Does Decriminalization Lead to More Drugs and Crime?

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  March 2, 2012

Does Decriminalization Lead to More Drugs and Crime?

Pt2 of a debate on "What would a saner drug policy look like?" between Sean Dunagan, former DEA Analyst and Kevin Sabet, former Obama Admin. Adviser
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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: But what do you make of the argument that legalization of pot or other drugs leads to more use and flooding into our communities and such?

SEAN DUNAGAN, FORMER DEA INTELLIGENCE ANALYST: Well, you know, there's really no statistical evidence to back that up. And there are a couple of examples. One example on the international level was Portugal, which in 2001 decriminalized possession of small amounts of all drugs—hard drugs, as well as marijuana. And Portugal hasn't seen exploding drug rates. They haven't seen drug tourism. What they have seen is declining rates of HIV infection and hepatitis infection.

We also see examples closer to home. I mean, in the States there are about 13 states that have decriminalized marijuana. Some of those might surprise you, like Ohio and Nebraska and Mississippi. In all of those three states, the use rates of marijuana are significantly below the national average. So we don't see a huge, booming drug tourism industry in the states in this country that have already decriminalized marijuana.

You know, and there's lots of other examples as well. I mean, you know, the fact of the matter is it's hard to find any dataset that would indicate that yes, just the availability of drugs makes it more prominent.

KEVIN SABET, FMR. SENIOR DRUG POLICY ADVISOR IN THE OBAMA ADMIN.: I mean, there are so many flaws with what you just said, with all due respect. First of all, the RAND Corporation, which is a nonprofit, independent organization that has nothing to do with government, did a major study on the impact of legalization and what would happen in California when they were going for legalization of marijuana, and found that there would be a significant increase in use because of prices would fall. So, I mean, economics 101, drug policy 101: drug prices under legalization fall and use goes up. Youth are especially sensitive to price. So that—you know, and they who do not have a stake in the political or policy game said that that would happen. Other independent third-party sources have said that.

What you just described about Portugal and also the marijuana state rates are really the kind of things that, you know, pro-marijuana and legalization organizations are running around town talking about with very little evidence base. So let me get into that. First of all, in Portugal what they did was nothing resembling legalization, really nothing resembling anything that new. And in fact, we visited Portugal, and the officials told us there, you know what, everyone's getting worked up about this new grand experiment that we did; we're really just trying to integrate public health in what we do. And we probed that a little bit. And when you actually look at what Portugal's doing in terms of the number of people arrested, what people are—in terms of treatment admissions, etc., they are falling well within the European average for what's happening in terms of the actual process, what happens now. So it was not this dramatic change of policy. And that's why you didn't see any dramatic ups and downs the other way.

The thing about the reduction in HIV and hepatitis, yeah, if you look at a small, narrow window of two or three years, you'll see that. You look at a longer view, you see ebbs and flows. And that's with a lot of policy. So to attribute a insignificant reduction in one of those things to this, you know, supposedly grandiose policy change I think really is missing the point.

In the states also—and this is a great subject, 'cause it's—people talk about it all the time—marijuana many great states decriminalized in the late 1970s. What people like—again, these are actually people that are in favor for other reasons, of legalization, so they're the last people I usually, you know, would be taking this side. But people like Rob MacCoun and others at Berkeley, former professors of mine and others who I've been in very spirited debates with, have looked at, well, what do these laws even mean on the local level? And what they found is that basically if a state is labeled decriminalization from the '70s, it really means nothing versus states that aren't labeled, because counties do things so much differently. So to say that there's a lower use rate is missing the point. It's not true.

JAY: Okay. Let's go back, though, because he's challenging your view on what happened in Portugal and the importance of that. So let's kind of stay focused.

DUNAGAN: No, absolutely. And I didn't suggest that it was legalization in Portugal. It was decriminalization of small amounts of drugs, possession of small amounts of drugs. But they have seen positive benefits. And, yes, it hasn't existed very long. And there's no place in the world that has actually legalized drugs. So there's no perfect model that we can look at and say, this is what is going to happen in the United States if we radically change our drug policy.

SABET: But what they're doing in Portugal is similar to what we're doing here. I mean, we're doing more diversion and treatment in drug courts than—I mean, Portugal's modeling their public health system and treatment at what a lot of local communities are doing with drug courts. So it's not this radical difference.

DUNAGAN: Well, that's really not the case, because if you're arrested for drug possession in Portugal, you have no chance of going to jail.

SABET: No, that's not true.

DUNAGAN: If you're arrested for drug possession in the United States, you do have a chance of going to jail. So, you know, I mean, it is a different model. And it certainly isn't absolute legalization. That's true. And, you know, of course we'll have to look at future years and see how the reforms that they have made impact other public health issues.

SABET: The people who are arrested and going to jail here for drug possession, though, let's be clear: their primary reason for going to jail is not drug possession; it is a lot of other things that were happening at the same time when the officer also happened to find drugs on their body, or, you know, through drug tests, probation violations, etc. So whether you look at independent analysis done by RAND or Jon Caulkins at Carnegie Mellon, etc., you look at the average time that people spend in jail for all drug possession, it barely registers on the chart. That's because this is a bio-behavioral disease. Other things are happening in their lives. This isn't an isolated incident. So we need to look at this comprehensively. It's a complex issue that we can't just ascribe very simple [crosstalk]

JAY: But if it's fundamentally a health problem, then why would anyone be in jail for small-time trafficking or possession?

SABET: Well, because it's different—.

JAY: How does that solve a health problem?

SABET: I'll explain this. It's different than a health problem like diabetes and hypertension. Those are health problems also. And, actually, the prevalence of diabetes and hypertension are very similar to the prevalence of drug addiction in this country, and there are some similar parallels, and we deal with those in public health. But diabetes and hypertension don't lead people to commit crimes. They don't lead people to commit, you know, actually violent and other behavior that society has said we're not going to tolerate. So it's a complex health problem. It's a health and a safety problem. When you look at drugged driving or drunk driving, for that matter—and so, you know, that's different than somebody who's driving who has diabetes. I mean, there are fundamental differences. This is a complex issue.

JAY: What do you make of the argument?

DUNAGAN: Well, for one thing, you know, any law enforcement officer will tell you that most violent crimes that are committed under the abuse of a substance are alcohol-related.

SABET: I agree.

DUNAGAN: I mean, that's just the reality.

SABET: I totally agree.

DUNAGAN: You know, secondly, if someone takes a drug and commits a violent act, you know, I'm not suggesting that they not be prosecuted for committing that violent act. So to say that there are other things involved, you know, certainly, certainly there are. You know, we're talking specifically about people who are arrested solely for possession of drugs and whether that's a good policy, and really whether that contributes to addressing the drug problems that we have in this country as a public health issue.

JAY: Let me ask a question. Let's for the sake of argument say that if there was decriminalization or legalization of some form, use would go up. So what? And what I mean by so what: is it worth—even if it has negative consequences (and I would say it would), is the consequences of, for example, the destruction of so many inner cities through gang culture based on drug control, the destruction of Mexico, what's happening in Central America—like, if you're balancing a complex problem here, is the war on drugs worth it?

SABET: Yeah, so there are two issues with that. One is that you just made an assumption that all that will go away if drugs were legalized. The issue is this is so different from alcohol prohibition, when Al Capone looks like the lemonade stand versus Coca-Cola, when you're talking about today Al Capone versus today's transnational criminal organizations, which is what they are. They're not dealing with marijuana—just marijuana; they're dealing with a lot of other drugs. But they don't even make most of their money off of that. They make their money off human trafficking. They make their money off kidnapping and extortion now, which now they're doing for money, they used to just do for intimidation. That's a change over the last ten years. They're making money from—piracy is a huge one. They're making money from multiple things. To think with that assumption that you just made that they're going to go away if only drugs were legal, because it would be like alcohol and tobacco, is to totally not understand and see what the economic impact and how these organizations are in our society.

Hold on. But there's a second thing that you mentioned, about "so what", what are the costs to society, who cares. Drug addiction, and that includes alcohol and tobacco—

JAY: I didn't say "who cares". I'm saying balance these costs.

—are linked with $193 billion of lost social costs with 6 percent of Americans as regular drug users. Remember, 6 percent of America are regular drug users: like you said, a majority marijuana; 25 percent cigarettes; and between 60 and 80 percent, depending on the age group you're looking at, for alcohol. So our legal drugs are used and abused far more than our illegal ones.

You're right. Alcohol is the number one—when people talk to me about crack cocaine, I say, you know, crack looks like nothing compared to alcohol in terms of the connection with crime. Alcohol is a legal drug. It's promoted by, you know, multinational corporations whose—addiction is in their very best interest to promote. And more people are arrested, as you know, twice the number of people are arrested for alcohol-related incidents every year more than drugs. Why? It's legal, available in our society. We don't want to make that same mistake with drugs.

JAY: Okay. What do you make that argument?

DUNAGAN: Well, you know, we're looking at, you know, the range of options, right? Okay, yes, there are certainly social costs attributable to drug use. I do not support drug use and LEAP as an organization does not support drug use. It's bad, it's bad for people, it's bad for communities, it's bad for your health, there are social costs, there's no question about that.

The question really becomes: what do we do with these individuals who have a drug abuse problem? And I just think that bringing them into the public health system is a much better option than putting them in the criminal justice system.

And, you know, what you said about alcohol and tobacco rates is—.

SABET: We agree.

DUNAGAN: Yeah, I think we agree on a lot, frankly. What you said about alcohol and tobacco use rates is very interesting, because tobacco is more readily available than alcohol. You only have to be 18 to buy it. You can buy it in the convenience store. Alcohol is much more controlled. You have to be 21, depending on the state, right? The distribution network is much more limited. But as you said, far more people—four times, three times as many people drink alcohol as smoke tobacco. So, you know, the idea that availability is really what determines the level of use and abuse of any substance, you know, is just not the case. There are lots of other factors. It's very complex.

JAY: But what do you make of the argument that if you—if I understand it, you support legalization or decriminalization, not only of pot but of other drugs as well. So what do you make of this argument that in terms of gang culture, criminal culture, and what's happened happening in Latin America, it really wouldn't change that much just because you decriminalize things?

DUNAGAN: Well, that's—you know, I really don't think that's true. I spent two years with DEA in Mexico from 2008 to 2010, at a time when the level of violence and corruption really worsened precipitously. It's true, certainly, that these transnational criminal organizations derive profits from a range of criminal activities—kidnapping, certainly; extortion; piracy; prostitution; liquor smuggling still; you know, all sorts of crimes. But the driving, the cash engine for these groups is still drug trafficking. If it weren't, they wouldn't continue to do it. So, certainly, you know, I'm not suggesting that if we were to adopt a policy of legalization, you know, that these cartels would disappear overnight. They certainly would not. But most of their income is derived from drug trafficking. And so, depriving them of that income would have a positive impact on diminishing the power.

There's also the issue of corruption. You know, that—the cash generated from drug trafficking enables these organizations—primarily in Mexico, but elsewhere in Latin America, and to a much more limited extent in the United States—you know, enables these organizations to entirely corrupt law enforcement and judicial infrastructures in these places. So, yes, it's—drug trafficking is not the only issue. Crime is not going to disappear. But, you know, taking that cash-generating ability away from these organizations would have a positive impact.

SABET: But again that's making the assumption that we'll be able to do that under legalization. And the issue is they are so encroached with drug producers and they are so in bed with, you know, government officials in many of these countries, as we would both admit, that the idea that even if you legalize—you know, the number-one argument for legalization on the state level that's been most effective, I think, for that side of the argument has been this'll be a huge tax windfall, okay, which is, I think, wrong for a number of reasons. But one of the things, even if you end up taxing it, as have been many of the proposals, the idea that this underground market is necessarily going to go away is ridiculous. The profits they're making are so big, they'll lower their price to match—it's worth it for them to lower their price to match or even go slightly below the government—so-called government open price of cocaine or heroin.

So—and that's not even to talk about—and, you know, we're sort of lumping marijuana, cocaine, or heroin together. I mean, the assumption you just made also is that we're going to legalize cocaine and heroin. So we also need to look at that issue separately, because I think that that—we need to really think about, you know, something that causes the misery and the addiction rates that they do, that we would want to legalize that.

But even if I go with you on that premise that we put them all together, we are not really getting to the issue of the depriving them of their income, because they will adapt. We saw that happening in Canada when Canada did the $2 tax extra on tobacco. Immediately the black market comes up. And there was a—and, actually, Canada repealed that, as you all know. And today we actually see the huge underground market in tobacco in New York City, and it's coming from the south to New York City. You talk to New York narcotics detectives, they're focusing on tobacco.

JAY: Alright. So what's your response to that?

DUNAGAN: Well, let's be clear. When we talk about the underground black market in cigarettes, you know, we're not talking about somebody growing their own tobacco and drying it and rolling it into a cigarette. When we talk about the underground black market in alcohol, we're not talking about somebody cooking up bathtub gin and selling it at a speakeasy. You know, we're talking about moving a product that almost always is produced legally under supervision from one area where taxes are lower to another area where taxes are. So we're talking about tax avoidance.

It really—you know, I disagree with your premise that if we were to establish a regulated system of legal distribution of drugs, where those drugs would be checked for purity, they would be checked for potency, you know, all these things that contribute to addiction and overdose deaths, you know, if we had that system in place, I don't think very many people would prefer to go to the street corner and take their chances buying heroin from somebody on the street corner when they could go to their doctor and receive it and they'll know exactly what it is, it would almost certainly be cheaper, and it's much, much safer, and it's being received in a much safer environment where there's also an interface with a health professional. You know, I just disagree that that black market would continue to exist. We don't have a significant black market in cigarettes or alcohol today.


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