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Has the War on Drugs reduced crime?


Robert E. Peterson, J.D.

Strong drug enforcement in the United States is correlated with dramatic reductions in crime, drug use, and drug addiction rates. Historically, permissive enforcement policies brought record murder and crime rates, peak drug use levels, and increased the addict population.

Drug arrest rates are not an accurate measure of how tough the nation is on drugs. There are three times as many alcohol related arrests than drug arrests - is alcohol policy three times tougher than drug policy? If we legalize drugs, we may triple the number of drug arrests. To measure drug enforcement strength one must examine what happens to those arrested. A good method is to track the number of persons incarcerated for every thousand drug arrests. Periods of weak and strong drug policy can then be compared.

Permissive drug policy was an abject failure in the U.S. A drug criminal was four times more likely to serve prison time in 1960 than in 1980 and the incarceration rate plummeted 79%. This drug tolerant era brought a doubling of the murder rate, a 230% increase in burglaries, a ten fold increase in teen drug use, and a 900% rise in addiction rates. The peak years for teen drug use and murder were the same years that drug incarceration rates hit an all time low point.

From 1980-1997, the drug incarceration rate rose over fourfold and crime and drug use began a steady unprecedented decline. Murder rates fell by over 25%, burglary rates dropped 41%, teen drug use reduced by more than a third, and heavy cocaine and heroin use levels fell. With peak drug incarceration rates, many cities, such as New York, reached record low crime levels.

Increasing the odds of imprisonment for drugs helped lower crime and drug use rates because major drug offenders, traffickers, and repeat felons were targeted - not minor drug possessors. Urban drug defendants are more likely to be repeat criminals than violent or property offenders. The hard core drug felon often steals not just to buy drugs but also to pay bills and survive through a career of crime. Locking up career criminals is a very cost effective policy.

Over 95% of state prisoners are violent and repeat criminals. Under one-tenth of one per cent of inmates are non-violent, first time marijuana offenders. Most state drug prisoners are traffickers or repeat and/or violent offenders. A federal marijuana inmate was involved with 3.5 tons of the drug on average; a crack offender averaged 18,000 doses. Federal agencies have almost no jurisdiction over violent street crime; that is why most federal cases involve major cocaine and heroin drug traffickers.

Are we getting too tough? Drug prison sentences have held fairly steady the past five years and drug inmate growth is slowing. Studies show that prison growth is the result of increasing the odds of imprisonment for all criminals and not from longer sentences being served. Mandatory minimum sentences have not caused court backlogs or dramatically longer terms, but they may be in part responsible for the tremendous success demonstrated by lower crime rates. One is more likely to go to prison for a federal gambling offense than for drug possession -- and a tax law violator will serve more prison time!

Tougher drug policy also reduces addiction because the criminal justice system is the number one source of treatment referrals. President Clinton credits the justice system for saving his brother's life and many treatment centers would shut down, and addicts would die, if drug laws were repealed. In 1991, a quarter of a million inmates received their most recent drug treatment while in prison.

History indicates that increasing the odds of hard core drug criminals going to prison has been an extremely effective way to reduce violent and property crime and to lower addiction and drug use rates. The nation is still recuperating from twenty years of permissive drug policy. Current enforcement efforts must be sustained.

We may have found a good balance, and neither tougher nor weaker policy is called for. The real problem is that of the minor drug offender, who now often escapes any consequences at all. Zero tolerance through alternative sanctions must be applied, such as abstinence enforced through drug testing, fines, civil liability, loss of driving and other privileges, and treatment modalities to deter these users before they reach the hard core criminal stage.


Ethan A. Nadelmann, J.D., Ph.D.

The punitive drug prohibition policies in the United States may well represent the most criminogenic government intervention ever devised. First, the simple act of producing, selling, purchasing and possessing marijuana, cocaine, heroin and other strictly controlled and banned drugs are crimes in and of themselves, which occur billions of times each year in the United States alone. U.S. law enforcement officials make over one million arrests for violations of these laws alone each year. U.S. prisons and jails now hold more than 400,000 people incarcerated for violations of these laws -- an eightfold increase from the 50,000 incarcerated in 1980.

Second, many illicit drug users commit crimes such as robbery and burglary, as well as vice crimes such as drug dealing and prostitution, to earn enough money to purchase cocaine, heroin and other illicit drugs -- drugs that cost far more than alcohol and tobacco not because they cost much more to produce but because they are sold with the hefty valued-added tax imposed by prohibition. During the early 1990s, the Institute of Medicine concluded that methadone-assisted treatment is most effective in reducing the crime, disease and death associated with illicit heroin use -- but current U.S. policies and attitudes severely restrict the availability of this form of treatment. In Switzerland, a recent national trial to prescribe pharmaceutical heroin to the most committed drug addicts (those who had failed methadone and/or other drug treatment on at least two occasions) resulted in a 60 percent drop in criminal offenses and the number of criminal offenders. Yet the U.S. war on drugs essentially forecloses any open, much less government-sanctioned, discussion of such policy options.

The global drug prohibition regime developed during this century has generated a vast black market -- valued at hundreds of billions of dollars per year -- that shows no signs of diminishing. The regime, and the national laws and policies associated with it, are responsible for pervasive corruption of government officials and the degradation of personal and business ethical standards around the world. The illegality of the market also increases the likelihood that business disputes will be resolved with physical intimidation and violence rather than in the courts. This holds true both among the wealthy drug traffickers who have gained so much political and economic power in less developed countries and among inner city youth and adults who see few more attractive options in the legitimate economies of their countries. The criminal escapades of Al Capone and his ilk during Prohibition seem like child's play compared to the consequences of our prohibitionist policies today.

So the answer is: of course the drug war, and the punitive prohibitionist policies it represents, have not decreased crime. Quite the opposite. Those who argue for broadscale legalization of drugs are quite correct to emphasize the extent to which this radical policy option would greatly reduce crime. But it is also important to understand that "harm reduction" policies that seek to reduce the negative consequences of drug use within the context of drug prohibition can also do much to reduce crime. That is the lesson that Americans can best learn from the experiences of foreign countries that are experimenting with alternatives to the war on drugs.


Ethan A. Nadelmann, J.D., Ph.D., is founder and director of The Lindesmith Center, a drug policy research institute with offices in New York and San Francisco. He previously served, from 1987 to 1994, as assistant professor of politics and public affairs at Princeton University.

Robert E. Peterson, J.D., is an attorney and former director of drug control policy for the State of Michigan. His company, Drug Facts, provides research and presentation materials on drug law enforcement, marijuana, and legalization matters.

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