Violent Crime and Imprisonment

Most people in state prison are there for a violent offense

Dana Goldstein at the Marshall Project has created a useful interactive graph showing who is in prison and how we might build further on the de-incarceration trend which started five years ago. Goldstein also echoes a point that Mark Kleiman and I have made here many times: It’s a myth that prisons are full of non-violent drug offenders.

The chart below presents Bureau of Justice Statistics data on state prisons, which is where almost 90% of U.S. prisoners reside. Violent crime has consistently been the leading cause of imprisonment, and most state prison inmates are serving time for a violent offense. Importantly, the data reflect current controlling offense only and thus understate the proportion of prisoners who engage in violence: Many inmates currently serving time for a non-violent offense have prior convictions for violent crimes.

Corrections in the United States_0442512_2[1]

These data make de-incarceration more complex in at least two ways , which is perhaps why so many people don’t want to believe them.

First, the noble ongoing efforts to reduce the size of the prison population should take substantial care to protect public safety as violent offenders are released. Mass dumping of violent offenders into communities with no monitoring and no services would be dangerous for them, for their families, and for their neighbors. Further, if it leads to released prisoners committing high-profile acts of violence, it could also choke off political support for continued de-incarceration.

Second, even assuming the best of all policy worlds in which reducing incarceration continues to be a priority, the U.S. is probably too violent of a society to ever shrink its prison population to a Western European level. The proportion of the U.S. population that is serving time for violent crimes is larger than the proportion of the Western European population that is serving time for all offenses combined.

Understanding a Global Illicit Drug Market

Iraq tobacco
In the souq of a small Iraqi town, I saw bags of tobacco leaf for sale. But the real attraction for customers was a booth stocked with well-known Western brands, of which I snapped this photo.

How did all these branded cigarettes make their way from the West to Iraq? They didn’t. They are among the more than one hundred billion fake Western brand cigarettes produced each year for the black market. What are the dynamics of the global tobacco black market, and what are its implications for public health, crime and taxation collection?

I answer these questions in my latest piece at Washington Post’s Wonkblog.

The Rarely Acknowledged Public Health Achievements of Obama’s Drug Policy

Obama’s health oriented drug policy reforms are underappreciated

After initially accusing President Obama’s outgoing drug policy director Gil Kerlikowske of opposing public health measures in drug policy, Eric Sterling had the class to publically acknowledge Kerlikowske’s health-oriented reforms:

[Kerlikowske] recognized the importance of stopping the spread of HIV/AIDS among injecting drug users and recognized their humanity and dignity in the way his predecessors did not. Second, in the same spirit, he recognized that the dissemination of naloxone into the environments of opiate users, many of whom are using drugs illegally, would stop overdoses from becoming fatal.

Sterling also praised Kerlikowske’s support of opiate substitution therapies (e.g., methadone maintenance), which the administration expanded within the Tri-Care insurance program for military personnel and their families and spread internationally through the President’s Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief (PEPFAR).

In addition to the points Sterling raised, one could also note that the Administration’s signature legislation — the Affordable Care Act — mandates full coverage in Medicaid and health insurance exchanges for addiction treatment. That’s the biggest stride the federal government has taken towards health-oriented drug policy in at least 40 years and probably ever.

Sterling’s explanation for why his first article was inaccurate is powerfully honest and important:

I insulted Mr. Kerlikowske and dismissed his record on matters I did not review, relying on prejudices I formed regarding other subjects such as drug “legalization,” whether the Administration’s anti-drug program was “balanced,” as he claimed, and on marijuana policy. I deeply regret that I was unfair to Mr. Kerlikowske and misled the readers of Huffington Post regarding his support and commitment on important public health issues.

Sterling was by no means alone in his assumption that anyone who opposes drug legalization also opposes health oriented drug policy reform. But historically and cross-culturally, opinions on those two matters have not intersected in a consistent way. For example, among the people who identify themselves as “harm reductionists” around the world are many individuals who want all drugs legalized and many individuals who regard that idea with terror and hostility (Mainly because of the experience of legal tobacco). Among people who support legalization are individuals who favor increased availability of addiction treatment and individuals who are quite skeptical of the addiction treatment enterprise. And among people who oppose drug legalization –President Obama being a prominent example — are individuals who want to augment the quantity and quality of health services for drug users. Continue reading “The Rarely Acknowledged Public Health Achievements of Obama’s Drug Policy”

How Legalization Can Expand a Black Market

New research shows that legalization can make the black market larger rather than smaller

Human trafficking is one of the most revolting crimes on the planet, and it is therefore understandable that some governments have taken radical action to attempt to eliminate it, including legalizing prostitution. The argument, which seems sound on its face, is that expanding the supply of legal prostitution will draw demand away from the illegal market that relies on human trafficking. It is thus both surprising and important that new research from the London School of Economics shows that legalizing prostitution increases, rather than decreases, human trafficking.

This finding is stunning until one recognizes that demand for prostitution, gambling, drugs and the like is highly elastic. When the demand-suppressing effect of illegality is removed, demand can increase, sometimes dramatically. All of this new demand does not necessarily go to the legal market. Some new legal market entrants engage in the parallel black market some of the time (e.g., play legal slots at the casino by day and participate in illegal mob-run poker games at night). If the size of the newly legalized market is rapidly growing, these “fractional customers” can make the black market larger than it was in the pre-legalization period when all market participants were 100% reliant on the illicit market to meet their demand.

Other people may develop demands in a newly legalized market that over time lead them to move exclusively to the illegal market. For example, a man who begins going to prostitutes when sex work is legalized may realize over time that he wants to have sexual encounters in which he is physically abusive to prostitutes. He would then migrate to the black market where he can more easily indulge his violent propensities. Similarly, people who becomes addicted to a newly legalized drug may come to want to consume it so often and in such quantities that only the black market will meet their demands.

It has long been speculated that the phenomenon of legalization of a market growing a black market has already happened with gambling. There has clearly been an explosion of legal casinos, poker competitions, state-run lotteries etc., but no definitive research indicates whether the prevalence of illegal gambling has increased, reduced or stayed constant as a result. The new LSE research is I believe the first formal test of the possibility that legalization can grow a black market, and for prostitution it appears that it can (full paper here).

There is clearly more empirical work to be done in this area. But in the meantime, wise heads in the policy world will not take it as a given that legalizing something will necessarily shrink the black market.

h/t: Eric Voeten, who blogs at our sister site, the Ten Miles Square section of Washington Monthly.

Marijuana Policy and Traditional Liberalism

Former Congressman Patrick Kennedy, a long-time advocate for people with addiction and mental illness, is leading a new group calling for a different approach to marijuana policy.

Smart Approaches to Marijuana will advocate for alternatives to incarceration, expanded mental health and addiction treatment and the provision of non-smoked cannabis medicines to sick patients (without waiting for FDA approval) at taxpayer expense.

It will also oppose legalization, not wanting a Big Tobacco-like industry in the marijuana sphere.

From the viewpoint of traditional liberalism, which Patrick and his family have championed as well as anyone in my lifetime, this is the logical policy mix (see Adam Serwer in the same vein). Curbing incarceration and using the power of government to aid the sick are honorable pillars of American liberalism. Entrusting public health to corporations in contrast is both naive and much more in line with a libertarian/pro-business conservative mindset.

UPDATE: Comments are back on, thanks to Steve or whoever fixed that. I have re-titled the post to better reflect its content, our blogging interface has been chronically broken and frustrating lately but an upgrade is just around the corner.

Marijuana: The Most-Debated, Least-Important Illegal Drug

By most measures the majority of the drug problem in both the US and Mexico does not relate to marijuana, so nothing you’re going to do with marijuana is very likely to decisively change the character of the overall drug policy situation

So says Professor Jonathan Caulkins in Randolph Nogel’s unusually nuanced article on the potential impact of US marijuana policy on Mexico. What Jon is saying will surprise many people, but he’s quite correct. Marijuana gets outsized attention in US drug policy debates, yet it matters at most slightly for the security of Mexico (and not at all for Central and South America). Domestically, it does not contribute to overdose deaths nor account for even 1% of imprisonments. But its status as a culture war symbol — particularly for baby boomers — will keep it in the forefront of popular debate even as concern over cocaine, methamphetamine and heroin wanes.

Why Illegality Makes Drugs More Expensive Than Taxes Ever Could

Why are illegal drugs so expensive?

One of the central rationales for making certain drugs illegal is to elevate their price and thereby reduce consumption. It’s astoundingly effective: illegality makes lightly processed plant matter (e.g., cocaine) more valuable by weight than gold.

It has long been understood that part of this price inflation occurs because individuals in the drug trade demand higher wages to compensate them for the risk of arrest. In the current issue of National Affairs, Jonathan Caulkins and Michael Lee note that an additional, less commonly appreciated mechanism is also at work:

…inefficiency stems from having to operate covertly. The precautions required to evade detection make the production of drugs very labor intensive. Grocery-store cashiers, for instance, are more than 100 times as productive as retail drug sellers in terms of items sold per labor hour. Similarly, hired hands working for crack dealers can fill about 100 vials per hour, whereas even older-model sugar-packing machines can fill between 500 and 1,000 sugar packets per minute. This labor intensity of drug production, combined with the high wages demanded for that labor, are what drive up the costs of drugs; by comparison, materials and supplies — glassine bags, gram balances, and even guns — are relatively cheap.

Caulkins and Lee provide a useful comparison point to appreciate the impact of illegality on price: If cigarettes suffered the same legal disadvantage as cocaine and heroin, they would cost about $2,000 a pack. This is a stark illustration of how taxes on a legal drug could never even remotely raise prices as high as does illegality. Even cigarettes taxes that attempt to raise the price per pack of cigarettes to one half of one percent of what their price would be under illegality are widely evaded and create huge black markets.

How Substitutable are Marijuana Possession Arrests?

Many times in the history of the United States, rising prevalence of use of a drug has been responded to with increased arrests of people in possession of that drug. As Peter Reuter and Rob MacCoun pointed out some years ago, this makes the rise of marijuana possession arrests in the U.S. particularly puzzling: The rate of marijuana use was historically low and stable prior to the growth of arrests.

The trend began in the 1990s and has continued to the present day. It has been almost entirely an urban phenomenon, with the best example being New York City (For a wonderful series of charts on NYC’s arrest patterns, see this piece by Michael Keller).

No informed observer seems to believe that this rise in arrests resulted from heightened concern about marijuana use per se. Rather the explanations invoked range from the arrests being a side effect of stop-and-frisk policing, to them being a way for those police who are racially prejudiced to hassle people of colour, to them being a tactic to punish malefactors who have gotten away with something worse (e.g., someone who has repeatedly beaten a spouse who is too afraid to testify against the perpetrator). Some people are sure they know the explanation with absolute certitude, but if like me you admit the possibilities of your own ignorance and life’s complexity, please read on. Continue reading “How Substitutable are Marijuana Possession Arrests?”

One More Time…Drug Legalization is Not Decriminalization

Zack Beauchamp makes an extremely common analytic error in a post on drug policy. In an effort to refute Water Russell Mead’s argument that we can learn something about drug legalization from the legal opioid pain medication industry, Beauchamp responds by citing data from Portugal.

I am not going to get into the substance of their debate here. I am writing only to point out that Portugal hasn’t legalized drugs, it has decriminalized them. Pain medications are legalized, i.e., there is a legal industry, advertising, lobbying, a government controlled regulatory system, no civil or criminal possession penalties etc. None of this is true of marijuana, heroin, cocaine etc. in decriminalization regimes such as exist in Portugal, which simply remove criminal penalties (Portugal still has civil penalties) for possessing small amounts of drugs and for using drugs.

Everyone who understands drug policy, whether they advocate for legalization, decriminalization, or the status quo, knows that equating decriminalization with legalization is at best wrong, and at worst terribly misleading. Beauchamp is throwing apples at Mead’s oranges.

p.s. Part of the confusion of these two terms no doubt stems in part from the fact that U.S. alcohol “Prohibition” was what we would call today a decriminalization regime.

Upmarket Versus Downmarket Marijuana Prices: A Response to Andrew Sullivan et al.

I recently presented a series of DIY calculations for determining the size of the U.S. marijuana market. This post got a lot of play around the web, most notably from Andrew Sullivan, who again did me the kindness of adding his millions of regular readers to my regular readers (both of them). A number of commenters at his site, RBC and other web outlets (e.g., Washington Monthly) jumped on my estimate that the average price of marijuana was $120-$144/ounce (i.e., $120 with an upward sensitivity of 20%). Across the comments I read of those people who reported their marijuana purchasing experiences, the average price quoted was $425/ounce.

How does one account for the price estimate generated in this fashion being so much higher than, for example, reports from Oregon that indoor-grown marijuana prices are as low as $2000/pound ($125 per ounce) and prices for outdoor grown weed are as low as $700/pound ($44 per ounce)? Or the reports of law enforcement officials (who are often accused of overstating the cash value of drug seizures) from South Texas showing that marijuana prices have plummeted to $540/kilogram ($15/ounce)? Are some people fibbing or simply wildly off-base? In my view, no. All have won and all must have prizes because of the bifurcated nature of the markets for many drugs, including marijuana.

In the early 1980s, I was working with drug addicted people on the mean streets of Detroit, which were very mean indeed in those days. The mainstream media at the time and my middle class friends saw cocaine as a glamorous drug consumed by bankers and movie stars at prices upwards of $100/dose. My daily experience however was that cocaine was becoming an unglamorous drug (crack) purchased at $5/dose or less by streetwalkers, homeless people, gangbangers, and housing projects residents. Had the Internet of today existed then and I had posted that the average price of a dose of cocaine in the U.S. was very low, I would no doubt have been inundated with people saying (to paraphrase a commenter on my marijuana market post) “if Humphreys knew a place where cocaine sold for $5/dose, the world would beat a path to his door”.

But what I was seeing in Detroit was real, namely the emergence of a “downmarket” in cocaine. The “upmarket” was also real and was mainly composed of casual users who bought high-quality product. They paid high prices and often purchased their drug with bundled services (e.g., home delivery). The “downmarket” was mainly composed of heavy users who bought low-quality product at cheap prices. The upmarket was mostly Caucasian in racial makeup, with good social capital (e.g. college education, employment). The downmarket was mainly composed of lower-income people of color. The upmarket was not just rich people; it included many middle class and some working class people. But the downmarket was overwhelmingly composed of people living in poverty (with a few cross-overs now and then).

All of what I have said about the cocaine market in the 1980s could be said about the bifurcated market in marijuana today. And that makes assessment of average marijuana prices a challenging task.

At first blush, determining the true average price of a drug across a bifurcated market might seem as simple as summing the upmarket and downmarket price and dividing by two. But this is not correct because the frequency of use and drug purchasing are much higher in the downmarket, meaning that the cheap price must be weighted much more heavily than the high-end price when determining the average national price. For marijuana, a good survey for determining average national price would require a sample in which about 80% of the marijuana purchasers live in or near poverty, and the other 20% of purchasers were financially better off.

This of course is not the sort of sample breakdown you will get on the Internet. Internet users clearly “skew upmarket“: They are more educated, have higher incomes, are more likely to be employed and are more likely to be Caucasian than is the U.S. population as whole. Although I don’t have any data on the characteristics of Internet users who read Andrew Sullivan and debate public policy with Stanford University professors, I feel safe in assuming that if anything they are even higher in education and income than is the average Internet user. Finally, to the extent that online contributions to marijuana price estimates come from websites and groups advocating marijuana legalization, this is yet another layer of upmarket bias as those sentiments are strongest among white, highly-educated and affluent people. All of the above factors combined would led us to expect that the comments about my original post would very much reflect an upmarket perspective, as indeed they do.

By and large, the various comments quote prices for an upmarket product, namely sensimilla, which is only about a fifth of the marijuana market (the rest is much cheaper commercial grade product, most of which comes from Mexico). The comments often reflect the upmarket phenomenon of service bundling, e.g., “At my dispensary in San Francisco”. If you live in a public housing project in Dallas and the local drug dealer comes to his door when you knock and hands you a half pound of marijuana in a garbage bag for $300, the price truly reflects the price of the drug. But at a dispensary, with a physical location that you enter, staff on hand and an elaborate system to reduce your perceived risk of arrest (i.e., the doctor’s recommendation), you are buying marijuana bundled with other services and the “price of weed” you pay is in fact only partly the weed.

Let me illustrate the upmarket perspective concretely using two of the many posted comments:

From one of Andrew Sullivan’s readers: I have never encountered decent quality marijuana for less than $200/ounce in the western US.

From a Washington Monthly reader: I’ve been a user since ’68 and nearly everyone I know is a user. Not abusers but users. From my experience, the avg. couple uses daily, usually after work in the evening aka a glass of wine etc. Most couples will average 1-2 oz/month, especially upper income users of which there are many.

The world these two comments describe — the upmarket — is real, but is a small part of the total marijuana market. Sullivan’s reader insists on “decent quality” which is not generally a consideration for marijuana smokers in the downmarket. And the pot smokers described by the Washington Monthly commenter are not the people who do most of the purchasing; lower income people who smoke all day almost every day complete far more transactions and thus influence average prices far more. These two comments and others like them reflect a reality as surely as did Pauline Kael’s alleged remark that she didn’t know anyone who voted for President Nixon in 1972. But Nixon won a landslide for the same reason that the average price of pot in the U.S. is far cheaper than $425/ounce: The experience of a selected part of the population can be extremely different from the experience of the whole.