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Will Legalizing Drugs Reduce Crime?


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

Forty-five percent 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.