Drug policy and violence

Video from my sojourn at NIJ.

My friends at the National Institute of Justice managed to capture a few minutes of video that make me sound almost coherent.

The Reality-Based Community gratefully acknowledges the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, National Institute of Justice, for allowing us to reproducethe videos above. The opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this video are those of the speaker and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.

Transcript at the jump.
More NIJ video here.

What is the relationship between drug enforcement and violent crime?

Will Rogers once said that “it’s not what you don’t know that hurts you; it’s what you know that ain’t so.” Everybody knows that drug abuse and crime are sort of the same thing, and therefore fighting the war on drugs is a good way to reduce crime. Unfortunately, that ain’t so. And we distinguish sharply between policies to reduce drug abuse and the damage that it does to individuals and the people around them, and policies to reduce predatory crime, which is roughly hurting people and taking their stuff in all its varieties. And yes, drug abuse has a connection with predatory crime, but it’s not the same thing, and a lot of the stuff we do that’s supposed to control drug abuse actually turns out to increase predatory crime. We can think about not doing that.

In particular, drug law enforcement has a natural tendency to increase the stakes in drug dealing—put more money on the table, put more time behind bars at risk and therefore to increase the value of violence to people engaged in illicit drug trade. So we should expect all things equal, that ramping up drug law enforcement is going to increase rather than decrease violence. That’s what we’ve been seeing in Mexico. Now, that doesn’t have to be true. You can focus drug law enforcement in a way that reduces violence by in effect saying to market participants, “your chances of being nailed for your drug dealing activity goes up if you hurt people in the process.”

Drugs and Crime: The Role of Law Enforcement

The main thing we do to reduce drug abuse is make the drugs illegal. That makes them expensive and hard to get compared to any legal drug. We need to enforce those laws to keep them from being dead letters. But enforcement probably can’t change drug abuse very much. The job of enforcement is to limit the side effects that are created by prohibition. Right? If we prohibit a drug that a lot of people want, then we’re going to have a big illicit market and we’re going to have crime, corruption, violence around that illicit market.

I think of the job of drug law enforcement primarily as reducing those side effects. So we shouldn’t measure drug enforcement in terms of whether we can make the drugs more expensive or harder to get or reduce the number of users. That’s not the law enforcement job. The law enforcement job is protecting people from aggression.

On which theories do you base your research?

My work on crime control draws on two social scientific traditions. One is behavioral economics: how do you do appropriate “nudge” strategies that push people in the direction you want to push them, adjusting for the fact that they’re not perfectly rational? And the other is game theory. Even if people were perfectly rational, in a situation where there are many people breaking the law, then the risk faced by each one of them of being punished depends on how many other people are breaking the same law, how much enforcement we have. And that’s what leads me to say: concentrate.

A level of enforcement that’s completely inadequate to control everybody can be more than adequate to control somebody. And once somebody’s behavior comes under control, then you can slowly expand the range of control, never violating your sanctions, capacity, constraint. You have to make sure never to utter more threats than you can deliver on, considering how many times that you’ll be ignored. So once your threats are credible, you can issue a lot of checks against a small amount of cash, because the checks aren’t going to be cashed. Until you’re credible, you’d better have a sanction available for every threat you issue.

Race to the Bottom: Suppressing Drug Violence in Mexico

There are probably now, there used to be six, there are probably a dozen major drug trafficking organizations in Mexico, all of them making a living primarily by selling drugs to the U.S. They’re not vertically integrated. They do not have people on the streets of Chicago. They sell bulk drugs to U.S. middlemen who sell them to U.S. dealing organizations.

The Drug Enforcement Administration believes that for every major drug dealing organization in the U.S. they can mark out one or more of the big Mexican organizations as the source.

Imagine we took one of those big organizations, selected based on its record of violence, and attacked every U.S. distributor who’s selling their drugs and announced that. I think the U.S. distributors would find new sources pretty quickly, and you would’ve put your target organization out of business, basically giving them a case of commercial leprosy, where nobody wanted to touch their stuff.

Imagine you’ve done that once, and now you announce, “We’re running the contest again; we’re going to find the next-most- dangerous dealing organization.” I claim that everybody will look around and try to be less violent than the guy next to him, and with any luck you can generate a race to the bottom in rates of violence. My favorite Far Side cartoon, you’re looking through a gun sight and you see two bears. And one is right in the crosshairs, and then there’s another bear standing there next to him. And the one in the crosshairs is going [points]. And that’s what you want. You want everybody saying, “Hey, he’s more violent than I am. Why don’t you attack him?” And eventually you’re holding everybody’s U.S. drug market hostage to their willingness not to kill people.

The High Point Approach: Using Existing Resources to Break up Drug Markets

Somebody once said that it’s inherently immoral to order somebody to do something that’s impossible, and I think there’s been a lot of that in drug policy. The drug-free society was not a possible goal, and pursuing it led people to do foolish things, and to believe that they were failing when they could have been succeeding.

If we define the job of drug law enforcement as reducing the violence committed by drug dealers and the crime committed by drug users, that is an achievable goal. So we can limit the violence by dealers by identifying high-risk markets and shutting them down.

That’s the David Kennedy High Point approach: identify all of the dealers in a market area, identify which ones are violent, send them off to prison. Identify the ones that aren’t violent, make buys from them, then call them all in for a meeting and say, “Okay. All of you have to stop right now or you’re going to prison.”

And the difference between that and routine drug law enforcement is that routine drug law enforcement takes away one dealer at a time. It just creates a niche for a new dealer. The customers are still coming. Take away all of the dealers at once, the customers come, there’s nobody to buy from. Then, the customers stop coming, and you’ve destroyed the market. The market is a focal point. It only exists because people think it will exist. And if you can disrupt it for long enough, which is not very long, weeks, you can kill it, and you can do that without putting a lot of people in prison. And so I think of the High Point approach as the low-arrest drug market crackdown.

Moving Forward: Turning Research Into Policy

We are learning how to control drug market violence and drug market disorder. We’re learning how to control drug-involved offenders. And the main issue now is whether we can take what we already know how to do and make it national policy, do it at full scale. That’s something that’s going take years, but it shouldn’t take many years. There’s no reason that 10 years from now, violence-minimizing drug law enforcement and offender control based on the principles of swift and certain but mild sanctions shouldn’t be standard practice, and that’s what I’m hoping for.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

9 thoughts on “Drug policy and violence”

  1. Mark, on going after the most violent Mexican organizations: do we usually know who is responsible for instances of violence? It seems I’ve read that attributing blame can be murky, making the kind of deterrence you suggest more difficult.

    1. Many of the killings are “signed;” the organizations carrying them out want to be known for frightfulness. But the risk of “false-flag” operations is one of the many operational questions that would have to be addressed to take this idea from blue-sky concept to action plan ready for a thumbs-up or thumbs-down. Alas, so far no one has stepped up to fund the necessary staff work.

    1. Yes, there’s redundancy there. What I’d really prefer is not making either the doctorate or the faculty position part of someone’s name. But that battle is long lost.

  2. Wow, so you are an unabashed drug warrior after all:

    “The main thing we do to reduce drug abuse is make the drugs illegal. That makes them expensive and hard to get compared to any legal drug. We need to enforce those laws to keep them from being dead letters. But enforcement probably can’t change drug abuse very much. The job of enforcement is to limit the side effects that are created by prohibition. Right? If we prohibit a drug that a lot of people want, then we’re going to have a big illicit market and we’re going to have crime, corruption, violence around that illicit market.”

    Yes, wouldn’t it be terrible if the drug laws became dead letters, like the sodomy laws, and all the other laws that served no good ends and just became too absurd to enforce?

    1. Yes, if you assume away the benefits of prohibition – assume, that is, that cheap, legal, heavily marketed cocaine would generate no more addicts than expensive illegal cocaine sold only surreptitiously – then prohibition looks like a bad bet. But the case of alcohol suggests the utter implausibility of that assumption.

      And no, that doesn’t make me a “drug warrior” any more than my support for legal cannabis makes me a “legalizer.” The dominance of mindless labels and slogans in the drug policy debate is one of the main reasons we don’t have better policies.

      1. Ok, then let’s just stop destroying people and shredding the Constitution to keep the laws from being dead letters. Ramp down the violence and get the huge military buildup out of the police stations. Keep the laws and make the punishment confiscation and fines while the better policies are being worked up.

        If what we want is better policies then how about we stop implementing the bad ones that serve as frighteningly efficient devices for transmitting poverty and community destruction through generations. I’ve known addicts who kick, who stop abusing their drugs of choice. I have yet to see a single step away from drug war insanity by a single authority in the United States.

  3. “assume, that is, that cheap, legal, heavily marketed cocaine would generate no more addicts

    I realize that you’re pushing back on an unfair ‘drug warrior’ label, but your answer doesn’t strike a good balance.

    “Generate no more addicts” than prohibition is a stupid standard. The case for legalization, or reduced criminalization, or anything other than current regime is that it won’t generate enough new addicts to make up for the social good gained by changing the current regime. That bar is ridiculously lower than your “no more addicts” standard because the current regime is ridiculously awful.

    First, the personal cost of addiction goes down if you aren’t risking jail time. Second, violence goes down in the drug trade. Third, we can deal with addiction in a social context rather than (usually not dealing with it) in a prison context. Fourth, we gain enormous community/police trust benefits because the police aren’t running as many entrapment schemes. Fifth we gain civil liberty benefits because we don’t have police trampling all over the 4th amendment pretending that they ‘smelled something funny’, trying to trick people into car searches or using scientifically dubious techniques like drug alert dogs. Sixth, we check the endlessly proliferating militarization of the police force and the ease of transforming any botched raid into a self justified police killing based on the discovery (or planting) of a joint. Seventh, we dramatically lessen the stakes of the prosecutorial overcharging-so-we-can-hope-to-flip-him game which is horrifically corrosive to our system of justice.

    And that isn’t even introducing speculative harm reduction concepts like the idea that semi-legal cocaine might displace much more destructive drugs like meth.

    That is what you should be weighing when you are talking about legalization. You weigh harms against each other. No policy eliminates all of the harms.

  4. Wait, what’s so unfair about it? Show me where Dr. K calls for anything other than a more efficient drug war.

    From what i can tell, he’s the Bob McNamara of drug policy, the whiz kid who wanted to rationalize war so that blowing people up wouldnt be so wasteful, so that just the precise degree of violence could be applied to the empire’s enemies to attain the desired result.

    I guess one difference is that McNamara eventually admitted his sins and his responsibility for so much suffering.

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