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The Independent Institute
Commentary

A Dopey War on Drugs


In response to government reports that drug use, especially marijuana use, is up among American teen-agers, Republican candidate Bob Dole says that if he is elected, “I’m going to make the drug war priority No. 1 again.” Getting into the act, House Majority Whip Dick Armey, normally a staunch champion of reducing government's role in people’s lives, complains that the Clinton administration is waving the white flag in the drug “war,” and Speaker Newt Gingrich whose Tocquevillian vision of America eschews massive mobilizations of the national government, nevertheless calls for a federal determination to execute drug traffickers.

(The Democrats say there’s no need to elect a Republican, that they're just as concerned, even if their role as moral exemplars belies them, and now that they have a real, live general acting as drug “czar”—there’s a democratic term for you!—we can expect results soon, maybe in 10 years or so.)

For anybody who believes in the agenda articulated at the recent Republican convention—lower taxes, a smaller, less intrusive government that leaves people alone, respect for private property, reducing crime, especially in America's inner cities, and restoring respect for traditional American family values and the rule of law—this is bad news. Very bad news.

If a government “war”—an activity that can’t be conducted against chemical substances but must be conducted against real people—were likely to reduce drug use, it would have done so already. The government has been trying to prohibit opiates and other drugs since 1914 and marijuana since 1937, the “hotness” of the war varying.

Although the rhetoric from the Clinton administration has often been ambivalent, federal spending has often been ambivalent, federal spending on drug-law enforcement has continued to rise and is higher than during the Bush administration. In the last few years state and local drug law enforcement has increased notably, and just this week a report noted that record numbers of people are in prison for drug offenses.

Meanwhile, violent offenders are being released early to make room for drug offenders under “mandatory minimum” laws. Property continues to be seized from people accused of drug offenses—although not necessarily convicted and sometimes not even formally charged—in a mockery of due process.

Ironically and sadly, more emphasis on drug law enforcement is almost certain to lead to an increase in other kinds of crime. This shouldn’t be surprising: law enforcement agencies have limited resources, and resources allocated to the drug war can't be used for other purposes. A recent study demonstrates the sad relationship.

Bruce Benson and David Rasmussen, economists at Florida State University, wrote Illicit Drugs and Crime, just released by The Independent Institute in Oakland. Besides noting the dramatic increase in drug-law enforcement activities over the last couple of decades, they compared two states that set different priorities in the 1980s.

Between 1984 and 1989, Florida allocated an increasing amount of its enforcement resources to the drug war; drug arrests relative to total arrests rose 67 percent during that five years. During that same period, the property crime rate rose 16.3 percent. After 1989, Florida reduced drug enforcement activities and property crime rates fell.

In that same period, Sen. Dole’s home state of Kansas bucked the national trend, reducing its drug arrest total arrest ratio by 21.4 percent putting its ratio well below the national average. By 1989, Kansas allocated more resources to drug law enforcement, and its overall crime rate by 1992 was 6.8 percent higher than in 1989.

Kansas and Florida are different states with different problems of course. But this and other studies show that the pattern—more police concentration on drug law enforcement leads to more overall crime—holds for every state. And while levels of actual drug use are one factor in decisions to concentrate more heavily on drug law enforcement, the biggest factor seems to be state asset-seizure laws. If local police agencies (rather than the general fund) get the money from drug related property seizures, the police tend to do more drug law enforcement—with tragic results.

The two researchers conclude: “Getting tough on drugs inevitably translates into getting soft on non-drug crime.”

If that’s what you want, and you really suppose that federally regimented police officers can do double duty as the doctors of the soul needed to wean people away from the addictions, you’re welcome to cheer the promised new drug war. Forgive us, though, if we wonder why Messrs. Dole, Armey, and Gingrich begin to sound like the anti-poverty warriors of a few years ago. They fail, then they redouble their efforts. Such strange sequential behavior virtually defines fanaticism, which ill-becomes people who seek government on a smaller, more humane scale.