Monday, July 12, 2010

Drug Wars Increase Drug Violence

 Homicides rise with anti-drug expenditures.

In a large review of studies evaluating the association between drug law enforcement and violence, the Vancouver-based International Centre for Science in Drug Policy (ICSDP) concluded that “the existing scientific evidence strongly suggests that drug prohibition likely contributes to drug market violence and higher homicide rates. On the basis of these findings, it is reasonable to infer that increasingly sophisticated methods of disrupting drug distribution networks may increase levels of drug-related violence.”

This finding is either self-evident or counterintuitive, depending upon your point of view. But it is entirely consistent with several historical examples, most notably the breakup of the Cali and Medellin cartels in Columbia during the 1990s. “The destruction of the cartels’ cocaine duopoly,” says the report, “was followed by the emergence of a fractured network of smaller cocaine-trafficking cartels that increasingly used violence to protect and increase their market share.”

In its review of available English language studies focusing on the association between drug enforcement and violence, the ICSDP looked at “longitudinal analyses involving up to six years of prospective follow-up, multilevel regression analyses, qualitative analyses, and mathematical predictive models.” The result? “Contrary to our primary hypothesis, among studies that employed statistical analyses of real world data, 82% found a significant positive association between drug law enforcement and violence.” 

According to Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron, who is quoted in the report: “Prohibition creates violence because it drives the drug market underground. This means buyers and sellers cannot resolve their disputes with lawsuits, arbitration or advertising, so they resort to violence instead.”

The drug policy group estimates that the worldwide illicit drug trade adds up to as much as $320 billion annually. Latin America is still the world’s leading supplier of marijuana and cocaine, but it has also become a major player in the opium and heroin trade. Afghanistan and West Africa are also plagued with serious political and social instability and violence due to drug traffic.

In light of the continuing economic downturn, it seems pertinent to note that the study estimates total U.S. drug law enforcement expenditures at about $15 billion a year for roughly the past 15 years. During that period, illegal drugs “have become cheaper and drug purity has increased, while rates of use have not markedly changed.” As an example, the report points to the “startling increase in heroin purity” from 1980 to 1999, when the Drug War was in full swing, and contrasts that trend with the “equally startling drop in price over the same period.”

The ICSDP is a recently-formed multinational network of scientists, health practitioners, and academics who seek to move the focus on drugs from law enforcement to harm reduction through “evidence-based drug policy guidelines and research collaborations with scientists and institutions across continents and disciplines.” Among its members are Michel D. Kazatchkine, executive director of The Global Fund to Fight Aids, TB and Malaria; Dr. David Nutt, a professor of neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College, London, who was recently dismissed as a drug adviser by the British government for his anti-drug war views; and Dr. Julio Montaner, president of the International AIDS Society.

The report, like all such summary studies, is open to dispute by scholars and scientists on the grounds of statistical methodology, but to date it serves as additional evidence for the proposition that federal drug control officials must seek alternative regulatory models--or risk being responsible for helping to lower price, increase supply, and foment a truly appalling level of homicidal violence in their efforts to interdict drug traffic and incarcerate users. 

Drug wars never work. The report from the International Centre for Science in Drug Policy is another reminder that drug wars intrinsically raise the level of violence in the countries and the communities where they are quixotically waged.

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Anonymous said...

What about legal, addictive prescription drugs? By all accounts, prescription narcotic addiction is rising far more rapidly than illicit drug use is. Being legal might be one reason why. Alcohol is also legal and its use is associated with more violence and fatalities than most illicit substances. It is also the most commonly used mood alterer.

If heroin and cocaine were legal and addiction rates rose, would the crime rate be less than it is now? How could anybody know for sure?

Dirk Hanson said...

We can't know for certain what the results would be. But we DO know for certain what the results of prohibition are.

I would turn the alcohol argument around: If booze, the premier killer drug, isn't illegal, than what is the argument, really, for making ANY psychoactive drug illegal? Haven't heard much from neo-prohibitionists advocating that we re-ban alcohol in America. This inconsistency makes a mockery out of the current drug war.

Anonymous said...

I see your point but I think one critical difference is that some people can actually use alcohol non-alcoholically. Most people, in fact. Nobody is going to be able to use crack non-addictively. And if alcohol and prescription narcotics are so commonly abused because they're legal, then legalizing crack and heroin might increase the number of addicts by an unknown amount. So in the cost benefit analysis, is having 10 times more drug addicts using legal drugs better than the existing trafficking violence from drug bans? Or how about an analogy: I'm sure underground human trafficking is the root cause of a lot of violence. Should we legalize child sex slaves? It's a hyperbolic example, but hell, if you're going to legalize crack, why not?

Dirk Hanson said...

There are in fact people who can use cocaine, heroin and even cigarettes in a non-addictive manner. They're called chippers, and the research literature has documented their existence without question.

Non-addictive people don't seek out the crack experience, as a rule, any more than they yearn to shoot heroin. It's all about your personal metabolism. A minority of people suffer the rigors of the damned from marijuana withdrawal, but I still favor cannabis legalization.

Overall, it's not self-evident to me that rates of addiction would increase substantially under a supervised system of decriminalization. Nor is it clear to me that criminalization has reduced the rate of addiction.

Anonymous said...

That is not a particularly fair comparison to make (prescription vs. street drugs). The manner in which people abuse prescription drugs is no different or less illegal than "street drugs" When buying prescription drugs on the black market, forging, abusing, or stealing prescriptions, there is still crime, and I agree, it is rapidly rising, however it seems most of the abuse is a result of equivalent drugs not being available on the street- again, raising criminal activity related to drug addiction.

Anonymous said...

I'm very interested in this from a slightly different angle: power of the drug dealers, which is huge in countries like Mexico, they kill all sorts of people to get their way, and so on, and using the army to fight them as is being done now just seems to escalate it all. A lot of people say look, let's just elect politicians who will cut deals with the dealers, so we won't all be killed, which is its own problem, obviously, since you're then not voting on other policies. So if you legalize, how do you do it is my question ... just decriminalize, or regulate and
tax, or what ... will the scenario be, artisan marijuana from an independent farmer vs. generic from Wal*Mart? Will the big growers be forcing out the little ones, or what? I know this sounds funny but I'm serious: what are the practical next steps, has anyone figured it out? Because I think it's time to do it...

Dirk Hanson said...

Good questions. I think it has to be a federal, rather than an individual state initiative. Here's one state legislator's picture of how it might go:

"In Washington state, on the other hand, Rep. Mary Lou Dickerson has sponsored a legalization bill in order to 'start a strong conversation about the pros and cons of legalizing marijuana.' Dickerson’s bill calls for selling marijuana in state-run liquor stores to customers who are 21-years-old and older. Her bill also calls for taxing the drug at the rate of 15% per gram, with most of the money raised through the taxes dedicated toward paying for substance abuse prevention and treatment programs."

DuWayne Brayton said...


I see your point but I think one critical difference is that some people can actually use alcohol non-alcoholically.

And some people can use illicit drugs non-addictively. While I had a hell of a run with substance abuse, the only specific drugs I had trouble with were LSD (and other hallucinogens), cannabis and to some degree alcohol. I used cocaine, meth and heroin without the least issues of dependence or specific addiction.

I did have a scare when I tried crack and the one time I shot cocaine, was the last time I touched it. But before those experiences, I never had a problem with cocaine use and I also had no problems with cutting the use after those particular delivery methods.

I would also note that the statistics for the illicit abuse of prescription drugs are largely driven by person's eighteen and under. People who wouldn't have legal access to such drugs in any case. It is also important to note that the legal abuse of prescription drugs is exceedingly rare.

That is something of a pet peeve for me, because there are a lot of kids (as young as seven or eight in the ER) who will claim absolutely, that they will never use illicit drugs or even alcohol - who will happily pop pills. Kids who later decide as teenagers or even college students, that drinking isn't such a problem. Kids who later have a significant other waking up next to a dead partner.*

As for lowering the crime rate, it is important to recognize that the vast majority of crime related to illicit drugs, are due to the illicit nature of that market. I mean there is no question that violence happens due to use - especially among tweakers. But none of that violence even comes close to the violence caused by the black market.

The other issue with use/addiction increases, is that legalization would also have an significant impact on the nature of addiction treatment. Especially if we actually take some of the taxes (forget the billions we spend now) and actually relegate it to addiction research and treatment.**

The problem with most arguments for the status quo, is that they fail to consider the full scope of public health concerns related to the drug war.

*That is hyperbole only in regards to teh specific scenario - though even that happens more than it should. There are far too many kids dying of bad pill cocktails, usually including alcohol.

**I should disclose that I am studying to go into research and clinical treatment.

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