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Crime and the Drug War

by Kirby R. Cundiff, Ph.D.

Appeared in: Claustrophobia, August 1994

In 1907, when Georgia and Oklahoma made the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors illegal state wide, the homicide rate in the United States was 1 person per 100,000 per year.[2] Before the end of the decade, 13 states plus Alaska, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia had gone dry.[6] By 1919--when the 18th amendment was passed, making alcohol use illegal nationwide--the homicide rate had grown to 8 per 100,000. The murder rate climbed steadily until it peaked at 10 per 100,000 around 1933, when our nation admitted its mistake, and repealed the 18th amendment. By 1943 the homicide rate had drastically shrunk to 5 per 100,000 and stayed near that level until 1964 when the United States made the same mistake all over again ( see graphic).[2]

In December of 1964, having been ratified by 40 countries, the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs 1961 went into effect restricting narcotic drug use to medical and scientific purposes. It also internationally banned narcotic drug trade outside of government monopolies.[8] History was about to repeat itself. From 1964 to 1970 in the United States, the number of state prisoners incarcerated for drug offenses more than doubled from 3,079 to 6,596 (it was 90,000 in 1989)[9], and the new concentration on enforcing victimless crimes caused the homicide rate to skyrocket. Between 1964 and 1970 the homicide rate doubled from 5 per 100,000 to 10 per 100,000, where it has remained, with minor fluctuations, until today.[2] Lyndon Johnson had declared war on drugs, to be followed by Richard Nixon declaring War on Drugs in 1969, Ronald Reagan declaring War on Drugs in 1982, and George Bush declaring War on Drugs in 1989.[4]

At the turn of the century, both heroin and aspirin were legally available and sold for approximately the same amount. Today aspirin can be purchased at the corner drug store for 20 cents per gram; heroin costs $50 per gram. [p. 33, 3] The price of heroin rose drastically after it was made illegal due to the dangers involved in its sale. Dealers are willing to kill each other for profits obtained from such a lucrative market; junkies are willing to rob and kill for money to support their habit--money, if drugs were legal and cheap, that they could easily obtain by working at McDonald's. You and I, through high crime rates caused by the War on Drugs and high tax rates used to support the War on Drugs, pay the price. During prohibition "liquor store" owners murdered each other to protect their turf just as drug dealers do today. Today, liquor store owners are generally peaceful. Eliminating the enormous profits involved in black-market businesses eliminates the motive for violent crime, and therefore the violent crime.

More law enforcement is commonly touted as the answer to America's violent crime problem. Since 1970 the percentage of the American population in prison has tripled with no noticeable effect on the homicide rate.[2] More than 1.3 million citizens are now in jail.[p. 24, 3] The United States has a larger percentage of its population in prison than any other nation[2], and still maintains the highest homicide rate in the industralized world. [1] We have even thrown away parts of our constitution in the name of fighting crime. Asset forfeiture laws allow law enforcement officers to seize the property of American citizens without even charging them with a crime, even though the 5th amendment to the constitution clearly states "No person shall be...deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law..." Of course if you want your property back you do have the right to post a bond and try to prove yourself innocent, of a crime you have not even been charged with, in a court of law. No attorney will be provided for you if you cannot afford one. Over $2.4 billion worth of assets have been seized since 1985, $664 million in 1991 alone--and in 80% of the cases no charges were ever filed.[7]

Disparities between the poor and the rich are often considered causes of our high crime rate, but the United States has not only one of the world's highest crime rates, but also one of the world's largest middle classes. The religious right claims America's huge crime rate is caused by a break-down of family values. This would require family values breaking down suddenly in 1907, returning in 1933, and suddenly breaking down again in 1964. Many liberals believe that America's large crime rate is due to our lack of gun-control laws, but America's gun-control policy has changed little throughout this century. There is no way gun control can explain the enormous fluctuations in America's homicide rate. The United States government's substance control policies are the only answer. The only way to lower America's violent crime rate, short of turning the United States into a totalitarian state, is through ending the War on Drugs.

The growing list of people who support decriminalization of drugs in America include: William F. Buckley, George Carlin, George Crockett, Alan Dershowitz, Phil Donahue, Hugh Downs, Milton Friedman, Ira Glasser, Michael Kinsley, David Letterman, John McLaughlin, Andy Rooney, Carl Sagan, Kurt Schmoke, Tom Selleck, George Shultz, George Silver, Tom Snyder, Robert Sweet, Thomas Szasz, Garry Trudeau, and Donald Trump.[5]

Organizations opposed to the War on Drugs include the Cato Institute, the Libertarian Party, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, and the Reason Foundation.

Kirby R. Cundiff has a doctoral degree in theoretical physics from the University of Illinois. He is currently the graduate advisor to the University of Illinois College Libertarians.

  1. "Crime, Law Enforcement, and Penology." Britannica Book of the Year 1993, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 117.
  2. "The Crime Scene." Forbes, 14 September 1992, 308.
  3. "Drugs in America." Rolling Stone, 5 May 1994.
  4. Hazlett, Thomas W., "Looking Backwards." Reason, May 1993, 70-82.
  5. "Honor Roll." Illinois Libertarian, April 1993, 10.
  6. Kobler, John., Ardent Spirits, New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1973, 196.
  7. Paff, John. "Fear". Libertarian Party News, December 1993, 17.
  8. "Pharmacology." Britannica Book of the Year 1966, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 605-607.
  9. World Almanac and Book of Facts 1993. New York: Pharos Books, 950.

Published: Claustrophobia, August 1994 (

May be reprinted without permission, if reprinted whole.
(c) 1994 Kirby R. Cundiff

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