Could a New Crackdown on Drugs Increase Crime?

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For Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the only way to reverse rising violent crime rates is to lock up as many drug offenders as possible. “We know that drugs and crime go hand-in-hand,” Sessions said this month. “Drug trafficking is an inherently violent business. If you want to collect a drug debt, you can’t file a lawsuit in court. You collect it by the barrel of a gun.” Drugs do fuel crime, reports The Trace. Dealers often turn to violence to carve out territories and enforce loyalty. Chronic drug users sometimes turn to crime to support their habits. Yet research has shown that boosting drug crime prosecutions often does not lead to a reduction in violent crime — and that in some instances, it can encourage more of it. “It’s pretty clear that there’s a correlation between drug arrests, crackdowns on drug markets and increase in violent crimes,” said Leo Beletsky, a professor of Law and Health Sciences at Northeastern University. “[But] the relationship is not inverse, as law enforcement would claim, but symbiotic — one causes the other, or at least they go hand-in-hand,”

Arresting and convicting a drug dealer can destabilize a criminal ecosystem, leading to a surge in violence. When law enforcement disrupts drug markets, whether by “decapitating” — arresting a major kingpin — or taking out small-time dealers on a major scale, it can create “a power vacuum,” which gives rise to “turf wars” and “creates the conditions for violent crime,” Beletsky said. Arresting people on the supply side of the drug trade also generally does not have the impact Sessions is seeking, he added. A comprehensive article in the International Journal of Drug Policy in 2011 evaluated 15 studies on violence and drug crackdowns and found that increasing police activity — drug arrests, drug seizures, and police spending on drug enforcement — “paradoxically” drove up violence. One of those studies, of 67 Florida counties, found that increases in the rate of drug arrests correlated with a twofold risk of violent and property crime.

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