How drug prohibition increases crime rates

This is the fourth in my series on the social costs of drug prohibition. You can read Part 1 (The Prison-Industrial Complex) here, Part 2 (Militarization of the Police) here, and Part 3 (Confiscation of Civilian Assets) here.

Prohibition policies are often sold to motivated citizens on the grounds that they reduce crime. This is especially true for rhetoric about violent crime, as public policy has long assumed a causal relationship between drug use and increases in violent crime. One example of this supposed relationship is laws that prohibit the possession of firearms by persons found to be addicts or illegal users of controlled substances (McGinty, Choksy, and Wintemute, 2016). The underlying belief is that violence is essentially a psychopharmacological side effect of drug use. This belief of policymakers indicates that drug-related violence is largely systemic rather than psychopharmacological, the result of the exigencies of operations within the black market. persists despite much research (Goldstein, Brownstein, & Ryan, 1992). Simply put, prohibition is more likely to cause violence than the use of banned drugs.

The reasons for this should be obvious to policy makers as well as economists, sociologists, political scientists, and criminologists, yet the paradigm persists. As supply dwindles due to law enforcement efforts such as injunctions, While demand remains relatively inelastic; Even if a drug user is arrestedMr. Miss, prices rise. This increases the value of control and protection of both trafficking routes and sales territories, and increases tensions between rival organizations and gangs. Although these competing organizations may enter into agreements, the illegal nature of their activities prevents them from using legal dispute resolution mechanisms such as courts to mediate their differences and enforce their agreements (Castillo & Kronick, 2020). The lure of higher profits thus makes violence an attractive alternative to complying with low-stakes territorial agreements. Anti-drug policies by their very nature create a trade-off between reduced supply and increased violence.

If the only negative externality associated with current drug policy is increased violence, this would be a policy failure. Additionally, as we will discuss later, the majority of the violence caused by these policies occurs outside of domestic borders. We began this series by detailing how the paradigm created by Prohibition has influenced current drug laws and enforcement mechanisms, and considering the similarities between the two. However, there is one major difference that you must consider. Alcohol production was domestic, and the violence associated with it was concentrated in America’s regional cities. This led to a public backlash against the 18th Amendment, which was subsequently repealed. Much of the production of illegal drugs, such as cocaine and heroin, occurs in other countries, which traffic those products into the United States. As a result, much of the violence caused by domestic prohibitions spills over to countries such as Mexico and Afghanistan, masking the human costs that domestic politicians must respond to.

But it’s not just violent crime that is affected by drug policy, and this series of trade-offs often goes unnoticed by the public. As mentioned earlier, efforts to disrupt the distribution of controlled substances and to maximize the incarceration of sellers and users have opportunity costs. Grossi observes: Influx of prisoners convicted of drug-related crimes has a crowding-out effect, reducing the space available to incarcerate people who commit other types of crimes. In addition, Defina and Arvanites (2002) conducted a combined analysis of 51 individual state-level (including DC) regressions using the FBI’s seven crime indicators as baseline indicators and found that drug arrests We found a positive correlation between and an increase in 5 out of 7 cases. Indexes crimes in the majority of states. While this is not uniform across states – some states see an overall decrease in crime as a result of drug arrests – overall, the more active drug enforcement policies are, the more , crime in other areas such as property crime increases. And theft.

In 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that there were 92,700 fatal overdoses in the United States. 29% increase compared to 2019. This rate is about 28 people per 100,000 people. Almost double the 2014 rate of 14.7 per 100,000 people. Much of this overdose explosion is fueled by the opioid crisis. Recall the concept of iron prohibition from our discussion in the previous post. This is an economic principle in which artificially imposed entry and supply barriers create pressure to simultaneously minimize quantity and maximize profits. Whereas drugs such as cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine have transaction costs associated with illegal trade, legal opioids are readily available and initially legal alternatives to illegal opioids such as heroin.Conversely, efforts to criminalize non-medical use of legal opioids such as oxycodone Trafficking and use of readily available synthetic opioids is on the rise such as fentanyl.

Gottschalk (2023) provides an interesting retrospective on how the opioid crisis evolved. She traces its origins to the 1980s moral panic over crack, a cheaply produced derivative of cocaine that provided politicians with a convenient justification for “tough on crime” rhetoric. Despite the lack of solid valid evidence, this new scourge is immediately and inevitably addictive, and the rock upon which the political religion of anti-expansion was built has always been known to users. They argued that it would lead to violent and anti-social behavior and create a new generation of addicts. Babies with disabilities require expensive medical care throughout their lives. Although separate from the ensuing opioid crisis itself, it served as a backdrop for the proliferation of illegal synthetic opioids and potentially provided a new enemy for policymakers to rally around.

Meanwhile, Purdue Pharma, a pharmaceutical company that promoted itself as a leader in cutting-edge pain management, took the lead in 1995 in persuading regulators to allow the sale of its synthetic opioid, OxyContin. OxyContin and other variants of oxycodone have proven to be highly effective. The manufacturers of these synthetic substances knew in advance that they were addictive. Working with co-conspirators such as Walmart, Walgreens, and CVS, these pills were especially popular in rural areas, where doctors easily prescribed them to anyone with pain. Immediately, regulators and policymakers realized that an epidemic was approaching and took action. As expected, rather than treating the rise in addiction and overdoses as a public health crisis, they are restricting the supply of these drugs, limiting the number of pills that doctors can prescribe and for whom they can prescribe, and restricting prescriptions. I responded by creating one. A monitoring program that criminally prosecutes doctors who exceed prescription limits.

Supply always follows demand, and if a recommended product is not available, substitutes will fill the gap. In this case, users addicted to oxycodone and similar synthetic derivatives turned to an existing opioid available on the street: heroin. Of course, interdiction efforts will limit the available supply of heroin to some extent, but it is possible to increase the potency of the heroin supply that is on hand. Fentanyl is a synthetic opiate that is available with a legal prescription in the country and is relatively easy to smuggle across borders. Fentanyl is Up to 50 times more potent than heroinThis naturally increases the potency of drugs with which fentanyl is compounded. As a result, there has been a significant increase in the incidence of fatal and non-fatal overdoses, as well as communicable diseases spread through needle sharing (Meyer, et al., 2023), (Leyton & Krausz, 2024). The tragedy lies in the fact that none of this is needed.

Turnell Brown is an economist and public policy analyst based in Atlanta.

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