All Commentary
Tuesday, June 1, 1993

Drug Policy and the Decline of American Cities by Sam Staley

The only realistic alternative to the drug war, Staley argues, is decriminalization.


The drug war is raging on the streets of cities across America, but off the front pages. While Uncle Sam’s expansive and expensive efforts to staunch the nation’s taste for drugs have failed to end substance abuse, they have turned scores of urban areas into combat zones. Indeed, the war on drugs has become a war on cities. Observes Sam Staley, president of the Urban Policy Research Institute: “the policies that form the core of the Drug War strategy are hastening the destruction of central city economies by abrogating the institutions that are most likely to lead to economic rejuvenation: private property, respect for civil liberties, and smoothly operating markets.”

Staley’s book is important because he approaches his subject as a scholar rather than an ideologue. Although drug use and sales affect the entire nation, the consequences, particularly the pervasive violence, have fallen most heavily on urban America. Staley’s thesis that the drug war is unwinnable is not unusual; what is unique is his conclusion that the drug war is inextricably linked to the catastrophic deterioration of the cities. But the relationship is a complicated one. Staley writes: “The ways in which public policy undermines the processes necessary for encouraging productive economic and social development requires an understanding of the changing economic environment of central cities.”

He begins by reviewing the dynamics of urban growth and the illicit trade that has enveloped many cities. As last summer’s riots in Los Angeles obviously demonstrate, the state of many urban areas is not good. Particularly significant are the declines in population and employment. Moreover, the composition of city jobs has shifted from manufacturing to service. This has tended to encourage suburbanization and the creation of “ring cities” around shrinking centers.

Many factors have been working together to hinder urban economic growth. Staley focuses on the role of institutions, “the established customs, laws, and traditions that provide the underpinnings of any society.” Unfortunately, government has long been less than friendly to these sorts of institutions. Virtually unbounded use of the so-called “police power” and eminent domain, for instance, has sharply restricted the value of private property rights. The ever more draconian drug war has damaged civil liberties and shredded the social fabric of many cities. Such political intervention, Staley argues, “undermines the very institutions that facilitate social progress,” necessarily encumbering cities’ economies.

Moreover, given the relative dearth of legitimate employment, drug trafficking has proved increasingly attractive for young black males. Indeed, the drug trade has helped fill the cities’ economic gap, expanding as legal businesses shrank. Observes Staley, “some inner-city neighborhoods are now fueled principally by the drug economy.”

Urban centers remained the locus of drug trafficking even as the suburbs expanded in part because of the large pool of unemployed labor available for the drug trade in cities. Moreover, urban neighborhoods offer significant advantages for both customers and dealers, including relative anonymity for participants, simple access to the market, numerous escape routes from police, and myriad hiding places for inventory.

The drug laws do not just skew individual behavior. They also warp the institutions discussed by Staley that arise naturally through the community’s business and social interaction. In the case of the inner city, drug prohibition has unintentionally funneled billions of dollars to other criminal enterprises, simultaneously encouraging entrepreneurial youth to enter the drug trade and rewarding the most violent criminals who do join. Moreover, the rules by which criminal drug gangs, which exist only because of drug prohibition, operate are not conducive to sustained urban economic development.

Thus, the drug war has not only denied legitimate firms the service of many of the brightest inner-city youth, but also undermined the rule of law and protection of property rights in the larger community and turned neighborhoods into deadly battlegrounds. Indeed, Staley emphasizes—and backs with evidence—the fact that drug-related crime is largely the result of the illegal nature of the business and not drug use. First, writes Staley, “the root of the criminal activity stemming from drug use flows from users’ inability to afford their habit” because enforcement increases drug prices. Second, dealers and users are able to settle disputes only through violence.

The direct consequences of pervasive lawlessness are hideous enough for people living in the inner city. But the indirect impact may be equally harmful in the long run. By sabotaging the very institutions necessary for community stability and economic growth, drug policy is impoverishing increasingly large sections of urban areas across the country. Sadly, writes Staley, “the negative attributes of the underworld now pervade the economic and social systems of American cities.”

Were the benefits of the drug war great enough, perhaps one could still try to justify current policy. However, the results of tens of billions of dollars worth of spending by all levels of government has been, in Staley’s words, “far from satisfactory.” Arrests, prosecutions, and imprisonments all skyrocketed during the 1980s, along with expenditures, interdictions, and violations of civil liberties. Nevertheless, tens of millions of Americans still use illicit substances every year and even high school students say that drugs remain easily obtainable.

The only realistic alternative to the drug war, Staley argues, is decriminalization. He is realistic in assessing the impact of ending legal strictures against drug use. Serious social problems would remain, but they would, in his view, be more manageable, with drug use treated as a health rather than a legal and criminal issue. Decriminalization, then, he writes, “is offered as a first step toward refocusing drug policy on the human dimension,” a means of allowing “policymakers and policy analysts to focus on the consequences of drug use.”

Urban America is faltering for many reasons: welfare programs that destroy families and communities, schools that don’t teach, regulations that abrogate private property rights, laws that limit economic opportunity, the widespread use of drugs, and the lack of Christian ethics. But, as Staley demonstrates in his thoughtful, well-researched book, a serious problem is the drug war. Though undertaken with the best of intentions, the government’s crusade against drug use is undermining the institutions necessary for economic and social progress in the inner city. Unless we are willing to rethink this failed strategy, the nation’s large urban areas will continue to decline.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and a contributing editor to The Freeman. He is the author of The Politics of Plunder: Misgovernment in Washington and Beyond Good Intentions: A Biblical View of Politics.

  • 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.