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|The Drug Legalization Debate|
Drug Legalization: Myths and Misconceptions
Chapter Two: Crime and Drug Legalization
I. Their Argument
Proponents of legalization advance two theories as to how legalization will decrease crime in the United States, and both are dependent on the assumption that legalization will reduce the cost of drugs to the user. First, because users will not have to spend as much to support their drug habits, fewer will need to commit crimes such as robbery and burglary to obtain drug money. Second, because the cost of drugs will decrease, so will the drug sellers' profits. Because drugs will no longer be a profitable business, and because addicts will be able to obtain their drugs from legal sources, the current black market suppliers of drugs - gangs, foreign cartels, organized criminals, etc.-will fade away.
II. Our Argument
Before addressing these theories, it is useful to distinguish between three types of drug-related crime. As Professor James Q. Wilson notes
[t]he illegality of drugs increases crime, partly because some users turn to crime to pay for their habits, partly because some users are stimulated by certain drugs (such as crack or PCP) to act more violently or ruthlessly than they otherwise would, and partly because criminal organizations seeking to control drug supplies use force to manage their markets.25
For ease of discussion, this author will refer to the crime caused by people to pay for their habits as "purchase-related," the crime caused by people while under the influence of drugs as "drug-induced," and the crime caused by organized criminal suppliers of drugs as "black market crime." Let us discuss each in turn.
A. Purchase-related crime
As stated above, legalizers assume that as legalized drugs become less expensive, addicts will no longer have to commit crimes in order to fund their habits. One immediate difficulty with this analysis is that drugs already are exceptionally inexpensive. For example, a hit of crack costs about five dollars on the streets of Seattle and about three dollars in other major metropolitan areas.27 Granted, the pharmaceutical cost of cocaine sufficient to make a hit of crack is roughly twenty-five cents.28 But to the extent that a legal crack supplier likely would have to meet government regulations or would have to internalize the costs of taxes placed upon the legalized drug, some analysts question whether it is possible to reduce the current street-price of drugs.29
Nonetheless, let us assume that legal drug suppliers could undersell the black market by offering cocaine for approximately fifty cents a dose. What would happen?
As discussed at length in Chapter One, addiction rates would skyrocket. This fact is almost indisputable, and even the Libertarian supporters of drug legalization admit that "low prices would encourage use."30 History is very clear on this point as well---once cocaine began being marketed in the high potency/low cost form of crack, addiction rates did increase.31 And when addiction rates increase, so does purchase-related crime. As Elliott Currie explains, "[h]igher levels of drug use do go hand in hand with increased crime, especially property crime."32
So in reality, legalizing drugs would not decrease purchase-related crime, but would actually increase it. Three reasons explain why this is so. First, if you decrease the price of an addictive substance, addicts merely will buy more of the less expensive product.33 Second, it is not as if addicts steal money only to pay for drugs; likely, they steal money to meet living expenses such as food, rent, etc. William Bennett notes that "[m]aking drugs legal would just be a way of subsidizing [addicts] habit. They would continue to rob and steal to pay for food, for clothes, for entertainment."34 Of course, since there are more addicts, there would be more people committing purchase-related crimes. Third, one must recall that purchase-related crime is not directly related to the cost of the drug, but instead is indirectly related: the prices of drugs affect the addiction rate, which in turn affects the purchase-related crime rate. This point perhaps is subtle, but also is important. Addicts will pay almost any price for drugs. Thus the question becomes not "What is the price of drugs," but instead "How many addicts are there?" Because legalized drugs increase addiction rates, purchase-related crime necessarily increases.
B. Drug-induced crime
As with purchase-related crime, the price of drugs is not directly relevant in determining the amount of drug-induced crime, except to the extent that the price affects the number of addicts. Undoubtedly, drug-induced crime is a significant problem, One conservative estimate based upon the Bureau of Justice Statistics study suggests that with regard to local jail inmates, 15.4% of such inmates tested positive for illegal drugs and an additional 12.1 % tested positive for a combination of illegal drugs and alcohol.35 Another study conducted by the National Institute of Justice in 1986 found that for twelve major metropolitan areas, 70% of inmates tested positive for illegal drugs.36 The N.I.J. study concluded that "[these offenders did not commit crimes simply to feed their habits. Drugs changed their behavior, enabled and encouraged them to act violently and irrationally."37
Again, these results are unsurprising. Drugs such as crack encourage hyperactive violence.38 If you legalize such drugs and the addiction rate increases, you will have more people walking around more often under its influence. It simply is untenable to suggest that policies such as legalization that increase addiction rates could do anything but increase the frequency of drug-induced crime.
C. Black market crime
As mentioned above, legalizers suggest that if you allow drugs to be sold legally, it would drive out the black market, for the latter only thrives when people cannot obtain goods through normal, legal channels. Such analysis seems attractive at first, but a closer look at the facts will prove that it is both simplistic and incorrect.
So long as there are any restrictions as to what drugs were to be legalized, who would be able to buy them, what quantities and potencies were available, etc., a black market would fill the need. For example, if the legalizers would limit the sale of drugs to those people over twenty-one, then the black market would target children. This argument is made by David T. Courtwright, who finds potential black markets for "those under twenty-one, or for public-safety officers, or transport workers, or military personnel, or pregnant women, or prisoners, or probationers, or parolees, or psychotics. . . . "39 In order truly to defeat the black market, one not only would have to allow anyone to buy drugs, but also would have to make all forms of drugs available. William Rasberry explains that "[i]f marijuana and perhaps heroin are legalized, but not crack cocaine and violence-inducing PCP, the effect on the crime associated with drug trafficking would be minimal." Few, if any, legalizers would be willing completely to legalize all drugs for all people - but if they refuse to do so, they cannot justifiably claim to have made a significant impact on black market crime.
Another problem with the legalizers' argument is that many of them advocate a policy whereby legalized drugs are taxed in order to raise revenue for other social programs. But again, if you legalize drugs and tax them, you will have a black market that can sell the same drugs less expensively. The same is true if you stamp a tariff on imported drugs, and history shows this to be correct. Recall that until the early twentieth century, opiates and other drugs were legal in the United States. Much of the opium consumed by U.S. citizens was imported from China, and " enlightened lawmakers decided to place a tariff on the drug as a means of raising revenue. For example, between 1866 and 1914, the duty on crude opium was 33%; on ready-to-smoke opium it was 97%.41 Although these tariffs did produce income, they also created a smuggler's paradise that organized crime syndicates such as the Chinese tongs quickly filled. Criminals would smuggle opium into the country, not pay the tariff, and make a higher profit margin on their goods. Interestingly enough, at the peak of the opium tariffs twice as much opium was smuggled into the U.S. as went through legal channels.42 Thus, history proves that if you place a tariff on imported drugs - be they legal or illegal - black markets will continue to flourish unabated.
Let's return to the simple taxation of drugs produced within the United States. Again, the equation is simple - tax equals black market - and again, history proves it to be true. Take tobacco for instance. Here is a legal commodity that potentially can be taxed by both the federal government and any of the state governments.43 Unsurprisingly, some states historically have had higher cigarette taxes than others. In 1975, smokers in North Carolina would pay thirty-six cents a pack whereas New Yorkers had to pay fifty-four cents.44 Organized syndicates took advantage of the situation, buying cigarettes in North Carolina and selling them in New York for a profit-indeed at one point 50% of all the cigarettes sold in New York City were bootlegged products controlled by criminal organizations.45 Thus, proponents of legalized drugs will never be able to stop the black market, because the federal government, even if it wanted to, could not stop state governments from taxing the drugs at different levels.
Finally, with regard to the entire black market theories of the legalizers, we have to remember the simple fact that organized crime is composed of criminals. Query what the Cali or the Medellin Cartel would do if they discovered that their cocaine was being under priced by a legal manufacturer (let's say a pharmaceutical company like Upjohn). What is the chance that the Colombians would say "Oh well, we just cannot compete in the market. Let's close up shop and take real jobs." Unlikely. Instead, currently entrenched crime syndicates would use violence to ensure their place in the market.46 In the above example, the Cali cartel might destroy Upjohn's laboratories. Or it might murder everyone who sits on their Board of Directors. Or it might take the less glamorous, but certainly more traditional, strategy of telling addicts that if they don't buy their cocaine from the cartel, they will be killed. In short, the belief that if we legalize drugs then organized crime will run away with its tail between its legs ignores grim reality.
In conclusion, drugs produce three types of crime: purchase-related crime, drug-induced crime, and black market crime. To the extent that legalizing drugs would make them cheaper - a point on which all sides of the debate agree - it would create many new addicts and the incidence of purchase-related crime and drug-induced crime would increase. Furthermore, if there were any regulations or taxes of any sort placed upon the legalized drugs, U.S. history proves that the black market crime would continue. Thus, legalizing drugs not only does not decrease criminal behavior, it almost certainly would spur its increase.
25 James Q. Wilson, "Against the Legalization of Drugs," Commentary, February 1990.
26 Statement of John W. Ladenburg (Pierce County Prosecuting Attorney), "Should We
27 Robert E. Peterson, "Stop Legalization of Illegal Drugs," Drug Awareness Information Newsletter, July 1988.
28 Mark A.R. Kleirnan, "Legalization: A Simplistic Solution to a Complex Problem" Issues in Science and Technology, Summer 1990.
29 "No Magic Bullet - A Look at Drug Legalization," U.S. Department of Justice, Drug Enforcement Administration, Demand Reduction Section.
30 Timothy Radonich, "Controlling drugs through regulation," Northwest Libertarian (newsletter), September 1990.
31 William Bennett, "Mopping up after the legalizers: What the 'intellectual' chorus fails to tell you," The Washington Times, December 15, 1989.
32 Elliott Currie, "Towards a Policy on Drugs," Dissent, Winter 1993.
33 Robert E. Peterson, "Stop Legalization of Illegal Drugs," Drug Awareness Information Newsletter, July 1988.
34 William Bennett, "Mopping up after the legalizers- What the 'intellectual' chorus fails to tell you," The Washington Times, December 15, 1989.
35 U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, "Fact
Sheet: Drug Data Summary," Drugs & Crime Data, November 1992.
36 Peter B. Bensinger, "Arguments Against Legalizing Drugs," Drug Abuse Update,
38 James Q. Wilson, "Against the Legalization of Drugs," Commentary, February 1990.
39 David T. Courtwright, "Should We Legalize Drugs? History Answers," American Heritage, February/March 1993.
40 William Rasberry, "Legalizing Drugs: Let's Get Specific," The Washington Post, November 1, 1989.
41 David T. Courtwright, "Should We Legalize Drugs? History Answers," American Heritage, February/March 1993.
43 Also note that the federal government cannot constitutionally prohibit a state from taxing a given commodity.
44 David T. Courtwright, "Should We Legalize Drugs? History Answers," American Heritage, February/March 1993.
46 Christopher Collins and Susan Collins, "What Savings?" The Sun, March 20, 1990.
Chapter Two Summary Sheet: Crime and Drug Legalization
If they say...
If drugs were legalized, addicts would no longer have to commit crimes to pay for their habit.
Then you say...
Drugs are already so cheap that legalization might not drive the price down any further. Thus, addicts would still have to steal. ["No Magic Bullet: A Look at Drug Legalization," U.S. Dept. of Justice, D.E.A. Demand Reduction Section Position paper].
But assuming that legalization would cut the price of drugs, low prices encourage use and addiction. [Timothy Radonich, "Controlling drugs through regulation," Northwest Libertarian, September 1990.]
As addiction rates increased, crime, especially property Crime, would increase. [Elliott Currie, "Towards a Policy on Drugs," Dissent, Winter 1993].
As the prices of drugs decrease, addicts will buy more; thus, they will still steal in order to spend the same amount on drugs. [Robert E. Peterson, "Stop Legalization of Illegal Drugs," Drug Awareness Information Newsletter, July 1988].
Addicts would still steal in order to afford food, clothes, entertainment, etc. [William Bennett, "Mopping up after the legalizers: What the 'intellectual' chorus fails to tell you," The Washington Times, December 15, 1989].
If they say...
If drugs were legalized, drug- induced crime would decrease.
Then you say...
Drug use encourages irrational and criminal behavior. Studies indicate that as many as 70% of inmates were on illegal drugs when arrested. [U.S. Dept. of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, 'Tact Sheet: Drug Data Summary," Drugs & Crime Data. November 1992; Peter Bensinger, "Arguments Against Legalizing Drugs," Drug Abuse Update, September 1988].
Recent U.S. experience with crack cocaine clearly proves that as drugs become cheaper, violent crime increases. [William Bennett, "Mopping up after the legalizers: What the 'intellectual' chorus fails to tell you," The Washington Times, December 15, 1989].
As legalization of drugs increases the addiction rate [see Chapter One], then we would have more people under the influence of drugs more often.
If they say...
Legalizing drugs would end the crime caused by black markets and organized syndicates.
Then you say...
If there are any restrictions placed upon who may use legal drugs, such as minors, pregnant women, police, military personnel, pilots, prisoners, parolees, or psychotics, a black market would rise up to fill the niche. (David T. Courtwright,"Should We Legalize Drugs? History Answers," American Heritage, February/March 1993].
In order to begin to stop the black market, you would have to legalize crack and PCP. [William Rasberry, "Legalizing Drugs: Let's Get Specific," The Washington Post, November 1, 1989].
U.S. history proves that if you attempt to levy tariffs on imported legal drugs, a black market will result due to smuggling. Such was the case in the early twentieth century when Chinese crime syndicates smuggled opium into the U.S. so as to avoid tariffs. [David T. Courtwright, "Should We Legalize Drugs? History Answers," American Heritage, February/March 1993].
If you tax the legal drugs at all, a black market will result. This is proven by U.S. history, where organized crime would smuggle cigarettes from states with low tobacco taxes into those with high tobacco taxes, thus making a profit [Courtwright, citation above].
Organized crime would use violence against legal suppliers in
order to ensure its market share. Criminals would not play by the
rules. [Christopher Collins and Susan Collins, "What
Savings?" The Sun, March 20,1990].
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Schaffer Library of Drug Policy
Major Studies of Drug and Drug Policy
Marihuana, A Signal of Misunderstanding - The Report of the US National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse
Licit and Illicit Drugs
Short History of the Marijuana Laws
The Drug Hang-Up
Congressional Transcripts of the Hearings for the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937
Frequently Asked Questions About Drugs
Basic Facts About the Drug War
Charts and Graphs about Drugs
Information on Alcohol
Guide to Heroin - Frequently Asked Questions About Heroin
LSD, Mescaline, and Psychedelics
Drugs and Driving
Children and Drugs
Drug Abuse Treatment Resource List
American Society for Action on Pain
Let Us Pay Taxes
Marijuana Business News
Reefer Madness Collection
Medical Marijuana Throughout History
Drug Legalization Debate
Legal History of American Marijuana Prohibition
Marijuana, the First 12,000 Years
DEA Ruling on Medical Marijuana
Legal References on Drugs
GAO Documents on Drugs
Response to the Drug Enforcement Agency
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