How limes and unemployment tell us the war on drugs has to end

The soaring price of limes and America's stubborn unemployment rate are both products of the West's failed war on drugs, says Merryn Somerset Webb. It's high time for a rethink.

Two seemingly unconnected, but actually inextricably linked snippets of financial news appeared last week.

First, that the price of a lime has risen 300% in the last month in California. And second, that the labour participation rate for men between 25 and 54 in the US is staying stubbornly low at 88%. Back in 1964 it was 97%.

The link is the global war on drugs.

Subscribe to MoneyWeek

Subscribe to MoneyWeek today and get your first six magazine issues absolutely FREE

Get 6 issues free

Sign up to Money Morning

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Sign up

The price of limes has risen as a result of the changing behaviour of Mexico's drug cartels.The fall in the participation rate is connected to the fact that so many American men have been convicted one way and another of drug-related offences.

You can't participate in the labour force when you are in jail. And it is very hard to get a job when you leave jail.

The US locks up its people "at five times the UK rate and ten times that in Scandinavia. The result? "We have been generating people with criminal records pretty solidly for going on 30 years," John Schmitt an economist at the Centre for Economics and Policy Research in Washington told the FT last week.

Today, more than one in 15 American men has a criminal record (12 to 14 million people). So, even if the (clearly failing) war on drugs were cancelled tomorrow, "the share of the labour force with a criminal record will remain very high for a long time." The result being a total US employment rate that is 0.8-0.9 percentage points lower than it would be otherwise.

I keep meaning to write more on this, and I will soon. But I do think that it must be clear to pretty much everyone by now that the West's policies on drug use are hopelessly wrong that's why, as the FT puts it, "left and right in the US seem ready to think again on drugs policy", and why you can now "smoke pot, ski hot" in Colorado. And it isn't just a discussion taking off in the US.

Here, Nigel Farage (as is often the case) says what the others won't say clearly: "I personally think that the war on drugs was lost many, many years ago and that the lives of millions of people in Britain are being made miserable" by its effects.

It needs, he says, radical reform by which he means that at least some drugs should be legalised. But even if the others won't come out and say it quite so firmly, there are hints that the establishment is beginning to grasp the extent of the failure of policy so far.

Durham's chief constable noted that criminalising drugs does nothing but "put billions of pounds into the pockets of criminal gangs", and even Nick Clegg has said that "if you are anti drugs, you should be pro reform".

More on this coming, but anyone interested in the arguments for the legalisation and taxation of what is currently the most unregulated and also the most profitable business in the world should read Dr Max Rendall's book on the subject Legalise: The Only Way to Combat Drugs.

Image removed.

Merryn Somerset Webb

Merryn Somerset Webb started her career in Tokyo at public broadcaster NHK before becoming a Japanese equity broker at what was then Warburgs. She went on to work at SBC and UBS without moving from her desk in Kamiyacho (it was the age of mergers).

After five years in Japan she returned to work in the UK at Paribas. This soon became BNP Paribas. Again, no desk move was required. On leaving the City, Merryn helped The Week magazine with its City pages before becoming the launch editor of MoneyWeek in 2000 and taking on columns first in the Sunday Times and then in 2009 in the Financial Times

Twenty years on, MoneyWeek is the best-selling financial magazine in the UK. Merryn was its Editor in Chief until 2022. She is now a senior columnist at Bloomberg and host of the Merryn Talks Money podcast -  but still writes for Moneyweek monthly. 

Merryn is also is a non executive director of two investment trusts – BlackRock Throgmorton, and the Murray Income Investment Trust.