I would argue that the only positive thing that has come out of the War on Drugs is awesome TV. From The Wire to Breaking Bad, illegal drug markets have brought us entertaining and groundbreaking television, but at what cost? As Breaking Bad has sadly come to an end, I would like to look at how things might have been different for Walter White and friends in a world without the drug prohibition. While I loved the adrenaline rush I experienced watching every episode, the violence and death highlighted in the show is indicative of a major problem.
Let’s assume for a moment that prior to the creation of the show, the U.S. government ended drug prohibition. Unlike what many paternalistic politicians would like you to think, the world would not descend into utter chaos or come to a grinding halt. How would this effect the show? Well, first and foremost, there would be no DEA (high five, hell yes)… thus Walter would have never gone on the ride-along that ultimately led him to a reunion with Jesse Pinkman. It is also likely that Walt would never consider drug manufacturing as a means to solving his money problem for cancer treatment. Why do I say this? The profit margin of the caliber in the show would not likely exist in a world outside of drug prohibition. In the illegal markets, the cost and risk associated with engaging in illegal activity and possibly getting caught serve as very costly barriers to entry. There are also sizable costs associated with self-regulation in illegal markets because the court system is not an available outlet for settling disputes. This drastically limits the number of producers willing to participate in the market.
Consider the circumstances surrounding the murder of Combo (Jesse’s friend that was shot by that young kid for selling on the wrong turf). There was an implicit contract that highlighted who could sell where, and at the urging of Jesse’s quest to build his empire, Combo started selling in neighborhoods that “belonged” to a rival drug gang. In illegal markets, how do you set an example that your turf cannot be taken? You resort to violence to make an example of what will happen to anyone who tries to disregard your jurisdiction. Furthermore, the legal recourse in a murder associated with other illegal activity is complicated. Jesse could not simply go to the police and explain that Combo’s death was a result of a drug turf dispute without implicating himself in a slue of crimes. However, if the drug prohibition component was absent from this equation, the rival gang would have not have used murder in order to solve the problem. For example, do you hear of a CVS owner shooting a new-to-the-area Walgreen’s owner for opening a new location? But even in the unlikely event that this happens, because there is not any illegal activity taking place outside of the act of murder, all parties involved can provide the necessary authorities (ideally private policing companies… but that is a blog post for a later time) the information needed to bring the murderers to justice without fear of being punished. This would allow Jesse to use the court system to punish the rival drug gang members rather attempting to murder them himself (and successfully killing them thanks to Walt’s fatherly instinct and his Pontiac Aztek).
Absent that extensive (but not exhaustive) list of costs brought on by the nature of illegal markets, many potential drug producers can move into enter the market. This forces the price of the goods sold to decrease, lessening the profits available to each drug producer. Thus, the sizable profit margin that led Walt down the road of methamphetamine production would not be as high in a world with legal production (at least on the scale of production consisting of Walt and Jesse in a trailer… However, if he started his own pharmaceutical company specializing in meth, that would be a different story… one that I hope to elaborate on soon, highlighting how ending the War on Drugs is only part of the battle).
Another situation that could have been avoided was the virtual enslavement of Walt and Jesse by Gus Fring. Once again, the hold that Gus had over Walt and Jesse (knowledge and proof of their involvement in countless felony-crimes) would be a non-issue outside of a prohibition state. The same could be said about the situation when Tuco initially refused to pay Jesse for his product. Breaking Bad is full of the issues associated with the limited ability for individuals to establish, execute, and enforce contracts. With substantially better defined property rights and access to a court system to settle disputes without fear of being punished, drug producers would not need to engage in violence to settle these disputes.
So where does this leave us? Well, it would leave us with a rather boring TV show where the most exhilarating dilemma is which daycare Skyler & Walt will choose for baby Holly. No more train heists, no more wheelchair bombs, and no more car trunk machine guns. Though I do love my fellow Richmonder’s directorial and writing brilliance (Vince Gilligan, you are the man), I would be willing to trade it any day for a freer state devoid of the devastating effects inflicted on all of our lives (directly or indirectly) by the War on Drugs.