How Drug Prohibition Increases the Rate of Crime

This is the fourth in my series on the social costs of drug prohibition. You can read part one here (prison-industrial complex), part two (police militarization) here, and part three (civil asset forfeiture).


Prohibition policies are often sold to a willing public on the grounds of crime reduction. This is especially true regarding the rhetoric on violent crime, as public policy has long assumed a causal relationship between drug use and an increase in violent crime. An example of this assumed relationship is the laws banning firearm ownership by those found to be addicted to or unlawful users of controlled substances (McGinty, Choksy, & Wintemute, 2016). The underlying belief is that violence is inherently a psychopharmacological side-effect of drug use. This belief among policymakers persists despite the abundance of research that shows that the majority of drug-related violence is systemic – the result of the exigencies of operating within a black market – rather than psychopharmacological (Goldstein, Brownstein, & Ryan, 1992). Simply put, it is the prohibition that causes the violence at a greater rate than the use of the prohibited substances.

The reasons for this should be as obvious to policymakers as they are to economists, sociologists, political scientists and criminologists, yet the paradigm continues. Because law enforcement efforts such as interdiction lessen supply, while demand remains relatively inelastic even with the arrest of drug users, prices increase. This makes the control and protection of both trafficking routes and sales territories more valuable, increasing tensions between rival organizations and gangs. While these competing organizations sometimes enter into agreements, the illegal nature of their activities renders them unable to utilize legal conflict resolution avenues such as courts to mediate disagreements and enforce accords (Castillo & Kronick, 2020). As such, the lure of higher profits makes violence an attractive alternative to honoring low-stake territorial agreements. Antidrug policy, by its nature, creates a tradeoff between lowered supply and increased violence.

This would be a policy failure if increased violence were the only negative externality associated with the current drug policy, and as we shall discuss later, a large portion of the violence caused by these policies occurs outside of our domestic borders. We began this series by detailing how the paradigms created by Prohibition informed current drug laws and enforcement mechanisms and looking at the similarities between the two. However, there is one major difference that must be accounted for. Alcohol production occurred domestically, which concentrated the attendant violence to local American cities. This led to a public backlash against the Eighteenth Amendment, resulting in its repeal. Much of the production of illegal substances such as cocaine or heroin happens in other countries, who then traffic the wares into the United States. The result of this is much of the violence caused by domestic prohibition laws is offshored to nations such as Mexico and Afghanistan, thus hiding the human costs that domestic politicians must answer for. 

Violent crimes are not the only area impacted by drug policy, however, and the relationship between this set of tradeoffs often goes unnoticed by the public. As noted earlier, there are opportunity costs associated with efforts to interdict the flow of controlled substances, as well as to maximize the incarceration of sellers and users. Grossi observes that the inflow of inmates convicted of drug-related crimes has a crowding out effect, lessening the space available to incarcerate those who have committed other types of crimes. Additionally, when conducting a pooled analysis of 51 separate state-level (including D.C.) regressions utilizing the FBI’s  seven  Index  Crimes as a baseline measure, Defina and Arvanites (2002)  find a positive correlation between drug arrests and an increase in five of the seven Index Crimes in a majority of states. While this is not uniform across states – i.e. some states see a reduction in crime across the board as a result of drug arrests – in aggregate, the more vigorous the policy of drug enforcement, the more crime there is in other areas such as property crimes and theft.

In 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported 92,700 fatal overdoses in the U.S.; an increase of 29% over 2019. This rate of roughly 28 per 100,000 people is almost double the rate of 14.7 per 100,000 people in 2014. Much of this explosion on overdoses has been fueled by the opioid crisis. Recall from the discussion in my previous post the concept of the Iron Law of Prohibition, the economic principle which holds that artificially imposed barriers to entry and supply exert pressure to simultaneously minimize volume and maximize profit. Whereas drugs such as cocaine, heroin and methamphetamines impose transaction costs related to illegal trafficking, legal opioids were a readily available, and initially legal, substitute for illegal opioids such as heroin. Conversely, efforts to criminalize the nonmedical use of legal opioids such as oxycodone has increased the trafficking and usage of readily obtained synthetic opioids such as fentanyl.

Gottschalk (2023) provides a fascinating retrospective on how the opioid crisis evolved. She traces its beginnings to the 1980s moral panic regarding crack, a cheaply produced derivative of cocaine that provided a convenient justification for politicians to engage in “tough on crime” rhetoric. Despite a lack of hard, valid evidence, this rock upon which to build a political religion of expanded prohibition claimed that this new scourge was instantly, inevitably addictive, invariably caused violent, antisocial behavior in users, and would birth a new generation of addicted, disabled babies that would need costly medical care for the entirety of their lives. While separable from the later opioid crisis itself, this provided the backdrop against which illegal synthetic opioids could both flourish and provide a new enemy for policymakers to rally against.

Meanwhile, pharmaceutical firm Purdue Pharma, which marketed itself as a leader in cutting-edge pain management, led the charge in convincing regulators to greenlight the sales of its synthetic opioid OxyContin in 1995. OxyContin, and other variants of oxycodone, proved to be highly addictive, which the manufacturers of these synthetics knew beforehand. In conjunction with coconspirators such as Walmart, Walgreens and CVS, these pills were heavily marketed, especially in rural communities, where doctors readily prescribed them to neatly anyone complaining of pain. Soon enough, regulators and policymakers recognized that an epidemic was on hand and sprang into action. Predictably, instead of treating the rising tide of addiction and overdoses as a public health crisis, they responded by seeking to limit the supply of these drugs, restricting the number of pills doctors could prescribe, to whom they could prescribe them, and creating a prescription monitoring program which criminally prosecutes physicians who exceed prescription limits.

Supply always eventually follows demand, and in the absence of the preferred product, substitutes will fill the gap. In this case, users addicted to oxycodone and similar synthetic derivatives turned to extant opioids available on the street, namely heroin. While, of course, interdiction efforts limit the available supply of heroin to a degree, it is possible to increase the potency of the supply at hand. Enter fentanyl, a synthetic opiate that is both accessible with a legitimate prescription domestically, and relatively easy to smuggle across borders. Fentanyl can be up to fifty times more potent than heroin, which naturally increases the potency of drugs laced with fentanyl. The result has been a marked increase in the occurrence of overdoses, both fatal and nonfatal, as well as communicable diseases spread by the sharing of needles (Meyer, et al., 2023), (Leyton & Krausz, 2024). The tragedy lies in the fact that none of this is necessary.


Tarnell Brown is an Atlanta based economist and public policy analyst.


Richard W Fulmer
May 16 2024 at 10:47am

People who profit from failed policies often lobby to keep them in place. Does anyone other than drug traffickers and law enforcement agencies benefit from prohibition? If so, are they working to keep drug laws on the books?

Todd Ramsey
May 17 2024 at 9:32am

Notably, in 2014 the FDA put extra restrictions on the national supply of legal oxycodone and hydrocodone, and made hydrocodone more difficult to obtain with a prescription.

The increased rate of opioid-related deaths since 2014 is not a coincidence.

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