Illicit Drugs and Crime
January 1, 1996
by Bruce L. Benson,
David W. Rasmussen
In the early 1980s, policymakers and law enforcement officials stepped up efforts to combat the trafficking and use of illicit drugs. This was the popular war on drugs, hailed by conservatives and liberals alike as a means to restore order and hope to communities and families plagued by anti-social or self-destructive pathologies. By reducing illicit drug use, many claimed, the drug war would significantly reduce the rate of serious nondrug crimesrobbery, assault, rape, homicide and the like. Has the drug war succeeded in doing so?
In Illicit Drugs and Crime, Bruce L. Benson and David W. Rasmussen (Professors of Economics, Florida State University, and Research Fellows, the Independent Institute), reply with a resounding no. Not only has the drug war failed to reduce violent and property crime but, by shifting criminal justice resources (the police, courts, prisons, probation officers, etc.) away from directly fighting such crime, the drug war has put citizens lives and property at greater risk, Benson and Rasmussen contend.
Getting tough on drugs inevitably translates into getting soft on nondrug crime, they write. When a decision is made to wage a war on drugs, other things that criminal justice resources might do have to be sacrificed.
To support this conclusion, Benson and Rasmussen compare data on drug law enforcement and crime trends between states, and debunk numerous misconceptions about drug use and criminality.
Do Drugs Cause Crime?
One of the most prevalent misconceptions, Benson and Rasmussen, contend is the notion that a large percentage of drug users commit nondrug crimes, what might be called the drugs-cause-crime assumption implicit in the governments drug-war strategy. If true, then an effective crackdown on drug use would reduce nondrug crime rates. However, Benson and Rasmussen show that the drugs-cause-crime assumption is false. Certainly many violent and property criminals use drugs. But only a small percentage of drug users commit violent or property crimes. Drug offenders are far more likely to recidivate for a drug offense than for a violent offense or property crime.
Is drug use to blame for the crimes drug users do commit? Benson and Rasmussen suggest that the reverse is closer to the mark: Many criminals who use drugs did not begin to do so until after they began committing nondrug crimes. A Bureau of Justice Statistics survey of prison inmates found that about half of the inmates who had used a major drug, and about 60 percent of those who used a major drug regularly, did not do so until after their first arrest for a nondrug crime.
Similarly, Benson and Rasmussen note, more than half of local jail inmates who reported they were regular drug users in the survey . . . said that their first arrest for a crime occurred an average of two years before their drug use. Once an individual has decided to turn to crime as a source of income, he or she may discover that drugs are more easily obtained within the criminal subculture and perhaps that the risks posed by the criminal justice system are not as great as initially anticipated. Furthermore, criminal activity generates income with which to buy goods that previously were not affordable, including drugs. Thus, crime leads to drug use, not vice versa.
The Drug Wars Failure to Reduce Crime
Because relatively few illicit drug offenders commit violent and property crimes and because criminal activity more often precedes drug use than vice versa, targeting drugs is an inefficient strategy for combating nondrug crime. And because it requires withdrawing a large amount of scarce criminal justice resources from directly fighting nondrug crime, it is also an ineffective, often counterproductive, strategy for fighting such crime. Indeed, the tradeoff between fighting drugs and fighting nondrug crime is so severe that in some jurisdictions it seems to have led to an increase in nondrug crime.
Benson and Rasmussen examined Florida crime data and found that increasing police efforts against drugs relative to the efforts against serious nondrug crimes resulted in a lower probability of arrest for property crime. Primarily as a consequence of this reduced probability of arrest, the property crime rate in Florida rose 16.3 percent, from 6,892 offenses per 100,000 population in 1983 to 8,019 in 1989. Violent crime also increased markedly in response to greater drug law enforcement, as drug dealers displaced by law enforcement invaded the turf of established dealers, and residents of previously untapped markets fell prey to violent criminals. Since 1989, Florida has reduced its drug enforcement efforts, and its property crime rate has fallen.
Benson and Rasmussen also discuss how prison overcrowding due to increased drug law enforcement has compromised the punishment of other criminals. Although statistical studies of the impact of early prison release on overall crime rates have not been performed yet, a growing number of violent felons have been released early, only to commit more violent crimes.
The Drug Wars Failure to Reduce Drug Use
Crime reduction was sold as one of the drug wars important side benefits. But what about its main mission, to reduce drug use? Despite the increase in the number of drug arrests and convictions, drug consumption overall has not demonstrably fallen. While the drug war may have played a significant role in reducing the demand for and supply of marijuana, access to cocaine has increased. From 1984 to 1990, the proportion of high school students who reported that cocaine was fairly easy or very easy to obtain rose by about 20 percent.
This failure is due in large part, Benson and Rasmussen explain, to drug entrepreneurs adoption of new production techniques, new products, and new marketing strategies in response to greater law enforcement. Their innovations include lengthening the drug distribution chain and using younger drug pushers and runners (to reduce the risk of arrest and punishment), increasing domestic drug production (to avoid the risk of seizure at the border), smuggling into the country less marijuana and more cocaine (which is harder to detect), development of crack cocaine (a low-cost substitute for higher priced powdered cocaine and for marijuana, which the drug war made harder to obtain), and development of drugs with greater potency (because they are less bulky and because punishment is based on a drugs weight, not its potency).
What to Do about Illicit Drugs and Crime?
Given the failure of the drug war to reduce crime and drug use, what ought to be done? Benson and Rasmussen offer seven public policy recommendations.
1. Reduce Crime and Drug Abuse by Cracking Down on Juvenile Criminals. Punishing youthful offenders early might divert them from further crime and remove them from the crime subculture where they are more likely to begin drug use.
2. Emphasize Treatment Over Drug Law Enforcement. Treatment is more cost-effective because it cuts consumption directly, whereas law enforcement works indirectly, by raising the price of drugs.
3. Abolish Civil Forfeiture Laws. Civil forfeiture laws give the illusion that drug law enforcement is self-financing. They give law enforcement agencies incentives to pursue counter-productive policies that violate due process.
4. Make Public Safety the Main Police Priority. Law enforcement agencies should be evaluated on the basis of their effectiveness in preventing crime, not merely in responding to it after the fact. Improved citizen cooperation and sense of public safety should also be high priorities.
5. Make Sentencing Guidelines Reflect the Highest Priorities. Sentencing guidelines must allow officials to consider prison capacity, so that dangerous prisoners are not released prematurely to make space for the less dangerous.
6. Decentralize the Prisons. Keeping prosecutors and judges in the same jurisdictions as the prisons to which they send convicts would reduce the likelihood of dangerous prisoners being released prematurely.
7. Decriminalize Drug Use. Decriminalization would free up scarce criminal justice resources in order to focus on violent and property crime. Prohibition, especially of less dangerous drugs, is ultimately a self-defeating policy.
Bruce L. Benson is Senior Fellow at The Independent Institute, DeVoe Moore Distinguished Research Professor of Economics at Florida State University, and the author of the Institute books, To Serve and Protect: Privatization and Community in Criminal Justice (New York University Press) and The Enterprise of Law: Justice Without the State.
David W. Rasmussen is a professor in economics and Director of the Policy Sciences Center at Florida State University.