Friday, December 14, 2007

A Thought Experiment

I've received a rash of emails the last few days from people saying that Oakland's problem of violence is largely the result of drug prohibition, and we should repeal the drug laws. Well, there's no question that some categories of violence in inner cities are definitely connected to drug prohibition--especially turf wars.

But there's a problem with this explanation. Actually, several problems.

1. Murder rates among young black men are typically 10x or more worse than among young white men. Do young white men not buy or sell illegal drugs? If anything, whites have more disposable income than blacks, and thus more available to spend on drugs. A back of the envelope guess is that if drug prohibition causes 30% of the murders, and say 3 murders per 100,000 among young white men (who are definitely more dangerous than women or an age-normal distribution of the population), then why would young black men have 30 murders per 100,000 people caused by drug prohibition? Are blacks 10x as likely to be drug traffickers or drug addicts? That's a tall claim that requires some serious evidence. In short, drug prohibition might well be a factor, but it is insufficient to explain why the situation is so much worse among young black men.

2. Are drug laws not enforced as vigorously in white communities? One of the recurring complaints of black community activists for many years was the lack of effort by police to deal with widespread drug dealing, and their recurring efforts to reduce the number of liquor stores and liquor ads in the ghettos. (That's how you can tell you have entered a ghetto, by the way: every fourth or fifth billboard is now for alcohol.) I can remember driving through East Palo Alto on several occasions in the 1980s and seeing drug dealing taking place quite openly. Here I am, a white guy driving through in a reasonably new car, and for all they know, an undercover cop, and they don't even make an attempt at hiding what they are doing. If drug prohibition is the problem, then the relatively low violence rates in white America would only make sense if the drug laws weren't enforced in white America as vigorously as they are in black America--and the difference would have to be dramatic to explain the tenfold difference in violence.

3. Those who are so partial to the "Drug Prohibition causes violence" explanation consistently ignore the inhibition-reducing effects of intoxicants. There's a reason that alcohol, for example, and opiates, and cocaine, and meth, are all associated with increased levels of murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, and child sexual abuse--and it isn't because drug traffickers are going out and doing these things as part of turf wars. They are because people that are loaded do things that they otherwise would not. Perhaps the reason that East Palo Alto was such a pit of a place to live in the 1980s was not drug prohibition, but the inability of law enforcement to prevent the sale of intoxicants.

4. I do not dispute that drug prohibition has its own set of significant problems: corruption of the criminal justice system; overloaded jails and prisons; a failure to help addicts who want help because the system is so punitive. But there's a reason that the drug laws remain in place: large numbers of Americans know people for whom legal intoxicants (like alcohol) or illegal drugs have been the source of enormous heartbreak, and they are not willing to exchange one set of serious problems for another serious set of problems. We already have a serious set of problems associated with alcohol abuse, and it is legal, and relatively lightly regulated. The fear is that marijuana, meth, and opiates, if deregulated, would soon expand the social problem set.

5. If you want to argue that drug laws don't reduce drug abuse, you have some serious work to do. Anytime that you make a commodity illegal, you are making it less available, simply because it can't be advertised, and therefore pricing becomes uncompetitive. Rising prices for all but the most severely addictive drugs will reduce consumption. As I have mentioned before, cirrhosis of the liver rates fell roughly in half within a few years of the start of Prohibition. They came back up again (although not as quickly) with a few years of the end of Prohibition. Pretty clearly, alcohol consumption, and especially the regular, high consumption of alcohol associated with cirrhosis of the liver, fell because of Prohibition. Whether the other negative consequences of Prohibition (such as gangsters and corrupt politicians) was too high of a price to pay is a legitimate question. It is also a legitimate question whether Prohibition disproportionately discouraged those drinkers who weren't the social problem. I rather suspect that people that had the occasional beer before Prohibition, or some wine at home with dinner, weren't the ones hitting speakeasies--and they weren't the problem that Prohibition was trying to fix. But let's not pretend that prohibiting a commodity doesn't affect consumption rates.

6. Those of you who argue so vigorously for decriminalization of drugs need to be consistent about this. If we are going to decriminalize marijuana, why not meth, heroin, LSD? All your principled arguments for one apply to these other drugs. (On the other hand, if your argument is that marijuana isn't terribly damaging, that's not a principled argument for drug decriminalization--just an argument for what drugs should be unlawful.) If you want drugs legal for adults, why don't your same arguments apply to minors as well? Or would the drug traffickers not break laws to sell to 6th graders? If you believe that minors shouldn't be restricted, why not deregulate alcohol sales to minors as well?

My experience is that those arguing for decriminalization of all drugs fit into several categories:

1. Those in love with the idea for its elegance. I had a long chat with a guy at a party last weekend, part of the generation that grew up during Vietnam, who was making this argument. Another person, a bit younger than me, asked him, "If the reason for repealing the drug laws is that they don't stop people from getting and using drugs, why not repeal the laws against robbery as well?" And this guy responded, "Sure. Laws against robbery don't do anything either. Just shoot 'em." Love the consistency, but I am not interested in living in a society like that, and I don't think too many people do.

2. Those who don't appreciate the level of damage that both legal and illegal drugs do. The older you get, the more damage you see caused by it.

3. Those who want marijuana legal because they have a serious addiction problem, don't want to admit that, and look for ways to turn, "I like to smoke pot, and no one should get in my way" into "I have a principled basis for scrapping all drug laws."

4. People that recognize the damage that is currently being done by drug use, and have concluded that the damage caused by trafficking is worse. I waver back and forth about this. There is probably an argument for decriminalizing heroin on this cost-benefit basis, but not marijuana. Marijuana drug gangs aren't major parts of our violence problem, and potheads seldom commit armed robbery. At least those who acknowledge that there is a serious social problem with drug abuse aren't living in a fantasy world.

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