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Will Legalizing Drugs Reduce Crime?

July 16th, 2013 - 7:32 pm

Enlightened opinion holds that legalizing drugs (at least some drugs, e.g., marijuana) will reduce the catastrophically high American incarceration rate. As Fareed Zakaria wrote last year in Time magazine:

Over the past four decades, the U.S. has spent more than $1 trillion fighting the war on drugs. The results? In 2011 a global commission on drug policy issued a report signed by George Shultz, Secretary of State under Ronald Reagan; the archconservative Peruvian writer-politician Mario Vargas Llosa; former Fed Chairman Paul Volcker; and former Presidents of Brazil and Mexico Fernando Henrique Cardoso and Ernesto Zedillo. It begins, “The global war on drugs has failed … Vast expenditures on criminalization and repressive measures directed at producers, traffickers and consumers of illegal drugs have clearly failed to effectively curtail supply or consumption.” Its main recommendation is to “encourage experimentation by governments with models of legal regulation of drugs to undermine the power of organized crime and safeguard the health and security of their citizens.”

As Zakaria observed, “The U.S. has 760 prisoners per 100,000 citizens. That’s not just many more than in most other developed countries but seven to 10 times as many. Japan has 63 per 100,000, Germany has 90, France has 96, South Korea has 97, and Britain–with a rate among the highest–has 153. Even developing countries that are well known for their crime problems have a third of U.S. numbers. Mexico has 208 prisoners per 100,000 citizens, and Brazil has 242.” For African-Americans, the rates are terrifyingly high. In an earlier post I quoted a Pew Institute survey noting that “more African American men aged 20 to 34 without a high school diploma or GED are behind bars (37 percent) than are employed (26 percent).”

Why should decriminalizing drugs, though, reduce crime? Criminals do not get involved with drugs because they like drugs, but because they like crime. They tend to be young, unskilled, and marginalized and unlikely to earn a living in the legal economy, while the illegal economy offers them opportunities–especially for those who hold their lives cheap.

The overall unemployment rate for Americans aged 16 to 19 years has reached levels not seen during the postwar period:

Graph of Unemployment Rate - 16 to 19 years, White

It’s considerably worse for minorities.

FRED Graph

45% of blacks aged 16-19 presently are unemployed, up from 25%-30% during the two George W. Bush administrations. Enormous numbers of young Latin Americans are unemployed as well; it is estimated that the Mexican drug cartels employ 500,000 of them. Decriminalizing marijuana would give a windfall to cigarette manufacturers, for example, but erase the income available to young, unskilled unemployed Americans. If they can’t make a living selling pot, they will sell whatever drug we continue to criminalize, or engage in some other form of remunerative criminal activity, just like the Mexican cartels, who are as happy to make money through kidnapping (for example) as through drug sales).

Is this the inevitable fallout of global economic forces that have made redundant (to use the awful British euphemism) the least-capable among America’s young people? That is the historical pattern. The usual historical solution is to kill off the redundant population, as I observed in a 2011 Asia Times essay.

The Industrial Revolution improved the lives of British workers by every available measurement – life expectancy, consumption, and so forth. But that was true only for those who survived the agricultural revolution to become industrial workers. The agricultural revolution that prepared the industrial revolution displaced a large proportion of agricultural labor. Starvation, emigration and war consumed the redundant population.

The Napoleonic Wars alone killed 188,000 British men, in a population of less than 9 million, the equivalent of 6.3 million in today’s American population. An additional 225,000 were transported as criminals to America (60,000) and Australia (165,000), not counting perhaps 1 million voluntary emigrants during the 19th century from England, Wales and Scotland.

Altogether, the attrition rate of the English and Welsh population at the turn of the 18th century amounted to 15%. Scotland must be considered separately, because the English deliberately cleared the Highlands of people after the 1746 Stuart rebellion. About half a million Highlanders were displaced, almost a third of the Scots population. Whole villages were transported to North America.

America’s prisons are doing today what the Napoleonic Wars, the Australian prisoner transport and the Highland Clearances did during the 18th century: get rid a large part of the population. That is a horrible observation, but a logical one. Blacks are the worst affected. The Second World War opened up high-paid industrial jobs previously reserved for whites. And the decline in US industrial employment starting in the 1970s reversed this. The dying city of Detroit is the image of African-American economic status. It is not just African-Americans who are suffering, to be sure. In social pathology of all kinds, the general population is only a bit behind the minorities, as Charles Murray argued persuasively in his 2012 book Coming Apart.

What shall we do? Decriminalizing drugs will not solve the problem. It will only transfer young criminals from one sort of criminal activity to another. We frequently hear the complaint that tough anti-drug laws incarcerate too many non-violent offenders (that is, offenders who were not caught in acts of violence and convicted). If our policy is to exhaust the potential population of criminals through attrition–and that is what it amounts to–the present state of affairs is as good as it gets, for it means that we are incarcerating the criminal population before violent crimes are committed rather than afterwards.

The hypocrisy attending the de facto war of attrition is transcendent. The youth unemployment rate has doubled on Obama’s watch, from around 12% to around 25%, and minority unemployment in particular has soared. Obama has done more to shrink the number of entry-level jobs (by forcing employers to offer health insurance) than any other person in American history. We have put an enormous fraction of America’s young population on the scrapheap, and our fallback is the Scrooge solution, namely prisons and workhouses. One would hope that young people, even those without good economic prospects, would sustain a hope for something better. But thug culture has had done so much damage to morale that things are getting worse, faster.

For some years I have argued that America needs to revive the Depression-era idea of a Civilian Conservation Corps and similar entities to get young people working. That may seem a distinctly un-conservative proposal from a right-winger like me, but drastic measures are required. It costs nearly $50,000 to incarcerate a prisoner in the State of California, for example. Giving kids jobs doesn’t necessary reduce the prison population, but at the margin it ought to help, at less than half the cost. We should try something beside the Scrooge solution. Obama won’t do anything like this because the construction unions would object.

In the meantime, there’s no benefit to be had from retreating on drug enforcement.





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All Comments   (16)
All Comments   (16)
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I disagree. Basically most drug "crimes" are victimless behaviors with one major exception: the criminal violence required to maintain illegal black markets by those capitalist value added wealth creators. A lot of those victimless behavior incidents never get reported to the police or involved in the criminal justice system--unless a particular behavior becomes noticeable., for example driving under the influence of a controlled substance by a Hollywood celebrity. Legalize drugs and violent drug related crimes over market share would end.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
There is a lot to think about here. And these are my thoughts of today on this subject.

1. I agree that drugs do not cause crime. Drugs are the nasty habit and amusement of the underclass that is the criminal class. But, it is now clear that you cannot affect their use materially by law enforcement. It is a spiritual, cultural, and medical problem.

Americans love to pretend that things make men act in certain ways, that guns make them violent, and drugs make them criminals. This is a fallacy and it should be vigorously rebutted.

2. The reason to end the war on drugs and legalize drug consumption is not the effect it might or might not have on the levels of other crimes in our cities. It is to stop the incredible waste of resources that the drug war entails, and its collateral damage. The resources spent on drug agents, SWAT teams, jails, and prison guards could be much more effectively spent on beat cops to suppress the crimes that people worry about such as larceny, burglary, robbery, rape, and assault. The collateral damage includes the industrialization of the criminal justice system, the militarization of the police, and the deformation of the law.

3. I do not accept the theory that the employment problems you describe are caused by technological change. I think they were all created by policy.

e.g. I think it is clear that youth unemployment was due most of all to the 2007 jump in the minimum wage.

see: "Teens, Young Adults and President Obama's Minimum Wage"

Obamacare has also been a huge inhibitor of job growth. The recent suspension of the employer mandate is an example of how to make things worse by increasing uncertainty. That and uncertainty about taxes caused a capital strike.

The EPA and the environmental movement are enemies of a productive economy. Rein them in, let out federal land for leases of hydrocarbon and mineral interests.

Immigration policy is another disaster for low skill American citizens. Letting 12 million illegals into the US might have saved Mexico in the 90s but the net effect has been to depress wages for manual and domestic labor.

The political class has been salivating at the chance of enacting their own version of Bertolt Brecht's Solution (Die Lösung) "dissolve the people and elect another?" with an immigration amnesty. We should go the other way.

4. The minus to drug legalization is that it would accelerate the rate at which the underclass is killing itself. To be completely cynical however, it is merely an alternative to incarceration see Hell Is Like Newark's comment.

5. You wrote: "If it's legal, parents won't be able to tell their kids not to use it. That's why American voters are unlikely to support legalization."

American voters have voted legalization in a couple of places already.

BTW You need to understand that there is no high school student in the country who does not have an easy and cheap supply of marihuana readily available. I didn't tell my kids not to use it, and they did, with no effect on their lives. They are in their 20's now, and they seem to prefer beer and bourbon, which is fine by me.

1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Well reasoned, well written, too true.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Mr. Goldman,

Thank you for sharing your insights once again. Thank you for seeing the truth, and for sharing it, knowing that it is unlikely all the same to make a difference.

As the LORD told Isaiah (speaking of the Jerusalemites of his day, 29:14), "What remains but some great, some resounding miracle, to strike awe into such hearts as these? Bereft of wisdom their wise men shall be, cunning of their counsellors vanish."

May you find some encouragement in verses 17-24 of the same chapter.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Are criminals a greater, lessor or constant portion of the population now then before? If as I suspect, crimnality is a constant, is the US prison population so large as to imply that we are simply better at catching the bad guys than others? Or more probably, we have done a better job of creating the crime and punishment industry, funded by tax payers.

Historically, how have past communities dealt with criminals? Lower level Entry Crimes were punished locally. In days gone by Martin would have had his ears boxed back in high school before his attitudes hardened...BY HIS OWN FAMILY-COMMUNITY.

Hard core criminals were more harshly treated, again locally. Lynchings occured.

It changed when people began making criminals victums, not out of care for the mental health of criminals, but to give themselves permission to misbehave.

Finally, re the drug war. It is a one way war. Consumption is not criminalized. The left loves drug use, for themselves. Anti-drug leftist is oxymoronic. They are special people after all, and need to expand their already wonderful minds, for the betterment of all.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Criminality is a skill. Not everybody has the skills to be a proficient criminal. Hardened criminals will be resourceful and find ways to make a living. So, if the criminal economy dries up, proficient criminals will do what they can to expand their own economic opportunities.

That said, drying up the criminal economy pushes children to learn ways of making a living other than crime. Why commit crimes if one can make more money legitimately? If one wants to reduce the level of crime over time, it helps to reduce economic and social incentives to become a criminal.

Arguing against legalizing drugs amounts to arguing for the entry of future generations of youths into the criminal economy. The criminal economy amounts to a jobs program for criminal subcultures, and the prison system amounts to a form of welfare – and a school that turns young criminals into hardened criminals. Clearly, if drugs are legalized, a massive jobs program will be necessary to soak up an unskilled youth labor pool that would otherwise cause trouble.

Should the numbers racket be run by black gangsters, the Mafia, or large corporations such as Powerball that split the take with state governments? The question of legalization is actually a question of who gets to profit from vice.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
In a scenario where drugs and prostitution are fully legalised and regulated to ensure the safety of all involved, what would criminals and the unscrupulous likely focus on next? Piracy aka theft of intellectual property? Smuggling of lower-priced Goods from another country that is than sold in another at a profit where existing Goods in the latter are overpriced (e.g. Booze Cruise, etc)? Counterfeit Money / Etc?

While one could argue that such a scenario would create more problems than it solves and in the long-term potentially be very destructive on a civilizational level (especially if governments decide it is in their interest to distract people with bread, circuses, sex and soma), at the same time any war on drugs or prostitution would take away much needed resources for more serious crimes as well as be about as effective as the global war on the weather currently being waged by governments across the world (e.g. Global Warming, Global Cooling, Climate Change, Climate Disruption, etc).

Along with youth unemployment, there is also a growing movement among men around the world who without any shame and openly or not, simply say “screw it, my country / civilisation / women / etc are not worth preserving anymore” and go their own way in life while yet another article appears bemoaning “where have all the good men gone?”

Even Dr Helen Smith's Men on Strike book barely scraps the surface of a discontented male gender that has been greatly vilified and dehumanized on a socio-legal level for decades to the point where shaming language calling them to “man up” or blaming them for today's failed fatherless misandric society, no longer works.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
But would you trust the government to run a new CCC? How about Eric Holder as its first director with Lois Lerner as his assistant?
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
A strange thing happened in Britain when whiskey became cheap and available. It was much more potent than ale or wine and many people succumbed to it. The solution-- do nothing. The chronic alcoholics were allowed to freeze to death in the streets. Many did. The problem of chronic drunks solved itself. They self-exterminated over time. And in the meantime not one social worker being paid on the tax payers dime was employed to manage their fall.

If we legalize drugs I don't think we're going to have any more people doing them that already are. And the plain fact is that drugs which are expensive on the street are actually quite cheap in the legitimate market. Cocaine, heroin, and meth cost very little to produce. It would be far better if the addicts could get the money for their habits by begging on a street corner for two hours rather than burglarizing a home. And if they want to kill themselves by such a habit-- let them. Don't hospitalize them, don't "treat" them, let them die.

Its a cheap, time-honored solution to the problem of addiction. Perhaps we should try it.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
If we legalize pot, its use probably will skyrocket, with devastating effects.
If it's legal, parents won't be able to tell their kids not to use it. That's why American voters are unlikely to support legalization.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Terrible, devastating effects.

I think it's not that parents won't be able to tell their kids what not to do, but that they might have to. Worse than talking to precious, is the fear that marijuana really is innocuous, which would make a great deal of people look ridiculous.

Bloodying South America or locking up the neighbour's wretched spawns are small price when seen in that light.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
There is a 'rehab' clinic that provides three hots and a cot -- and unlimited booze for free.

It's funded by a portion of the state's liquor taxes.

I can't remember the state (Oregon, Minnesota...?) but the house cleaned up skid row -- and the police blotter -- and the emergency rooms...

A surprising number dried up and went sober -- surrounded by a sea of beer.

As you might expect, the patrons are all older men.

When the numbers are tallied, big savings are noted.

Their genes were already Darwin'd out of the next generation.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Back in the late 90's there was as study done on the huge drop in violent crime in New York City (South Bronx in particular). The study attributed the drop to the appearance of crack-cocaine. Unlike earlier drugs, crack would over a much shorter time, kill off its users. The criminal class pretty much exterminated themselves. This was dubbed "The Self-Cleaning Oven Effect"
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
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