byproducts, bacteria, or viruses that could transmit hepatitis, tetanus, and malaria.

Many Americans fear that legalization would lead to an out-of-control increase in the use of hard drugs. It’s possible, Benavie says. But studies in other countries have shown that legalizing drugs doesn’t usually increase drug use, he says, and even when there is an increase, it is brief and temporary.

If the United States could tax illicit drugs at the same rate it taxes for alcohol and tobacco, Benavie says, the government could save that $44 billion a year in fighting the war and it could generate an additional $33 billion a year. “Take the $77 billion — think what we could do with that money,” he says. “For example, we spend $37 billion a year on food stamps; it would cover that. We’ve been spending $29 billion on the National Institutes of Health, $6 billion on the National Science Foundation. Add those together, and we still have a few billion dollars left over. That’s what that money could mean.”

Arthur Benavie is a professor emeritus of economics in the College of Arts and Sciences and continues to teach at Carolina.