No Big Surprise: Legalization Could Cut Crime

As an international terrorism and narcotics specialist with the Congressional Research Service (CRS), Raphael Perl knows a thing or two about drug policy. While the reports CRS produces on numerous topics are generally objective and non-partisan -- therefore arguably of little use to most Congresspersons -- Perl is widely acknowledged to be a thoughtful analyst of drug and terrorism trends. He most recently polished his drug war bona fides by appearing at last December's DEA horse-and-pony show attempting to link drugs and terror, where he argued that terrorist organizations could not survive financially without the drug trade.

But Perl popped up last week in Jamaica singing a slightly different tune. Addressing the American Chamber of Commerce of Jamaica as the honored guest at its "Business Roundtable Breakfast" in Kingston on April 30, Perl told his audience that decriminalizing or legalizing drugs could lower crime rates, but at the cost of increased drug use.

"It is very clear that there is a direct correlation between decriminalization and legalization, and levels of addiction and drug use in a society," Perl said, as reported by the Jamaica Gleaner. "For the societies that have experimented in this area, drug use goes up... but crime goes down."

(The correlation may not be as crystal clear as Perl suggested, but the point is well-taken. Peter Reuter and Robert MacCoun's recent survey of the literature on drug policy in "Drug War Heresies: Learning from Other Vices, Times, and Places," found, for instance, increases in Dutch cannabis consumption came not after de facto decriminalization in 1976, but only later, with the commercialization and glamorization of cannabis in Holland. Increases in Italian heroin use correlated only erratically with changes in the drug's legal status. Increases in alcohol consumption in the US after Prohibition were delayed and, again, probably due to commercialization.)

But betraying a bias that runs deep in American discussions of drug policy -- that the only indicator that matters is drug use levels, not crime levels, not harm levels, not average consumption levels, only how many people are using drugs -- Perl shied away from endorsing decrim or legalization. "Do we want to make a trade-off in our society, where we have more drug use and less crime?" Perl asked the assembled businessmen and women. "I don't like legalization," Perl said, "but I think that this is a decision that each society has to make for itself."

Perl might want to tell that to the State Department, which has threatened Jamaica with dire consequences if a parliamentary move to decriminalize marijuana meets with success (http://www.drcnet.org/wol/200.html#ganjacommission).

Perl told his audience that using drugs is something that "scares me" and constructed a nightmare scenario for the no doubt horrified entrepreneurs. "The possibility exists down the road, that we might have a synthetic drug that I slip into your drink and you are my slave for life," he said.

Exercises in speculative fantasy aside, Perl's remarks indicate that serious drug analysts, even those whose job it is to frighten congresspersons, understand the trade-off between prohibition and crime and are willing to mention the unmentionable: that societies may decide that a certain level of drug use is tolerable if it results in less social harm than drug prohibition. Now, if Perl would only repeat his remarks a little closer to home, like, say, Capitol Hill.

Philip Smith edits DRCNet's Week Online.

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