Substance Abuse Plus Economics

I came face to face with the substance abuse crisis long before it was thrust into the public eye. I was very close to some individuals who were stuck in its grip. Through them, I had the chance to meet others, as well as many unsung heroes who give their hearts and lives to help people put their lives back together, as those around them are left to pick up the pieces.


I have heard many so-called solutions to the substance abuse problem and from what I can see, the more we try, the worse the problem seems to be getting. Milton Friedman once pointed out a situation where the government was increasing the taxes on cigarettes, while at the same time subsidizing the production of tobacco. I believe this type of counterproductive behavior is going on with the current substance abuse crisis.

Supply AND demand

supply demand

Certainly, much of what I have seen is trying to fight on the supply side. Many people have heard of other, who have been arrested for buying “too much Sudafed.” This simply means that they were most likely making meth. In addition to this, the government has spent many untold resources trying to rehabilitate people through the prison system and other forms of mental health treatment. I believe that many of their efforts are actually subsidizing the behavior.

Could it be that we should be looking at the demand side as well? Remember Economics 101? Generally speaking, when the price of something goes down, then the demand goes up. Our current paradigm tells us that some substance abuse problems fall under the umbrella of mental health problems. In addition to this, some forms of substance abuse are seen as cool and something that should not be against the law. These types of beliefs and policies are actually increasing the demand for substance abuse as they lower the price to the potential user.

But the government can only go so far. I believe that the best way to have lasting change in someone’s life is through the Lord Jesus Christ. Sadly though, I believe that the church has been complacent in this paradigm shift. In my opinion, one of the most important and overlooked Bible verses is:

Matthew 1:21 You will call his name Jesus for he will save the people from their sins.

Imagine the thousands of years people had to wait for this idea. We can be free from sin! I fear now though that people are feeling like they need from sin less.  Instead we are actually demanding more things that the Bible considers sin. This is because the cost of sin is going down. As a result of the diminution of price the demand for sin is increasing.

In keeping with the theme of substance abuse, let’s look at how many in the church approach alcohol consumption. In the past, whole church denominations had blanket prohibitions on alcohol consumption and there was even a political movement that was started, which centered on abolition. Regardless of the merits or demerits of these types of sweeping bans, at that time, the general public recognized drinking too much alcohol as a bad thing. Excess in this area is no longer a sin to many people. In fact, we now have a tamer word for drinking too much and that is “tipsy” meaning slightly drunk, as defined by Google.  Mixed drinks are considered cool or even sexy. In addition to this, hyper excess of alcohol consumption is actually considered a mental health problem, a type of illness that needs treatment. This then moves the responsibility off of the individual, making it no longer a sin.

What can we do?

The challenge is for us to get serious about getting into people’s lives. People usually do not wander into church one day because they wonder what it is about. Also, many people in church are not being challenged about these very types of things. It is time that we stop making this just our pastor’s job and we take an interest in those around us. If you have influence with someone, say something to them. If you do not have influence with someone, maybe it is time to build a new relationship. This problem is not going to just go away. It will be there until each of us takes up our own part and does something about it.

Ben Balke

Purdue Global University

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