IV. The Relationship of Drug Policy to Violent Crime
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There exists a large and growing body of respected opinion and credible evidence which suggests that contemporary drug policy has failed to deter or reduce the prevalence of violent crime in our communities, notwithstanding harsh treatment of drug offenders under present "penal" or "law enforcement" based policy. Indeed, many observers have concluded that the current form of "drug prohibition" has generated a great deal of violence, much of it armed violence encountered in the lucrative underworld drug industry, and some deriving from law enforcement efforts themselves in the "war on drugs".
In analyzing these issues, we take great care to distinguish between violence caused by actual drug use or substance abuse ("drug-induced" violence), and violence caused as a byproduct of the high stakes involved in the illicit drug trade ("drug trade" or "drug prohibition" related violence). (31) This distinction is critical, because unless the causes of crimes and violence are accurately identified, no effective solutions can be found.
There is no doubt that some forms of drug use may result in undesirable, unacceptable and anti-social behavior. (32) However, it appears that the overwhelming causes of violent crimes, which often find categorization under the heading of "drug related," are caused by various factors unrelated to actual pharmacological effects of controlled substances upon human behavior. (33) Rather, much of the violent crime can be said to be "drug prohibition-related," insofar as it results from the high costs, huge profits and great stakes involved in the world of drug commerce as is carried on in cities, states and nations throughout the world. (34) Moreover, the complete banning of all forms of use and sale of controlled substances, including marijuana and hashish, has fostered an underworld black market, for both "hard" and "soft" drugs, where violence and weapons possession is part and parcel of doing business under conditions of illegality.
In cities throughout the United States, we find a proliferation of armed violence resulting from "turf" wars for control of territory for lucrative drug sales, together with regularly recurring dangerous and deadly altercations over drug deals gone bad. In addition to this community-based violence, there are "shoot-outs" between drug dealers and law enforcement officers, the latter developing the need for greater and more powerful weapons, only to be matched and then surpassed by those in the drug trade who have enormous profits, and personal liberty, at stake. The net result of these circumstances has been an extraordinary casualty rate for those involved in the drug trade, (35) injury and death to innocent bystanders "caught in the crossfires," injury and loss of life to law enforcement officers, and a prevailing atmosphere of violence in many inner city communities.
A further byproduct of these conditions is an increase of weapons possession, and thereby, the weapons trade, where use and sale of dangerous and increasingly powerful weapons have proliferated. This widespread possession and use of dangerous and deadly weapons has further resulted in the increase of armed violence in our communities, not always directly related to local drug wars, but fostered by the undercurrent of violence, guns and money supported by the drug trade.
We note other ways in which current drug policy is likely serving to exacerbate rather than alleviate violence in our communities. Over the past decades, stepped up law enforcement efforts, disproportionately carried out in our inner city communities, have resulted in large and increasing numbers of minority youth being brought within control of the criminal justice system. It is reported that almost 1 in every 3 young black men in the U.S., between the ages of 20-29, is presently within the control of the criminal justice system -- either in prison, on parole or on probation. (36) This figure is up from approximately 1 in every 4 as reported just 5 years ago. (37) Together with the destabilization of families and communities affected by wholesale removal of young men from their ranks, many individuals arrested and incarcerated for the inherently "non-violent" offenses of drug possession or sale, are then exposed to the violence of prison culture. This violence is, in turn, brought back to the communities to which these members invariably return.
Current drug policy's emphasis on drug arrests, prosecution and incarceration, also indirectly increases violence by diverting law enforcement, court and other criminal justice resources from concentration on violent crime and violent criminal offenders. Further, institutional pressures bear upon prosecutors to concentrate on drug case, since the availability of paid and trained police and other law enforcement officers, as primary witnesses in such cases, renders prosecution of drug cases easier and the statistical rates of conviction (or return) more favorable. (38) This is not to discount the political emphasis often placed on prosecution of drug cases, nor, of course, the obligation of prosecutors to process those cases in which legally supportable arrests under current law have been made. The net result has been a dramatic shift in the proportion of "non-violent" to "violent" offenders incarcerated in jails and prisons throughout the United States -- such shift decidedly toward imprisonment of "non-violent" drug offenders, (39) further stretching resources and limiting the ability of correctional institutions to hold and maintain "violent" offenders within their walls. (40)
On a more global level, there can be no question that the immense fortunes to be made by involvement in the underground, black market world of drug commerce, has resulted in enormous power and wealth for national and international narcotics cartels which, in the experience of various smaller nations, has threatened national security itself. (41)
It is clear, therefore, that the most dangerous threats to our security relating to drugs -- in our cities, throughout our nation and even, internationally -- derive not from the pharmacological effects of drug usage, but from the violence engaged in and power amassed by an entire industry of underworld figures, driven by the high costs and huge profits to be made in the illicit drug trade.
Searching our nation's history for similar experiences from which we may draw guidance, we turn, as many studying this issue have, to our national experience with alcohol prohibition during the early 20th century. (42) During that era of alcohol prohibition, it was the illegality of that "controlled substance," alcohol, which drove up its costs, caused a lucrative black market to develop, and supported a widespread growth in wealth and power for underworld figures and organizations. (43) This, in turn, brought on violence -- between competing bootleggers and racketeers, and between these underworld interests and law enforcement officers -- as well as other related and unrelated violence, much as we see today with respect to the drug trade, although on a much larger scale. In the case of drugs and "drug prohibition," the illegality of these substances has supported and perpetuated the violent culture and dangerous cartels which have profited from the resulting economic circumstances. As one commentator has remarked:
"People aren't killing each other because they are high on drugs, any more than Al Capone ordered the execution of rival bootleggers because he was drunk." (44)
In the final analysis, it appears evident that our nation's drug policy has not only failed to resolve the problems of violent crime, it has served to exacerbate them. Indeed, our nation's "war on drugs," as it has come to be known, has likely had the net effect of causing a more dangerous "war" to rage within our communities, with the only vision of the future appearing to be, if present trends continue, an increase in violence, the proliferation of weapons, a steady supply of new community based drug dealers, and the continued growth of ever-more dangerous "kingpins" and underworld organizations -- all driven by the engine of the lucrative, illegal drug trade.
It follows, therefore, that forms of "decriminalization," "legalization," or ending "drug prohibition," must be seriously considered as alternative directions for future drug strategy, however radical such ideas may presently appear. (45) Accordingly, the Task Force urges the further study of alternative, non-penal based models, in development of future drug policy.
In summary, it is abundantly clear that, whatever the harms presently caused by use and abuse of "controlled" substances in our nation, many of the more pressing concerns with respect to violence in our communities are unlikely to be solved until we find a way to take the profit out of the black market drug trade itself. If we continue to fail in addressing these issues in an objective, rational and progressive manner, we may find ourselves devoured by a larger, more dangerous beast of our own creation.