How Drug Legalization Would Cut Crime

By STEVEN B. DUKE, Dec. 21, 1993 in the Los Angeles Times
The no-win 'drug war' keeps driving up the price. Users commit crimes to cover the cost. The public is the loser.

In her assertion that legalizing drugs would markedly reduce crime, Dr. Joycelyn Elders was clearly correct. Given the enormity of the nation's crime problem, her suggestion that legalization should be "studied" was also plainly right. In asserting that the matter should not even be thought about, the Administration behaved like religious rulers decrying heresy. What should be embarrassing to an Administration elected on a promise of "change" is not what its surgeon general said, but her White House colleagues' contemptuous dismissal of what she said.

That drug prohibition is responsible for much of the crime in this country is beyond dispute. In terms of crime rates, the most serious mistake America ever made was to limit its repeal of Prohibition to a single drug -- alcohol, the only drug that commonly triggers violent propensities in its users. Had we fully repealed drug prohibition in 1933, our crime rates today would be no more than half what they now are.

Property crime rates have tripled and violent crime rates have doubled since President Richard M. Nixon created the Drug Enforcement Agency in 1973 and declared an "all-out global war" to end the "drug menace." The connection is not coincidental.

The more effective are law-enforcement efforts against drug distribution, the more costly the drugs become to their consumers. After a generation of escalating drug war efforts, the costs of marijuana, cocaine and heroin are about 100 times what they would be in a free market. The inevitable effect of jacking up the cost of drugs is the commission of crime by drug users to obtain money to buy drugs.

In a recent survey of persons in prison for robbery or burglary, one out of three said that they committed their crimes in order to buy drugs. In a survey of adolescents, those who admitted using cocaine, 1.3%, accounted for 49% of the admitted crimes. In several studies of prisoners, 65% to 80% have admitted regular or lifetime illicit drug use. About 75% of our robberies, thefts, burglaries and related assaults are committed by drug abusers. Numerous studies show that drug users commit far fewer crimes when undergoing outpatient drug therapy or even when the price of drugs drops.

Creating incentives to steal and rob to buy drugs is not the only crime-inducing effect of prohibition, perhaps not even the main one. Murder and assault are employed to protect or acquire drug-selling turf, to settle disputes among drug merchants and their customers, to steal drugs or drug money from dealers. In major cities, at least one-fourth of the killings are systemic to the drug trade. The victims of internecine drug warfare are often innocent bystanders, even infants and school-children.

Drug prohibition also accounts for much of the proliferation of handguns. Drug dealers must enforce their own contracts and provide their own protection from predators, even "mules" who deliver drugs need weapons. Packing a gun, like fancy clothing or gold jewelry, has become a status symbol among many adolescents. In such an atmosphere, other youngsters carry guns for--they hope--protection. A decade ago, only 15% of teenagers who got into serious trouble in New York City were carrying guns, now the rate is 60%-65%.

The drug trade and the crime and violence attached to it take place mainly in our cities, rendering whole neighborhoods unfit for human habitation. As the rot spreads, even more crime is generated by the climate of disorder and ennui it produces.

Drug prohibition also fosters crime by producing official corruption. The news media are full of accounts of cops caught stealing money or drugs from dealers or simply taking money to look the other way. Even judges and prosecutors are sometimes implicated. Such pervasive corruption denigrates and demoralizes all law enforcers and causes disrespect for law among citizens.

The distractive effects of the drug war on law enforcement indirectly but profoundly encourage crime. In many cities, half or more of arrests are for drugs or related crimes, expending police resources and energy that might otherwise be available for domestic violence, fraud and other serious offenses. As a consequence, all criminals have a much better chance of escaping detection and punishment than if drugs were legal.

The drug war also deeply undercuts the role of incarceration in dealing with people convicted of such serious crimes as child molesting, rape, kidnaping and homicide. There is no room in our prisons: 40 states are under court orders for overcrowding. Funds are not available to build prisons fast enough to provide the needed space. Violent criminals are being paroled early or are having their sentences chopped to make space for drug users and dealers.

The drug war (excluding treatment and preventive education expenditures) costs about $9 billion at the federal level and about twice that on the state and local levels. These estimates do not count the law-enforcement cost chargeable to crimes that are prohibition-caused but not technically drug-related -- probably another $15 billion at all levels of government. Thus, law-enforcement costs attributable to the drug war are at least $40 billion per year. The losses to crime victims in property alone (not counting lives lost or bodies maimed) are probably another $10 billion. In addition, the drug war imposes a premium of at least $50 billion on the price of drugs and the cost to drug consumers. The total annual costs of the drug war, therefore, are about $100 billion. If drugs were legalized, most of this money could be spent on long-term crime prevention.

Legalizing drugs would not be cost free. We could expect somewhat more use of presently illicit drugs and, all other things remaining the same, more drug abuse. But things would not remain the same. Vast sums would be freed for prevention and treatment of drug abuse and for reducing its root causes. Among the many other benefits of legalization would be the reduction of AIDS and other diseases transmitted by drug abusers, less risk of drug overdose or poisoning, better prenatal care for pregnant women with drug problems and restoration of our civil liberties, to name a few.

How the law should treat the distribution and consumption of psychoactive drugs is an issue on which reasonable people can differ. There is, however, no room to doubt that legalizing such drugs would greatly reduce our crime rates. Everyone familiar with the crime problem knows that no bill pending in Congress and no other anti-crime measure proposed by anyone has the slightest chance of substantially reducing the ravages of crime.

A society that regards crime as one of its greatest problems yet allows its leaders to refuse to consider the only known solution, deserves the leaders -- and crime -- it gets.

Steven B. Duke is a Yale law professor and the co-author, with Albert C. Cross, of "America's Longest War. Rethinking Our Tragic Crusade Against Drugs" to be published by Jeremy P. Tarch/Putnam.
Reprinted with the permission of the author.