3 Violence-Minimizing Drug Policies That Work

Last updated on November 4th, 2019

Drug abuse and drug dealing can both foster acts of violence. But that doesn’t mean that any action labeled “anti-drug” will actually reduce violence. Mere “toughness” in law enforcement, and the use of absurdly long prison terms, can create incentives for increased bloodshed; witness the upsurge in violence after the Calderón administration in Mexico launched its “decapitation” strategy.

Smarter drug policies could reduce violence, not just in the sweet by-and-by but virtually right away.

Focus drug law enforcement on violence, not volume. Any illegal business involves the risk of violence. But not all illegal markets, and not all drug-dealers or drug-dealing organizations, are equally prone to gunplay. When drug law enforcement aims at all drug dealers alike, the ones that use more violence may benefit because their reputation scares off potential witnesses. If instead we pick out the most dangerous dealers and groups – which may not have the largest volume of business – we can make violence a bad market strategy. That will create a disincentive for bloodshed, while the incarceration of the most violent will tend to leave behind it a less violent market. Enforcement focused on flagrant open drug markets – street dealing and drug houses – can help drive dealers into more discreet, and therefore less violence-inducing, ways of doing business.

Force drug-using offenders to quit. Most drug users don’t commit crimes other than drug possession. But the relatively small number of very heavy users, who among them account for most of the quantity of drugs consumed and most of the revenues of drug dealers, includes a high proportion of active non-drug criminals. And there’s strong evidence that, within that group of heavy user-offenders, crime rates rise and fall along with drug use. Most of that group gets arrested, and winds up on bail, or probation, or on parole. Frequent or random drug-testing with the promise of an immediate but short jail stay for every positive or missed test – the swift-certain-fair approach typified by Project HOPE in Hawaii – drastically reduces drug use and future crime: much more effectively than a (hard-to-enforce) requirement to seek drug treatment. That’s the best way to shrink the illicit drug markets and the violence that goes with them.

Raise alcohol taxes. The drug that causes the most violence is alcohol. Higher taxes lead to higher prices. Higher prices reduce drinking, especially among heavy drinkers who spend a large share of their income on alcohol. Tripling the federal beer tax from a dime a beer to thirty cents – imposing only trivial costs on the typical drinker – would reduce violent crime (and automobile fatalities) by 6%. No complicated program required; no need for law enforcement; just a change in a figure in the tax tables. If this sounds remote from the topic of drugs and violence, that’s because we too often forget that alcohol is a drug, and an unusually dangerous one. Violence-minimizing drug policy isn’t much on the current political agenda.

Neither the remaining “drug warriors” nor their opponents in the drug-legalization movement want it there, and of course neither does the alcoholic-beverage industry. That leaves it up to you and me.

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