Thursday, April 24, 2008

BLOOD WEED: Would softening drug laws alleviate or worsen drug violence in the U.S. and Mexico?


Would softening drug laws alleviate or worsen drug violence in the
U.S. and Mexico? Charles "Cully" Stimson and Jacob Sullum debate.

Today, Stimson and Sullum address the relationship between drug laws
and violence. Previously, they compared drug legalization and
decriminalization, debated the federal government's authority to raid
local marijuana dispensaries, and discussed past substance use by
successful politicians. Tomorrow, they'll present their ideal drug
policies for the U.S.



By Charles "Cully" Stimson

Legalizing all drugs would not "alleviate" drug violence. But it may
change the nature of the violence -- likely for the worse.

As the argument goes, if you legalize drugs, you take the risk out of
transporting drugs from Mexico to the United States. That may or may
not prove to be completely true in reality. And yes, there may be a
grain of truth to the theory that because legalizing drugs would
result in fewer turf battles between gangs, the exact types of
violence we see daily on the streets of every major city may decrease
slightly. But that theory goes only so far.

Let's consider some basic economic facts and put your drug
decriminalization theory to the test, Jacob. It's true that the price
of heroin, meth, coke, marijuana and other illegal drugs would come
down because suppliers would no longer have to add in a risk premium.
No doubt, Jacob, you will say that legalizing dangerous drugs would
alleviate drug violence in both countries and that, like alcohol,
drugs should be regulated and taxed.

Here's the rub, though: If you impose high taxes, a gray market will
inevitably be created, and along with it will come violence. If you
impose no taxes, and thus the price remains low, there will be
rampant consumption and the predictable, attendant violence and
social dislocation that go hand in hand with consumption.

There are myriad examples of gray markets for legal products where,
not surprisingly, violence is necessary to secure financial gain. The
criminal cartels of Eastern Europe built their fortunes on, among
other things, the cigarette trade. Cigarettes are legal. Move a bit
north (Russia), and there's a thriving criminal trade in luxury
automobiles. Cars are legal. Terrorist groups in the Middle East
pocket money from selling bootleg DVDs. DVDs are legal.

These products are all taxed and regulated, yet there's a violent and
vibrant gray market for them. Criminals always find ways to make
money to finance their enterprises. They will do exactly the same
thing with "legalized" drugs. The violence will continue even if you
legalize drugs; the players will just be different.

Any policy that makes consumption of heroin, coke, meth, LSD and
marijuana go up dramatically in the population will, without a doubt,
increase violence and create massive social dislocation.

Take Amsterdam, where there is easy access to drugs. Amsterdam is one
of the most violent cities in Europe. When the supply of heroin
increased there, the price dropped and the number of hard-core
addicts grew substantially.

So while there will be some people who, as they do now, smoke
marijuana a few times a week and hold down productive jobs, there
will be many more who consume more of these dangerous drugs because
there will be no threat of criminal sanction hanging over their
heads. Crime and violence will increase exponentially. It would be
like adding gasoline to a fire.


Charles "Cully" Stimson was a local, state and federal prosecutor, a
military prosecutor and defense attorney, and a deputy assistant
secretary of Defense. Currently, he is a senior legal fellow at the
Heritage Foundation (



By Jacob Sullum

On Feb. 14, 1929, five men working for Al Capone, disguised as police
officers, lined up six members of a rival gang run by George Moran,
plus a bystander, against the back wall of a garage on Chicago's
North Side. Moran's men died in a barrage of machine-gun fire and
shotgun blasts.

The St. Valentine's Day Massacre was, in a sense, "alcohol-related,"
but not because the hit men were drunk. Capone and Moran were
competitors in the black market created by alcohol prohibition, and
in a black market, this is how competitors settle their differences.

The same phenomenon can be observed today. A 1989 study reported in
the journal Contemporary Drug Problems looked at New York City
homicides identified as "crack-related" and found that 85% grew out
of black-market disputes, while about 7% occurred during crimes
committed to support a crack habit. Only one homicide out of 118
involved a perpetrator who was high on crack. The most common motive
for the black-market homicides was "territorial dispute."

This sort of thing simply does not happen in the current alcohol
market, where disputes are resolved legally and competition is
peaceful. Coors and Anheuser-Busch may fight vigorously for
customers, but the fighting never escalates into gunfire. To the
extent that other markets in psychoactive substances are
characterized by violence, the blame lies with prohibition, not with
the particular drugs being sold.

Prohibition persists, by the way, in Amsterdam, where the retail sale
of marijuana is tolerated but large-scale distributors of cannabis
and all sellers of "hard" drugs remain subject to arrest and
prosecution. While it's true that Amsterdam has a relatively high
homicide rate compared with other European cities, I don't think you
can plausibly attribute that fact to all the pot-smoking, which at
any rate is more common in the U.S. than it is in the Netherlands.
The U.S., which has a decidedly stricter drug policy, has a much
higher homicide rate as well.

Cully, your examples of violent "gray markets" in untaxed cigarettes,
bootleg DVDs and what I assume are either stolen or untaxed cars
reinforce my point about the cause of such violence: All of these
products are contraband, meaning the trade in them operates outside
of the law. Governments are well-advised to avoid taxing any product,
including tobacco, alcohol and the currently illegal intoxicants, at
such a high rate that a substantial gray market emerges.

You say, Cully, that failing to impose such heavy taxes also will
result in violence because it will encourage more drug consumption.
You seem to assume that drug consumption causes violence. That
certainly was the impression created by press coverage of the "crack
epidemic," but the truth turned out to be quite different. "The media
and public fears of a direct causal relation between crack and other
crimes do not seem to be confirmed by empirical data," the U.S.
Sentencing Commission noted in 1995. "Studies report that neither
powder nor crack cocaine excite users to commit criminal acts and
that the stereotype of a drug-crazed addict committing heinous crimes
is not true for either form of cocaine."

The relationship between drug use and violence is complex and not
necessarily causal. But the drug most strongly associated with
violence -- more strongly than crack, PCP or methamphetamine -- is
alcohol, which nevertheless remains legal, and in my view, rightly
so. Prohibition did not make drinkers any more peaceful, and it made
the people who supplied them a lot more violent.


Jacob Sullum, a senior editor at Reason magazine and a nationally
syndicated columnist, is the author of "Saying Yes: In Defense of Drug Use."

Newshawk: Help for LTE writers
Pubdate: Thu, 24 Apr 2008
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Section: A
Copyright: 2008 Los Angeles Times
Authors: Jacob Sullum and Charles Stimson
Referenced: Monday's DUST UP
Referenced: Tuesday's DUST UP
Referenced: Wednesday's DUST UP

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