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Myths and Realities of Drug Addiction, Consumption, and Crime

In this third post in opposition to drug legalization (here are the first and second), let me address the argument that the crime rate could be much reduced by legalizing the distribution and possession of currently illicit drugs.

This idea is attractive because people who take drugs allegedly commit many crimes in order to pay for them. There are, of course, stimulant drugs that make people more likely to commit acts of aggression or violence because the drugs themselves—amphetamines, cocaine, and cannabis among others—cause paranoia. But these crimes are not the acquisitive crimes (theft, burglary) that people usually mean when they speak of the crime that drug addicts commit.

There is no pharmacological reason why people who take heroin should commit crimes; the case is rather the reverse. Heroin has both euphoriant and tranquillizing properties, neither of which one would expect to lead to the commission of crime. And yet many heroin addicts do commit crimes, often repeatedly and in large number. Why? The standard answer: to “feed their habit,” to use an expression I have heard hundreds of times. According to this view, taking the drug renders them incapable of normal, legitimate work; but such is their overwhelming and irresistible compulsion, their need, to take the drug once they have become addicted to it that they must obtain it somehow. Crime is their way of squaring this circle.

Among the flaws in this view is its implicit explanation of how and why people become addicts in the first place. In fact, most heroin addicts choose to become addicted and indeed have to work at it. Not only do heroin addicts on average take the drug intermittently for 18 months before becoming physically dependent on it, but they have a lot to learn—for example where and how to obtain supplies, how to prepare the drug, and (if they inject) how to inject it. Most people have a slight natural revulsion against injecting something into their veins, a revulsion that has to be overcome. This speaks, then, of determination, not of a condition fallen into by accident.

The process of learning is a social one: there are teachers and taught. Those who become addicted are very largely a self-selected group, for no matter how widespread or prevalent heroin addiction becomes in a community or population, it never affects everyone. In other words, it is a choice.

Once addiction becomes widespread, its consequences are known to new recruits: they know perfectly well in advance how addicts live. One of the attractions, especially for those who feel themselves in opposition to or let down by society at large, of what might be called the heroin way of life is its transgressiveness. Opposition to the mores of one’s society is a way of achieving personal significance, however illusory or worthless in the eyes of others that significance might be; moreover the heroin addict’s life is busy and full of incident, which it might otherwise not be.

Some addicts, however, lead law-abiding lives (apart from the laws they break in buying and possessing their drug). The social class, educational level, and perhaps intelligence of these addicts can be above the average. We can all name successful artists and musicians who were heroin addicts. But this is not true of, shall we call them run-of-the-mill heroin addicts, many of whom break other laws and end up in prison. Of these, two observations may be made.

First, when they began their heroin “career,” they were fully aware of the criminality of the social milieu they were entering; most of them already had criminal propensities when they entered it. In the prison in which I worked as a doctor, for example, most of the addicts had already served a prison sentence before they ever took heroin. Since it was rare for a prisoner to be sentenced to prison on his first conviction, and since most prisoners readily confessed to me that they had committed between five and 20 times as many offenses as they were ever convicted for, their criminal activity before ever taking heroin must have been extensive. And a small percentage claimed (though I did not altogether believe it) to have become addicted in the first place while they were in prison.

Whatever the connection between crime and addiction, it is not that addiction causes crime.

The second thing to note about the life of the heroin addict who funds his drug-taking by petty crime is that it can be surprisingly strenuous. In one case in which I was involved as a witness, a group of addicts who lived together described how they would go shoplifting, or “out to work” as they called it, almost every day, from morning till night. They stole not in the town where they lived, but in the towns round about, which they rotated to reduce the chances of being caught. They paid a friend of theirs to drive them around. In a statement to the police, one of them said of a day three months earlier, “I can’t remember detail . . . but I would have been out all day stealing stuff to sell to get money for heroin. We would have got back to the flat at 7 p.m.”

Not only did they steal the “stuff,” but they had to sell it afterwards, since the “stuff” was not for their use or consumption but only to raise money, presumably at grossly discounted prices to people who knew perfectly well that they were buying stolen goods. Whatever else might be said about this group of addicts, their ability to work was scarcely in doubt. From their description of what they stole, it is not likely that they raised very much more by shoplifting than they would have raised by honest work. In fact they had never worked, but had shoplifted, before they were addicted, or addicted themselves, to heroin (one of them smoked it for more than a year before she injected it).

All of this suggests it is unlikely that altering the laws relating to drugs that are currently illicit will reduce the crime rate very significantly.

Nor can we draw firm conclusions from a country where the possession of small quantities of all drugs has been de facto decriminalized for a number of years, Portugal. Possession is dealt with in an administrative manner in Portugal, rather like a parking ticket, and leads to no criminal record. According to the statistics on Eurostat, the E.U.’s website, the crime rate in Portugal has not declined since decriminalization of drug possession, though it has in several other European countries that have not decriminalized drug possession.

Reaching well-founded conclusions is difficult because the problems with the evidence are many:

• The crime statistics can easily be manipulated by those who want to prove one thing or another.

• We cannot know what the statistics, even if honestly collected and published, would have been in the absence of decriminalization.

• Portugal is in any case a low drug-use and crime rate country, not necessarily comparable to others (including those that have experienced a reduction in the crime rate without altering the drug laws).

• And the production, distribution and sale of illicit drugs in Portugal are still criminal offenses, prosecuted as such.

All that can be said with any certainty is that the de facto decriminalization of possession of small quantities of drugs for personal use has led neither to a dramatic rise nor to a dramatic fall in the Portuguese crime rate.

To be sure, falls in the crime rate are not the only possible measure of the success or failure of the policy. The policy itself has been combined with other measures, such as increased access to rehabilitation for the addicted. The rate of transmission of the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (the cause of AIDS) among injecting drug addicts in Portugal has been much reduced, for example; but this may have been the result of public propaganda for the use, and the provision, of clean needles, by which means the same effect has been achieved elsewhere. It is therefore not easy to distinguish what the effects of the decriminalization of possession have been in isolation from the other aspects of Portuguese drug policy.

Drug use has increased in Portugal since decriminalization of possession. Post hoc is not propter hoc—we do not know for certain what would have happened anyway—but there is reason for thinking that the relationship between relaxation of the law and increased consumption was causative. The consumption of a drug is affected by its cost, including its non-financial cost. The effect of price on consumption has been shown best in the case of alcohol: the lower the price, the higher the intake. (I once worked among expatriates in Africa for whom alcohol was provided nearly free of charge. About 20 per cent of them became alcoholic, which they had not been on arrival.) For many people, a criminal record is a cost they are not willing to bear. The illicit attracts, but a criminal record also deters.

An interesting research paper traced the length of people’s addictions to various drugs, including nicotine and alcohol. The duration of their addiction was inversely proportional to the repressive and regulatory measures taken against the production, distribution, sale, and consumption of the drug.

It is too early to say what the practical effects of the legalization of cannabis will be in Uruguay or the state of Colorado. One ought to be cautious in making predictions, in advance of all experience, based on theoretical possibilities. But let us suppose for a moment that such experience shows that there is no increase in consumption, no increase in psychotic reactions, no increase in road or other serious accidents, no increase in cases of addiction requiring, or at least demanding, assistance, no diversion to those too young to take it legally. What would this tell us about drug policy in general?

That will be the subject of my next and final installment on this subject.

Reader Discussion

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on July 31, 2015 at 12:06:07 pm

1) Street drug prices are about 100 times what it would cost a pharmacy to make. Many of those property crimes would not occur today if the price was at the level of a normal drug.
2) By making these people criminals, you encourage disrespect for the law. Do you really think they will have the same aversion to violating the law when they are already doing so?
3) By making drugs illegal, you force them to interact with professional criminals on a regular basis (something that encourages crime).
4) Arrest and prison time make it difficult to get legitimate employment, by removing their means of getting a normal job, why are you surprised when then do other things to get money?
5) Drug criminalization encourages young people to become criminals by creating a lucrative black market that they can make lots of money by selling drugs.
6) All of this creates greater harm on the broader community in which it occurs lowering the ability for those in the neighborhood to get non-drug related jobs, further incentivizing crime.
7) By making drugs illegal, that means the normal uses of government cannot be applied. If a person gets ripped off in a drug transaction they cannot go to the police and courts to resolves disputes. This leads to people resolving disputes through violence, such violence would not exist if drugs were legal.

There are some drugs (like LSD) that can lead to an altered state in which crimes are more likely to occur. However there is nothing in drugs like heroin that makes people do crimes, although they may not realize the are committing a crime if they are significantly under the influence. Some reasonable regulation of mind altering drugs where the person wouldn’t realize they are committing a crime is fine (such as requiring that they be locked in a room). But the same cannot be said for marijuana which is ridiculous to make illegal. It is far less harmful then alcohol and tobacco.

Putting drug users in jail takes up valuable resources in our courts and prisons. Almost half the people in federal prison are there on drug crimes (a third of all criminal cases in the courts). Almost 10 times the number of people sense congress passed mandatory minimum sentences in the 1980s. 31% of drug offenders in prison have never been violent or part of any sophisticated criminal activity. 28% of all drug offenders in prison had never before committed a crime at all. The average sentence for non-violent drug offenders are 81 months, there is no parole in the federal system. Think of all the violent or other serious criminals that could be housed their instead (the average a violent criminal to commits 40 robberies, 7 assaults, 110 burglaries, and 25 auto thefts in a year).

Additionally drugs are made FAR more dangerous because they are illegal. Its hard to know exactly what the purity of the drug is (and it varies quite a bit) when they don’t come from trusted sources. Additionally various additives are sometimes added that can have significant negative effects, but as the drugs are not legal they cannot make sure the drugs are consistently pure.

The amount of marijuana consumed in Portugal has increased, but the amount of cocaine and heroin didn’t go up. The average rate of drug use among the adult population dropped from 44% to 28%. http://www.tdpf.org.uk/blog/success-portugal%E2%80%99s-decriminalisation-policy-%E2%80%93-seven-charts. They would have gone for full legalization, but the United States required treaties that imposed an “obligation to establish in domestic law a prohibition” on drug use.

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Devin Watkins
on August 01, 2015 at 08:54:43 am

Devin Watkins said most of the specific things I could get to.

On the other hand, I point up that Theodore insists that drug addiction doesn't lead to crime, and then talks about exactly how it does, in fact, lead to crime.

I'll wait for the end of the series to comment any more beyond this: All who suggest that coercive power be used against individuals have the obligation to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that their promoted cure is: 1. necessary; 2. founded in valid understanding of coercion's beneficial mechanisms (that's almost like a contradiction in terms); 3. better in both effects and unintended consequences than the problem.

Coercive anti-drug types can't do that. Theodore is failing miserably at #1, and he hasn't even pretended to address #2 or #3.

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kldimond
on August 01, 2015 at 18:19:00 pm

[…] Simple Truth about J.S. Mill’s Simple Truth,” op. cit., July 20, 2015, and “Myths and Realities of Drug Addiction, Consumption, and Crime,” op. cit., July 31, […]

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Not-So-Random Thoughts (XVI) | POLITICS & PROSPERITY
on August 03, 2015 at 04:47:38 am

Devin Watkins, to take your points one by one:

you say:

1) Street drug prices are about 100 times what it would cost a pharmacy to make. Many of those property crimes would not occur today if the price was at the level of a normal drug.

I say: When shops put items on special offer by decreasing the price - 50% off/Buy two get one free! - they do so to increase sales not decrease them. You say you’d like to see harmful drugs decreased in price by 99%. What do you think would be the most likely result of that - an increase or decrease in their use? If an increase, then you can expect to see a corresponding increase in the number of people suffering from the harmful effects of these drugs. At such a massively discounted price, you could also expect to see people ‘giving it a go’ who would not otherwise have done so. If you believe that taking drugs leads to addiction, then that’s an awful lot of people you’ve just condemned to a life of addiction who would otherwise have got on with their lives undisturbed by drugs.

you say:

2) By making these people criminals, you encourage disrespect for the law. Do you really think they will have the same aversion to violating the law when they are already doing so?

I say: You need to read the article more carefully. The point is that these people were already criminals before taking heroin. So in your argument you are putting the cart before the horse. Here is the relevant passage:

‘In the prison in which I worked as a doctor, for example, most of the addicts had already served a prison sentence before they ever took heroin. Since it was rare for a prisoner to be sentenced to prison on his first conviction, and since most prisoners readily confessed to me that they had committed between five and 20 times as many offenses as they were ever convicted for, their criminal activity before ever taking heroin must have been extensive.’

The man who wrote the article worked for many years as a prison doctor. If this is what he has to offer based upon his considerable experience, then I for one, am inclined to believe him. Do your opinions have such validity? Have you worked in a professional capacity for many years with such people?

you say:

3) By making drugs illegal, you force them to interact with professional criminals on a regular basis (something that encourages crime).

I say: What a curious turn of phrase! And what a curious understanding of crime you have! You describe ‘professional criminals’. What is the name of the ‘professional’ body to which they belong? Where do they publish the minutes of their meetings? What is the name of the journal which this ‘professional’ body publishes? Is this ‘professional’ publication monthly or quarterly? Which ‘professional’ qualification must they gain before going into practice? And as for your assertion that ‘interacting with criminals makes people criminal’ (to paraphrase you) I suppose that would make Anthony Daniels, the writer of the article, a very Moriarty of crime! As for the general point you are making, once again you’ve put the cart before the horse - see my response to point two.

you say:

4) Arrest and prison time make it difficult to get legitimate employment, by removing their means of getting a normal job, why are you surprised when then do other things to get money?

I say: horse and cart still in wrong order - see my response to point two.

you say:

5) Drug criminalization encourages young people to become criminals by creating a lucrative black market that they can make lots of money by selling drugs.

I say: horse and cart still in wrong order - see my response to point two. Further, do you really believe that by decriminalising drugs that the likes of ‘Papa Fernandez-Gomez - the crackhead killer’ are going to say to themselves “Oh well, there goes my lucrative life of crime! I suppose now I’ll just have to return to college, get an education and become, duh I dunno, a chartered accountant or something”? Really? Or will they simply turn their attentions to a different criminal activity? Which do you think is more likely?

you say:

6) All of this creates greater harm on the broader community in which it occurs lowering the ability for those in the neighborhood to get non-drug related jobs, further incentivizing crime.

I say: ‘All of this’ refers to your earlier points which are a veritable pile up of horses and carts.

you say:

7) By making drugs illegal, that means the normal uses of government cannot be applied. If a person gets ripped off in a drug transaction they cannot go to the police and courts to resolves disputes. This leads to people resolving disputes through violence, such violence would not exist if drugs were legal.

I say: Where do you get this stuff from? You really should try reading ‘Birds’ by Aristophanes - it contains the etymology of the phrase ‘cloud cuckoo land’.

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Boye the Familiar
on August 04, 2015 at 16:41:45 pm

1) My argument was about the amount of property crimes that would occur. You attacked a strawman that I didn’t make. As to the price change effects on use. There possibly would be people who would consume the drugs who wouldn’t otherwise. But I ask you, would you consume heroine or cocaine if it were offered to you for free right now? My guess is no. That the decision to not use such substances for many people is not based on its price. I believe every adult should have the choice on how they wish to live their life. If they want to “give it a go” that is their choice to make, and not mine, and I also suspect that for most people that choice will occur regardless of the price.

2) A blind assertion that these people are already criminals doesn’t make it so. Half of all the people in prison in America are there on drug crimes, to say that almost every one of them committed prior non-drug crimes seems to stretch credulity. I don’t know what prison he served at, in which country, but the antidotes he has are nothing compared to the statistics which tell a different story: http://www.sentencingproject.org/doc/publications/inc_federalprisonpop.pdf

3) professional criminals = gangs, mob, mafia, organized crime or whatever else you want to call it.
Are you really saying that getting involved with gangs or other or organized crime syndacates does not influence people to commit crimes?

4) Most crime related to drugs is cyclical, they go in and out of prison and do commit crimes after being released (the recidivism rate drug offenders is around 77 percent). Not considering those people is not considering the whole problem.

5) I think a lot of young men in inner cities see the money made by drug dealers and are lured into the business thinking they can make money and wont be caught.

7) Here is what the United States Bureau of' Justice Statistics has said (and I don’t know anyone that disputes it, its simple economics): “Legal industries rely on the judicial system to enforce contracts and punish those who violate the terms of agreements. In the drug world, buyers and sellers rely only on their own resources to enforce contracts. Violence is often the only effective preventive measure against unfair trade practices. A dealer, especially when selling to a new buyer, risks having his drugs stolen and even being killed.”

Its been well understood for decades that this occurs.

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Devin Watkins
on August 05, 2015 at 09:15:54 am

I have loads of respect for Dalrymple as a writer, but it seems like this article is a blatant straw man. Is it the drug addicts violence in acquisition we are worried about? I thought it was supply chain. Anyone who thinks drug related violence will not be reduced if it were legalized in say, Mexico just isn't thinking.

To the comment above regarding the consequences of legalization to suppliers, I think you'd be surprised at how business-like and entrepreneurial suppliers are. I recall seeing documentaries on this subject. The tendency for suppliers was to avoid violence, but the problem is that there is no system for setting and enforcing contracts around territorial disputes. I'm not disputing that what you describe wouldn't happen. If someone is a criminal by nature, then you can't change that. Ok, then this isn't an argument either way.

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dsailer
on August 23, 2015 at 05:11:11 am

Devin Watkins,

Simply throwing out the phrase ‘straw man’ willy-nilly does not win you the argument. You stated that you wanted a 99% reduction in the price of harmful drugs, I pointed out that the most likely result of this would be an increase in the amount of harm caused by these drugs. A perfectly sound and logical argument to any objective observer. Indeed, you even conceded this point yourself when you said: ‘people would consume the drugs who wouldn’t otherwise. If they want to “give it a go” that is their choice to make’. Even if you are correct in your assertion that reducing the price of harmful drugs by 99% would result in less property theft, all you have done is to replace one pile of misery (caused by property theft) with another pile of misery (caused by drug abuse). And I daresay the amount of misery occasioned by the latter would outweigh that of the former - theft of one’s property being a momentary event in one’s life, whereas drug addiction is life destroying. All this is a logical corollary to the point you attempted to make - ‘Straw men’ don’t enter into it.

As for your comment that Anthony Daniels is making a ‘blind assertion’ based on ‘antidotes’ (I think you mean ‘anecdotes’) - well, what can be said? He spent most of his professional life dealing with these people (that’s ‘professional’ used in its proper sense, by the way). He has great insight into this whole area and his opinions are well informed. By contrast, upon your own admission you don’t even know which country the writer of the article worked in, let alone which prison - and yet you still assert that he must be wrong! The only person talking ‘blindly’ here is yourself, not the writer of the article.

You ask (to paraphrase): ‘Am I really saying that associating with criminals doesn’t encourage people to commit crimes?’ Well, yes, I am. But why the surprise? I think your argument is extremely lacking in subtlety. I think it all depends upon the exact nature of those interactions. As I said last time, Anthony Daniels has spent decades ‘associating with criminals’, so according to your simplistic theory, he should now be a very Moriarty of crime. But I have yet to see his name appear in any court record - except as an expert witness.

You claim that violence associated with the illegal trade in drugs is caused solely by the illegality itself (you identify no other cause), and that by legalising these drugs and providing drug dealers with legal redress that all such violence would cease. Hey presto!

Let’s put that claim to the test, shall we?

According to your theory there should now be zero violent crime in all disputes where legal redress is currently available. This is what you have to say. But what does reality have to say?

I do believe that it has actually been known for cases to come before the courts (oh I don’t know...thousands...tens of thousands...hundreds of thousands...every year) where legal redress had been available to the parties involved, yet still they settled their disputes violently.

Why might that be?

I think a swift application of Occam’s razor is required here: people who resolve their disputes violently do so because - Lo and behold! - they are violent people. It makes precious little difference whether legal redress is available to them or not - violent people behave violently.

Anyone who believes otherwise - yourself/the Department of Justice/uncle Tom Cobley and all - is, as I intimated in my first response, living in cloud cuckoo land.

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Boye the Familiar
on August 23, 2015 at 05:13:20 am

dsailer:

from you:

‘I’m not disputing that what you describe wouldn’t happen. If someone is a criminal by nature, then you can’t change that. Ok, then this isn’t an argument either way.’

Your logic evades me. You’ve just stated that violent criminals would continue to use violence even if presently illegal drugs were legalised. Just to remind you, the two sides of the argument here are:

a) Legalising presently illegal drugs would reduce the amount of violent crime in society (from Devin Watkins)

b) Legalising presently illegal drugs would *not* reduce the amount of violent crime in society (from Theodore Dalrymple and myself)

So how on earth is the use of violence by people who are violent by nature, and their continued use of violence even *after* legalisation of presently illegal drugs ‘not an argument either way’???

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Boye the Familiar
on September 02, 2015 at 16:00:20 pm

'@ Devin Watkins. I’m generaly pro-legalization was impressed by your post but this guy makes me think. Looking at it point for point I’d now say BoyetheFamiliar took Ocam’s razor and ripped you a new one!

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Ludeczka

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