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February 21, 2014

Drug War Facts and Myths

Via the always-interesting Charles Lane:

... the data do make one thing clear: If the goal of the war on drugs is to limit demand for drugs, then you can’t say the authorities are losing. According to federally sponsored surveys that track drug usage, the rate of current-month powder and crack cocaine use dropped by half in the past 10 years. Meth use fell by a third; heroin use has remained flat.

True, marijuana use rose slightly overall — but it fell among 12- to 17-year-olds, a result that even legalizers should applaud since they generally don’t favor allowing minors to smoke.

Meanwhile, even as drug prohibition continued, violent crime and property crime fell, dramatically. Not only did the number of murders in the United States decrease from 24,703 in 1991 to 14,612 in 2011 but drug-related murders declined from 1,607 to 505, according to Justice Department statistics. Some 6.5 percent of murders were related to drugs in 1991, but only 3.4 percent were in 2011.

The drug arrest rate fell from 142.1 per 100,000 in 1991 to 97.8 per 100,000 in 2011. Yes, blacks were still 3.9 times more likely to be busted for drugs than whites in 2011 — but that ratio was down nearly 50 percent from the one recorded 20 years earlier.

Marijuana arrests account for a bigger share of drug arrests these days, 44.3 percent in 2011 vs. 22.4 percent in 1991. But when you compare marijuana arrests to actual days of marijuana usage — busts per toke, so to speak — the story’s different. By this measure, “enforcement intensity” fell 42 percent between 2007 and 2012, according to drug-policy expert Keith Humphreys of Stanford University.

Some “war.” It’s a myth that prisons are full of low-level pot smokers. Less than 1 percent of the state and federal prison population is doing time for pot possession alone; most of these prisoners are dealers who pleaded guilty to possession in return for a lesser sentence, according to the 2012 study “Marijuana Legalization: What Everyone Needs to Know,” published by Oxford University Press.

I've never understood most of the drug war hype. Drugs erode self control and drug addicts often have trouble holding a job or supporting themselves. Yet they still need to feed their addiction - so much so that many of them commit horrific crimes to secure their next fix.

The argument that something-or-other has made things "worse" presupposes a "better" baseline. It also assumes something we cannot know - what would have happened to that baseline if our culprit-du-jour never materialized?

Posted by Cassandra at February 21, 2014 07:03 AM

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The article makes the same point about instituting the death penalty for possession, per Singapore. Would that "have" helped? Impossible to know.

OK. So can we ask if it "would" help? It sounds like we're going to have trouble asking that question too. Most of the things we'd want to take as evidence should be dismissed, since they are facts about the past (which have no baseline against which to compare them). I can't even say if the current policy "has helped," as an argument for continuing it; I therefore certainly can't field an argument that it "would help" to change course, or to continue the current course.

You can still reason from principles, of course: then you can decide what to do based on what you think is right or noble or befitting a free people. Those are the arguments about the drug war I tend to find persuasive.

Posted by: Grim at February 21, 2014 02:37 PM

That and the fact that while drug crimes were down, so were crimes in general so there is some external factor not related to the drug war to consider. How much of the decrease can be attributed to the drug war.

At the same time, prohibition also reduced alcohol usage and drinking related crimes (domestic violence, etc). It also fueled the Mafia so there's that.

I'm not sure how you quantify the reduction in usage and related deleterious effects against the rise of the drug gangs, cartels and their less than ideal social consequences.

Alcohol is a less powerful and dangerous drug than heroin and so perhaps they fall on different ends of the cost-benefit-analysis. But it's not at all clear to me that all of our currently banned drugs fall on the wrong side of things. What I do know is that it shouldn't be federal law. I'm very interested to see how the Colorado experiment turns out.

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at February 21, 2014 03:33 PM

You can still reason from principles, of course: then you can decide what to do based on what you think is right or noble or befitting a free people. Those are the arguments about the drug war I tend to find persuasive.

I've seen very few arguments about legalizing drugs - principled or otherwise - that I find persuasive. Hard to get excited about pot, but I'll be interested to see how that whole Colorado thing works out.

The idea that making hard drugs easier to get will magically make things better is just so dumb that I don't know whether to start with it. I wonder if these people have ever known an addict or someone with a drug problem? Illegality/enforcement aren't causing the horrible problems these people are facing.

Drug addiction is. And the tragedy of drugs is that so many addicts don't *want* help and won't accept it until they hit bottom (often dragging their loved ones and children with them).

I don't agree about dismissing facts wholesale. If someone's argument is that we'd have far less drug-related crime (and this has been a major argument) if drugs weren't illegal, the fact that drug related crime was worse in the past and lessened after years of the drug war is not dispositive, but it places a real damper on the notion that mere illegality or enforcement are the causative factors behind drug related crime.

That's always been a dumb argument frankly, but it looks even dumber in light of the facts almost regardless of how they are interpreted. The "better" before state just isn't there to begin with (at least wrt to drug related crime).

Posted by: Cassandra at February 21, 2014 04:02 PM

While we're on the subject, allow me to gloat at the ridiculousness of the Justice dept's current "crack cocaine laws are RAAAAAAACIST" jihad in light of the fact that it was congressional black leaders who pushed for those laws in the first place.

To protect non-drug users in crime-ridden black neighborhoods.

Posted by: Cassandra at February 21, 2014 04:04 PM

One thing that has probably reduced drug use in the US is people seeing the effects of the crack epidemic in the 1980s and 1990s. People saw people around them die from overdoses or from gang wars, and decided not to join that game.

You can, by the way, actually see the effects of the crack epidemic in black longevity during tha period. After gaining for many years -- and reducing the gaps with whites, it stabilized, especially for men.

Posted by: Jim Miller at February 21, 2014 06:57 PM

I understand the argument, "We can't know anything about counterfactuals, so we can't compare actual outcomes to counterfactual outcomes." If that's right, however, the main thing we can do with data is that we can test outcomes against predictions (e.g., "You said Obamacare would lower costs by $2,500 per family. What happened?"). That much we can do, and usefully do.

But it also becomes a lot harder to say, "Things would have been worse if we hadn't changed course," for the same reason that it's hard to say that changing course did make things worse. We really can't compare the states, if this is the right way to think about how to compare them.

I'm not sure it is, though. Also, from my perspective, the problem with the drug war isn't the drugs or the addicts. It's what it's done to the rest of us -- the vast majority of the society whose relationship to the state has been transformed as an unintended consequence. That's the problem that concerns me, far more than the other questions.

Posted by: Grim at February 21, 2014 06:59 PM

Here's a post I wrote last summer on longevity and the crack epidemic.

Posted by: Jim Miller at February 21, 2014 07:28 PM