All Commentary
Sunday, December 1, 1991

Book Review: Drugs And Crime edited by Michael Tonry and James Q. Wilson

University of Chicago Press, 11030 S. Langley Avenue, Chicago, IL 60628 • 1990 • 574 pages • $39.95 cloth

The so-called drug war remains one of the most contentious issues facing us. There seems little doubt that the government’s attempt to stamp out illicit drug use has failed. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 74.4 million people over the age of 12 have tried drugs, despite decades of prohibition. Nearly 27 million people use illegal substances at least once a year. Rates of drug use are now falling, but the declines started before the periodic escalations of the drug war during the 1980s.

At the same time the harm from prohibition and the ever more Draconian enforcement policies legislated by vote-minded politicians has sharply escalated. The U.S. now has more than one million people in prison, giving it the highest rate of imprisonment in the industrial world. Young blacks are more likely to die in urban gun battles resulting from drug prohibition than they were serving in the army in Vietnam. Drug users seeking to pay the inflated prices of illegal substances commit thousands of property crimes in cities and suburbs. Children, who receive lesser criminal punishments, are increasingly recruited into the drug trade; many also become users.

Even James Q. Wilson admits in Drugs and Crime that “attempting to suppress the use of drugs is costly—very costly.” Although he believes that legalization would result in greater problems, many of the essays in Drugs and Crime suggest otherwise, demonstrating how prohibition funds a violent criminal underground while failing to halt drug sales.

For instance, one study of New York City noted that drugs have transformed “the conduct norms of the criminal underclass subculture . . . . Crack has dramatically expanded the prosperity of the criminal underclass economy as well as incorporated and strengthened new elements into the criminal underclass subculture.” Were drugs not illegal, of course, there would be little ill-gotten wealth to dispense.

Alas, the apparent success of police efforts in New York to end street sales has proved largely illusory. “Such intense police pressure, however, did not eliminate drug-selling activity or make major reductions in the number of sellers. Rather, heroin and cocaine sellers developed new strategies for marketing their products,” conclude the researchers.

Two other experts have contributed a detailed study of state and local enforcement efforts. The solution to drug abuse, they observe, is hard to find: “While ‘the drug problem’ and responses to it seem simple enough from the distance of a politician’s podium, a preacher’s pulpit, or an editorial-ist’s desk, from close up they reveal an almost disorienting complexity of goals, techniques, and targets. How best to use limited, and largely unco-ordinated, enforcement, adjudication, and punishment resources to address the multifaceted drug problem is anything but obvious.”

What is obvious, however, is that tougher enforcement tends to push up drug prices, and hence property crime by addicts stealing to satisfy their habits. The researchers conclude that the evidence does “suggest thai the possibility of a tradeoff, at least in the short run, between reducing drug consumption and reducing crime is not merely hypothetical.”

Another form of violent drug crime inflamed by stricter enforcement policies is described as “systemic” by researchers: the assaults and killings that occur naturally in the course of the drug trade. “Both the nature of the business and the state of the customer—often nervous, perhaps feeling deprivation effects—make violence a frequent outcome in the drug trade.”

The form of drug-related violence of least concern is that committed by users because of the pharmacological effects of the drugs themselves. The authors of another chapter in Drugs and Crime observe that “use of illicit drugs does not appear to be strongly related to onset and participation in predatory crime . . . . Most of the underlying causative factors, such as irregular employment or weak attachment to school or parents, are not amenable to intervention by the justice system. Moreover, general prevalence figures for drug use do not give much hope that even major reductions in the numbers of people who use illicit drugs could significantly reduce the numbers of incidents of predatory crime.”

In the end, even Wilson, critic of drug legalization though he may be, seems to recognize that the drug problem is not easily manageable by government. “Above all, we do not know how to alter the moral climate so that drug use is regarded as loathsome,” he complains. And until we do change that moral climate, drug use will continue, irrespective of the severity of the government’s war on drugs.

Drugs and Crime is first and foremost a valuable resource as to the relationship between drugs, the drug laws, and crime. Its honest appraisal of that relationship makes it much more, however—a case for withdrawing the criminal law from what is most fundamentally a moral problem.

Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute and a former Special Assistant to President Reagan.

  • Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and the author of a number of books on economics and politics. He writes regularly on military non-interventionism.