The Futile Drug War and Crime

Over at just a marine, the author is making the argument that the drug war, while it hasn’t been as successful as he’d like, is not futile. This is in response to Radley Balko’s piece at Reason highlighting the folks of LEAP.

The marine makes a point that is very personal, but has wider implications:

Along the way, instead of hearing about the corrupting influence on cops, how about hearing about the influence on those of us who been stolen from, or worse. Wait till your car has been broken into in your driveway to see what I mean. Now multiply it several times in the same place, again as on your land.

National property crime rates (burglary, larceny/theft, motor vehicle theft, and arson) since 1960 say as much. That there has been a small decline since the 1990’s shows some progress, but it is still twice the 1960 rate. It has been almost three times as high.

He is correct that property crime appears to be roughly double that now of what it was in 1960. But he’s misleading in his statement that there’s been a small decline “since the 1990’s”, since crime rose quickly and steadily throughout the 1960’s and early 1970’s, but the rates of theft and burglary have been cut in half since then. Crime has declined slightly since the 1990’s, but declined quite significantly during the late 1970’s into the 1980’s.


Of course, this table only goes to 1995, but the numbers of property crimes in the US have consistently fallen since 1995, despite the fact that our population increased by almost 13%.

To some extent, this may be tied to rates of drug use. Drug use has also decreased significantly since 1979, followed by a levelling off around 1990 and perhaps a slight rise in the last few years.


But not shown here is any sort of causative relationship. Since drug use stabilized and rose during the 90’s and into the current decade, a causative relationship would suggest rising property crime rates, according to the author of just a marine. Yet crime continued to drop during this time. Clearly the correlation between drug use and crime is strained. It could be that drug use and crime are both effects of a cause which can more easily be traced elsewhere.

After all, if you look at the history of the 1960’s and 1970’s, they were a time of incredible social upheaval. The civil rights movement, the sexual revolution, the Great Society, and the war in Vietnam created a wave of social unrest that rippled through all of American society. Lots of previously mistreated social groups came to believe that they were entitled to jobs and equal participation in society, but the society was reluctant (and not entirely ready) to integrate them. The promises made during the civil rights movement, sexual revolution, and Great society weren’t being upheld, and it caused a lot of unhappiness. Could it be that crime and drug use were both the result of that social unrest?

What is missing, though, is the question of whether the war on drugs is futile, which isn’t proved by anything that just a marine has said:

The article I mentioned earlier included the corrupting influence of alcohol during prohibition. At least that problem went away with the end of prohibition. But nowhere did the alcohol prohibition problems include the high amount of burglary that comes from our drug problem today. Does anyone believe that if we make all drugs legal, then the burglary, and worse, problems will end? I know some do, but they are wrong, in my opinion.

Does anyone believe that if we continue the current war on drugs, the current rates of burglary will decrease? Can it be shown that if we end the war on drugs, the rates of those problems will increase? Current evidence doesn’t support that claim. Some evidence, such as that in the Netherlands, actually show a decrease in marijuana use after decriminalization.

Nor does his claim that the prohibition of alcohol didn’t include high rates of crime hold water. Crime rates (both violent and property crimes) rose steadily through the 1920’s, and then suddenly reversed course in 1933, when alcohol prohibition was repealed. This appears to be rising crime rates during the strong economy of the 1920’s, followed by declining crime rates during the country’s struggling economy and high unemployment during the Great Depression. Burglaries, violent crime, and Prohibition-related incarceration rose quickly during alcohol prohibition, and then decreased thereafter. Could it be that our current crime rates, which have been declining for 15 years despite drug use holding constant and the War on Drugs in full swing, may decrease even further with an end to drug prohibition?

Further, all the arguments of the drug prohibitionists are predicated on one assumption: that drug prohibition can work. The evidence has clearly shown that drug Prohibition does not end drug use, nor does it end or reduce crime. What it does do is create a violent black market, dominated by organized crime, while forcing drug users underground— thus making it socially unacceptable for drug abusers to seek treatment. All while causing billions of dollars every year, and stomping on civil liberties. If the War on Drugs means we have horrendous corruption of law enforcement, and moderate drug use in our society, but removing the War on Drugs ends the corruption of law enforcement while retaining moderate drug use, wouldn’t it still make sense to remove the War on Drugs?

Just a marine seems to believe that because drugs are illegal, drug-related crime will cease. Yet his own experience, having his car broken into, is evidence that drug-related crime occurs in a world where the War on Drugs is prosecuted with ever-increasing ruthlessness. How he can make the claim that the drug war is not futile, when it is expensive, destroys lives, and yet has complete inability to stop drug use, I simply don’t understand.

  • Laer

    It’s interesting that you focus on crime instead of death in your post. Drugs routinely kill drug users and “the war on drugs” includes information efforts that reduce this risk. Granted, the government funded programs are not as effective as the private sector programs, but saving lives is good no matter who does it.

    I used to do a drug information blog that carried nothing but news stories from around the world about people dying from drugs, being murdered by drug users, or ruining their lives because of drugs. Although everything I published was just news, not opinion, I was mercilessly attacked by drug apologists who said I was biased. I told them they could go to pro-drug sites if they wanted, but that wasn’t my mission. They didn’t listen. Attack, attack, attack. Gosh, it was like they were addicts or something.

    It is no stranger that drug activists attack anyone who tries to educate about drugs than it is that abortion activists attack anyone who tries to educate about abstinence or gestation. Both are inherently ultra-defensive about their beliefs because they both know that what they believe in kills, and more people would be alive if what they believed in would just go away. Rather than accept this truth, they just attack the messenger.

    That’s why I stopped doing that blog. It was just too much attack, too much hassle, too much having to deal with stupid people.

    You should consider the effects of stopping the war on drugs. Sure, you’d get your libertarian jollies, but it would be much, much harder to reach kids with the dangers of drugs if society just rolls over and accepts them. If you doubt this, just look at alcohol.

  • Brad Warbiany

    At the same time, look at tobacco. It’s been legal for centuries, but in the US (largely due to education) it’s use is dropping constantly. And I’d say it’s more addictive than at least most recreational drugs.

    I’m not advocating drugs. I’m saying we can get a better bang for our buck treating it as a health issue than a criminal issue.