It is a commonplace of argument on both the right and left, the idea that drugs cause crime. The ends of the political spectrum may not agree on much, by they do seem to agree on this, that those who use drugs are somehow possessed and turned from law abiding citizens into raving criminals. The left may laugh at "Reefer Madness" and its depiction of drugs, the right may decry those who abdicate responsibility, or those who blame guns for crime, but both seem to think somehow drugs can create crime.
Sadly, both are wrong. Or mostly wrong.
First, let me admit where they are right. In those who would commit crime, whether or not they were on drugs, the monetary demands of drug addiction can spur them to commit more crimes. But the same can be said of the financial pressures of gambling, or the financial demands of marriage or children. No matter the cause, when a person predisposed to crime feels financial pressure he is more likely to commit a crime, perhaps even commit more crimes than he otherwise would. So, in that way drugs do cause crime, but that is hardly unique to drugs, any financial pressure would do the same.
On the other hand, drugs do not, in themselves, turn those who would not steal into thieves. And I can prove it.
Due to my disorder I have been using opiate pain killers for quite some time, long enough to develop physical dependence. Due to that I am physically indistinguishable from someone addicted to illegal opiates. If deprived of opiates both of us will suffer the same physical discomfort. So, when a very unpleasant doctor twice cut off my supply of pain killers as he thought I was taking "too many", why did I not go on a shooting spree? Why did I not hang out around ATMs waiting to mug someone?
Because I am not a criminal. Neither are the thousands who use opiates medicinally. Even when suffering withdrawal we do not run wild in the streets robbing and stealing to satisfy our needs. Despite the fact that we are filled with drugs indistinguishable from illegal opiates, we remain law abiding citizens.
My point being that drugs do not cause drug addicts to commit crimes. Drug addicts who commit crimes were those people predisoposed to commit crime anyway. But those pushing the "drugs cause crime" are not really interested in the truth. On the right, the line is usually pushed by those who strongly oppose ending the war on drugs, and they use this argument as yet another reason drugs must remain illegal. Those on the left are using it to explain why crime is so high in the inner city, blaming crime on drugs and poverty rather than on personal choice or weak enforcement, and it also provides them with a convenient means to exonerate any specific criminal, allowing them to blame drugs rather than the individual. So, neither side wants to face the truth.
Then again, there is one area where drugs really do cause crime, but, again, it is not an area that either side wants to face.
Being illegal, drugs are sold by criminals. And, just as with alcohol in the 1920's, these criminals have no way to settle disputes other than through brute force. This violence, however, is not inherent in drugs, anymore than the gangsterism of the 1920's was inherent in beer. Schlitz brewing does not send hit men to clear up billing disputes with distributors, because alcohol is legal now. Likewise, were drugs legal, there would not be the street violence we see today. But as that would mean both ending the war on drugs, and accepting that capitalism is beneficial*, neither side wants to embrace that position either.
Now, before I get accused of being a rabid, drug loving libertarian, let me say that there are other arguments for keeping drugs illegal. I have heard many, and , while I still believe that society would benefit on the whole from making drugs legal**, I am willing to entertain any arguments to the contrary***. All I want to point out is that drugs do not turn honest men into criminals and keeping drugs illegal does cause violence among the distributors.
In short, that the conventional wisdom is backwards. Drugs do cause crime, but among the dealers, not the users.
* Actually, this argument is doubly bad for the left. Not only does it show that capitalism is effective at solving problems, but also that capitalism brings peace. As the left often pushes the "capitalism causes wars" line, saying that a capitalist market in drugs would end crime is a position completely anathema to most leftists.
** I actually go far beyond many libertarian types, arguing that not only should drugs be legal, but the entire prescription medicine system needs to be scrapped. It is odd, but many I have heard argue that heroin should be sold freely, but penicillin should still require a prescription. I can't make any sense of that argument.
*** For those who argue that making drugs legal would greatly increase usage, I offer this counter argument: If drugs were legal, would you be using them? If not, then why do you think others would? If so, then why do you want the state to substitute itself for your self control, at the same time limiting the freedom of others? On a related note, many states once outlawed sodomy, yet the supreme court overturned those laws recently. How many have gone out and practiced homosexual intercourse just because it is now legal? My point being that making something illegal may deter some from doing it, but not a really significant number. And making something legal once again will not significantly increase the number doing it. This is especially true today, when respect for the law is much lower than it was during prohibition, when illegality had more of deterrent effect than it does today.
As should be obvious from this essay, I do personally favor legalization of drugs, as I believe adults should be allowed to decide such questions for themselves, rather than having the state tell them what is god or bad to do to themselves. On the other hand, as I stated before, I am a federalist first, so I would gladly see individual state drug policies, freed of the pressure of the DEA and Washington in general, ranging from legalization to complete prohibition, so we could decide once and for all which is the optimal policy.
You see, I think that the increased crime I mentioned above is not offset by any advantages, but I am also willing to be proven wrong. I just think that anyone who proposes prohibition had better show some very impressive benefits to offset the negatives that come with prohibition. I am not saying that is impossible, just that it has not yet been done to my satisfaction.
There are some clarifications in the comments to the original article. The full comments can be read here.
(Not part of the original article)
I have posted this article in its original form, as , after reading it, I really cannot improve on what I said. It says everything as well as I am ever going to say it. As the argument over the benefits or costs of drug legalization often center on the increase or decrease of crime, I think this is very relevant for this blog.
I would like to reproduce part of two responses I made to comments, as they clarify my thinking.
First, on the likelihood of increased or decreased drug usage (with spelling corrections):
My thinking is that if drugs were legal, some may try them who would not, so the number who had ever used drugs would be a bit higher, but I doubt anyone would become an addict who would not also be an addict while they were illegal.Second, my thoughts on the relative levels of crime and the benefits of federalism :
Then again, maybe the numbers would go up somewhat. Or drop. It is hard to predict such hypothetical with certainty. As I think drugs should be legal on a theory that you can do as much harm to yourself as you want, it really doesn't matter to me. As long as I am not paying someone else's medical bills for his self-abuse, I don't care.
Well, I care on a humanitarian level, but I also respect others enough to think they know better than I do what they should be doing. If someone thinks drugs are his proper course, who am I to tell him otherwise? I lack the arrogance it requires to tell someone I know best what he should do with his life.
So, I think it really doesn't matter that much if usage goes up or down, but I have a suspicion that it would not rise greatly. (Drinking rose somewhat in the 1930's, but (1) we had a depression to make people drink and (2) people respected the law a lot more in the 1920's than today.)
And, I have to admit that, were crime reduced by eliminating drug dealing as a career, it would not be a 1 to 1 drop. Without the allure of massive profits, some of the criminals may not be drawn to crime at all. Others would probably still find another sort of crime to pursue, so criminality would not drop as much as some argue.I may have to revisit this topic in the future, but for now I think I will let this post stand as my final word on the subject. When combined with the comments I reproduced above, there really is very little left for me to say.
If nothing else, allowing some states to legalize, some to ban, and others to stay somewhere in the middle would allow us to see just what the pros and cons would be. Yet another advantage to a true federalism, without policy being influenced so strongly by the central government.
Originally Posted in Examining the War on Drugs on 2008/05/29.