Crime reduction and reduced drug use are the two main goals of drug prohibition. On both counts, prohibition has been an utter failure.
Advocates of prohibition claim drug use increases the propensity to commit crime, which implies that prohibition decreases crime by reducing overall drug use. On this point, prohibitionists are half right: There is some correlation between drug use and crime. According to a survey by the Drug Enforcement Administration, 32 percent of state prisoners and 26 percent of federal prisoners had committed their current offense while under the influence of drugs. An astounding 39 percent of property crime offenders were under the influence of drugs when they committed their crime. These facts, however, don’t tell us whether or not drug prohibition reduces crime. Indeed, it is possible that criminality causes drug use, not the other way around. To the contrary, an honest and balanced assessment of the evidence suggests drug legalization would actually reduce crime.
For prohibition to reduce crime, drug use would have to be lower under the current system than it otherwise would be under a pro-drug regime. The evidence on this point is somewhat ambiguous. Drug prohibition increases the price of drugs, making it harder for many individuals—especially impoverished individuals—to consume copious amounts of narcotics, but prohibition’s impact on drug use is modest, according to the best research. The increased price of drugs also has an unintended consequence prohibitionists like to ignore: Drug users who are unable to afford drugs resort to crime in order to pay for their habits. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 30 percent of property crimes are committed in order to obtain money for drugs. This, in part, explains why many criminals are under the influence of drugs at the time of their offense.
Criminologist James Q. Wilson, who opposed legalization, has claimed drug legalization would reduce the price of drugs by a factor of 50. While a drop in price of this magnitude is destined to increase drug use at least somewhat, it will also lead to fewer crimes being committed to finance drug addiction.
Not only would legalization dramatically reduce crimes meant to finance drug addiction, but legalization would also curtail gang violence. Prohibition prevents drug users and drug dealers from resolving conflicts nonviolently; instead of relying on the courts, they rely on violence.
Disputes occur all the time in business. Take the minimum wage debate, for example. Employees who wish to be paid a “living wage” take to the streets and ask the government to force their employers to give them a raise. In a black market, though, peaceful protest is impossible. Even the courts are off-limits, as a court of law would punish drug users (and dealers) looking for assistance. Instead of peacefully resolving their differences, those involved with the black market for drugs are forced to pursue violent methods of problem solving.
What should be a simple advertising war between rival drug companies is turned into violent turf wars by drug gangs; what should be handled in the customer service department is handled in back alleys with knives and guns. Prohibition forces the drug industry to go underground, which empowers criminals and gangs.
We saw this with alcohol and now we see it again with drugs. Under alcohol prohibition, violent disputes between rival gangs skyrocketed and the homicide rate reached record highs—levels that would not be reached, of course, until the modern era of drug prohibition. Jeffery Miron, an economics professor at Harvard University and a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, calculates that the American homicide rate is 25-75 percent higher than it would be absent drug prohibition.
If drugs were legalized, this would no longer be an issue. Modest reductions in drug use are not worth the violence associated with the illegal drug trade. The real question surrounding drug legalization is this: do you want the drug industry to be run by criminal syndicates or productive businessmen? Any sane person would choose the latter.