Answering the right question

Jamie over at Austin Criminal Defense Lawyer:

Just a week or so ago, I was having a conversation with a fellow Austin criminal defense attorney about whether ëdecriminalization/legalization‰ would reduce or increase crime.
Like me, he is strongly against our current Drug War policies, especially when it comes to imprisoning and using felony enhancement provisions in the Penal Code for drug possession cases — creating ridiculously long sentences, sometimes 25 years to life.
However, he argued that even heavily regulated but legal use of cocaine and heroin would automatically increase drug use itself, and also other crimes š mostly property crimes.

This is a common logical disconnect that happens in drug war discussions. There are two major problems with the reasoning of Jamie’s friend in answering the question “would there be more or less crime if drugs were legalized:

  1. He asserts that legalization would provide an increase in use and therefore an increase in use-related crime, such as property crimes. Certainly, there are crimes that happen that are related to drug use and getting money to buy drugs. And, all other factors remaining the same, it is not a logical stretch to assume that an increase in drug use would result in an increase of that kind of crime.

    However, the point is that all factors will not remain the same.

    • In a regulated environment, it’s possible that drugs will be more affordable, reducing the “need” for property crimes.
    • Drug users will not have to interact with a criminal network in order to procure drugs (breaking the law to buy drugs may make it easier to break the law in other ways)
    • Drug users will be less likely to have spent time in “criminal training school” (jail)
    • Law enforcement, no longer focused on drug arrests, may be more able to focus on property crimes, thereby reducing them.

    So, in fact, it is not nearly as certain as might appear at first glance, that increased use would result in an increase in use-related crime. And it may well be that it would be reduced.

  2. The question was whether crime would increase or decrease, but Jamie’s friend has chosen to only discuss whether drug use-related crime would increase or decrease. In fact, drug use-related crime is miniscule (and generally less dangerous) compared to drug prohibition-related crime. Legalization would obviously result in a dramatic reduction in prohibition-related crime, since there would no longer be… prohibition.

    No more

    • Shootouts over drug territory
    • Violent “contract” disputes
    • Drug prohibition-related corruption of law enforcement

    Additionally, ending prohibition would have all sorts of potential other side effects that could reduce overall crime, including keeping families together, putting drug income/profits into the legal market (increasing legitimate jobs and the legal economy), etc.

Of course, even limited experiments have shown the truth of this…

Switzerland is now leading the way out of prohibition. In 1994, it started prescribing free heroin to long-term addicts who had failed to respond to law enforcement or any other treatment. In 1998, a Lausanne criminologist, Martin Kilias, found that the users’ involvement in burglary, mugging and robbery had fallen by 98%; in shoplifting, theft and handling by 88%; in selling soft drugs by 70%; in selling hard drugs by 91%. As a group, their contacts with police had plunged to less than a quarter of the previous level. The Dutch and the Germans have had similar results with the same strategy. All of them report that, apart from these striking benefits in crime prevention, the users are also demonstrably healthier ( because clean heroin properly used is a benign drug ) and that they are more stable with clear improvements in housing, employment and relationships. [The Guardian]

Unfortunately, the United States has done everything in its power to block such experiments with legal, regulated drugs.

It’s very hard to know for certain every aspect of the consequences of legalization. There are too many factors, and there are too few modern experiments that truly qualify. But the first step is to answer the right question. Then it’s not so hard to draw some very strong logical evidence that a proper legalization scheme could result in a dramatic reduction in crime.
Now in the case of Jamie’s friend, I think that answering the wrong question was probably a natural, inadvertent act. Others, however, make a living at answering the wrong question. This behavior is particularly common at the ONDCP.
Check out this one by David Murray:

Some have argued that keeping marijuana illegal itself does damage, since people run the risk of arrest if they break the law. But this purported damage is much overstated.

See what he did? Forget the point about the damage being overstated (which it isn’t). The bigger issue is that he re-defined our question by answering the wrong one. We argue that keeping marijuana illegal itself does damage for a whole bunch of reasons (including feeding the black market, damaging the environment, denying financial aid, turning the law enforcement-citizen relationship into one of enemies, and on and on…). But in his answer, he limits the question so as to only cover the damage of arrest.
So when talking to people about drug policy, watch for this little trick, and make them answer the right question.

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