How Cracking Down On Drugs Can Foster More Crime

Does escalating the war against drugs result in a decrease in theft, burglary, and other property crimes? Not if it involves shifting resources away from deterring property crimes directly, claim economists Bruce L. Benson and David W. Rasmussen of Florida State University. In a study published in the latest issue of Contemporary Policy Issues, they conclude that the resource reallocation that accompanied stronger drug law enforcement efforts in Florida during the 1980s actually led to more property crimes -- despite the presumed causal connection between drug addiction and criminal activity.

The two economists note that Florida's police devoted a growing share of their resources to drug law enforcement during the 1980s. Drug arrests rose 90% between 1982 and 1987, while total arrests increased only 32%. But instead of subsiding in the wake of the stepped-up war against drugs, property crimes also escalated. Between 1983 and 1987, for example, robbery rates climbed 34% and auto theft rates jumped 65%.

In the past, economists have explained such increases in crime by noting that drug users have an inelastic demand for drugs. Since greater enforcement of drug laws presumably drives up drug prices, addicts have to step up their criminal activities to pay for their habit. Yet the price of cocaine, the most important drug in Florida, fell dramatically in the second half of the 1980s -- a trend that should have reduced the property crime rate if the "drugs cause crime" argument is valid.

Benson's and Rasmussen's study suggests an alternate hypothesis: that rising property crime in Florida was partly a byproduct of increased enforcement of drug laws. Their analysis indicates that as more resources are allocated against drug crimes, the probability of arrest for property crime falls. Such a decline in arrest probability, they speculate, results in a rise in property crime rates because fewer career criminals are apprehended and because fewer potential criminals are deterred from crime.

The upshot, say the two economists, is that while drug use may often induce property crimes, enforcement of drug laws can also "cause" such crimes by limiting the resources targeted against them. The best way to control property crime, they suggest, is to focus enforcement efforts directly on such crime.

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