Friday, July 8, 2016

Legalize Drugs to Minimize Fatal Police Encounters

I’m in favor of drug legalization. Not just marijuana, and not just “decriminalization.” I’m talking full legalization of the production, transport, and sale of all currently illegal drugs, with or without a strict regulatory/tax regime. This would surely lead to fewer unnecessary confrontations with police officers. There would be fewer bullshit traffic stops and fewer stop-and-frisk encounters with pedestrians by cops looking for bogus reasons to bust people. I’m not claiming it will end all fatal encounters between police and civilians. There would still be plenty of *legitimate* reasons to bust people, so obviously potentially volatile police encounters wouldn’t drop to zero. But they would surely fall. Much of the low-level harassment can be blamed on the war on drugs: Cops find bogus reasons to search people for drugs (especially young minorities), which foments resentment in minority communities, where people quite reasonably suspect they are being singled out for harassment. That’s a recipe for escalation if there ever was one.

Most of the outrageous police shootings that make the news involve unnecessary escalations of routine traffic stops or other impromptu police encounters. But there is another class of fatal shootings in which the confrontation is planned by the police. I’m talking about SWAT-style no-knock raids on residential properties. A team of soldiers storms into a home, kills the dog as a matter of course, and handcuffs the family and holds them at gunpoint. This is almost always to serve a drug warrant, and at any rate this vile practice historically arose for the purpose of enforcing drug laws, even if it’s occasionally used to enforce other types of laws. It’s completely disgusting and completely avoidable, but it’s done something like 50,000 times each year (last I checked). We can’t do all that much about the first kind of police encounter; there will always be that initially reasonable and legally defensible traffic stop that unnecessarily escalates into a fatal encounter. But there are 50,000 extremely violent (if not often fatal) encounters every year that don’t need to happen at all. We could and should stop this practice immediately, whether accompanied by full drug legalization or not.

Under legalization the black market would go away, too, along with all the associated crime. That means fewer gang-related murders, beatings, and property crimes to investigate, which means fewer encounters between police officers and young men (the demographic most likely to escalate into pointless violence). The market price for drugs would decrease enough that addicts would not have to resort to property crimes to support their habit, so there is another class of crimes that could disappear. It’s likely that the use of currently illegal drugs would increase slightly if we legalized them, but it’s very unlikely that *total intoxication* would increase by much. The kinds of people who are willing to take serious risks with their health are the kinds of people who aren’t deterred by legal penalties. People who have a very high need to get intoxicated either use illegal drugs anyway or drink alcohol. We’d probably see some substitution away from alcohol toward other drugs, but there wouldn’t likely be a net increase in problematic drug use. So we should give very little credibility to the notion that drug prohibition is holding back a hoard of criminal drug-zombies, as if legalization would open the gates. This belief, that drug use *causes* criminal behavior, is on shaky legs anyway. Legalization would, in sum, eliminate several major drivers of crime that currently exist and wouldn’t likely add any new drivers, for a net decrease. That means fewer confrontations between police and citizens, which in turn means fewer fatal confrontations.

All this has little to do with the particular news stories that people are upset about this week. I’ll reiterate a point I’ve made before: Stop reacting too strongly to the “outrage of the week.” Substantive policies are based on statistical evidence, not individual data points. No single story, no matter how emotionally compelling, “proves” or “debunks” your worldview. Everything I said above could be 100% correct, and these recent specific killings might still have taken place under a regime of my preferred drug policy. We shouldn’t craft policy in response to specific tragedies; we should craft policy that does the most good for the lowest cost. Drug legalization passes this test. 

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