March 06, 2005

Do Drugs Cause Crime?

Here's a fun discussion. While doing research for a Mother Jones piece on prisons—which I'm frantically trying to revise at the moment (this explains why I'm blogging, by the way)—I came across some interesting material on the relationship between drugs and crime.

There are some very good statistics available at the National Institute of Justice's website, via a program called Arrestee Drug Abuse Monitoring (ADAM). At a bunch of sites where data was collected during the 1990s, researchers found that between 50 to 75 percent of all arrestees had traces of drugs in their system, many with more than one drug. (Cocaine seems to be a major player here.) But that, of course, doesn't mean drugs cause crime, and it doesn't mean that they're either a necessary or sufficient condition for crime to occur.

Nosing around the White House's ONDCP data tables here, it appears that in 2002, 8.2 percent of full-time employees did drugs, 10.5 percent of part-time employees did, and 17.4 percent of the unemployed did drugs. That sounds bad—drug use must lead to unemployment!—until you realize that there are vastly more employed people than unemployed, so the vast majority of drug users have stable or semi-stable jobs. But we knew that.

Interestingly, it seems during the later years of the Clinton Administration, the ONDCP started paying closer attention to facts like these and urged policymakers to interpret the drug/crime relationship "cautiously." The Bush administration, meanwhile, emphasized the drug/crime link early on—its 2002 ONDCP report touted drug treatment as an effective way of reducing crime—but has since backed off. The administration's more recent ONDCP reports, notably, no longer claim to know whether crime can actually be reduced by lowering national drug use—an assumption that was once sacrosanct in past administrations.

In short, then, it's really hard to figure out how much anti-drug strategies reduce crime (indeed, it's hard to figure out how much any strategy reduces crime; statistics in the field are woefully inadequate). So in turn it's difficult to figure out whether drug control expenditures are actually worth the high price tag. We don't know whether drug enforcement units—which are found in police stations all across the country—do any good. We don't know whether mandatory minimum penalties reduce trafficking (many police chiefs think they don't). We don't even know if breaking up local drug markets—an approach which is very effort-intensive and requires constant sweeps and raids—decreases trafficking. The only thing that seems clear is that trying to attack the supply of drugs from abroad hasn't had much effect.

At any rate, I strayed from the original point. Congress—and various federal agencies—still tend to treat drug use primarily as a crime problem, when it makes more sense in many cases to separate the two issues. Over the years, a number of researchers and policy wonks have come up with some good ideas about what would constitute a more sensible national drug policy, but the paradigm shift here seems like the necessary first step.

UPDATED: To fix a few horrendous spelling/punctuation/grammatical errors.

Continue reading "Do Drugs Cause Crime?"
-- Brad Plumer 7:26 PM || ||