The Link Between Drugs And Violence

In recent years there's been a lot of talk about the need to reduce sentences for non-violent drug offenders, which is laudable. However, the focus on the actions of the individual obscures the fact that illegal industries necessarily and inevitably involve violence regardless of the intentions of the participants.
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In recent years there's been a lot of talk about the need to reduce sentences for non-violent drug offenders, which is laudable. However, the focus on the actions of the individual obscures the fact that illegal industries necessarily and inevitably involve violence regardless of the intentions of the participants. By legalizing drugs, nonviolent sales and consumption activities would no longer be defined as crimes, and we would lower the incidence of robbery and murder that occur only because drugs are illegal.

The drug trade is a business--with producers, importers, distributors, and retailers. As with any business, there will be disputes--over contract interpretation and enforcement, assignment of sales territories, bad debts, poor quality merchandise, theft of product, etc. For legal businesses, most of these claims could be handled by lawsuits and adjudicated in court.

Because drugs have been declared illegal, the entire industry is barred from using legal proceedings for dispute resolution and enforcement. The only option is private enforcement, and there are few options between "please" and retaliatory violence--whether assault or killing of the offending party or his associates (and bystanders caught in the crossfire).

A recent article in the Washington Post noted that the killing of five police officers in Dallas fits a pattern of private retaliation, common worldwide when authorities are seen as ineffectual in resolving disputes and delivering justice. In the case of drugs, it is not that the courts are incapable of resolving business disputes. Rather, the drug industry cannot utilize the courts, and participants are left to their own devices. We should not be surprised at the mayhem associated with the drug trade--from the headless bodies found outside Mexico City to the killings in Chicago as gangs fight over sales territories.

We saw the same pattern during the Prohibition of Alcohol (1920-1933). Part of what Al Capone offered was dispute resolution and enforcement services. The day Prohibition ended, the local beer distributors took their contract disputes to court, and the violence subsided essentially overnight.

Would those now engaged in the drug trade be willing to turn to legal authorities? My observation from my time as a Chicago prosecutor is that people were often quite creative in conceptualizing their disputes in terms that would allow them to call the police, a less risky strategy than undertaking private vengeance. For example, when the drugs were delivered but the customer did not pay, the seller might report a robbery to the police. The robbery claim was both retaliation against the buyer, and a cover story for the seller to explain to his supplier why the drugs were gone but there was no money received. This tied up police time figuring out the truth of the matter, and in any case is no substitute for routine access to official dispute resolution mechanisms.

As long as we persist in keeping drugs illegal, the violence, especially in our inner cities, will continue, and there will be an endless supply of new non-violent offenders as well as those who take violent action. Only legalization can change the dynamic.

Legalization, regulation, and control of drugs would reduce the violence and the incarceration rate in the US, the highest on the planet. Besides ceasing to prosecute those now charged with drug crimes (currently 46% of those in federal prison), legalization would likely result in fewer violent crimes, such as robbery and murder, that would not occur if not for the illegality of drugs.

Legalization would, of course, also free up resources now devoted to police, prosecution, and prison and allow us to provide drug treatment for those who want it. We could address some of the problems (e.g., bad schools, joblessness) that reduce opportunity in minority communities, driving many into the drug economy as the best available option. Drug convictions reduce possibilities for employment, leading to cycles of drug crimes, arrests, and poverty. It is time to change the dynamic and, by reforming drug laws, stop both non-violent and violent drug offenses before they happen.

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