David R. Henderson  

Is Drug Trafficking Inherently Violent?

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Andrew C. McCarthy, a former federal prosecutor whose writing I have sometimes agreed with and found well-reasoned (see this, for example), writes the following:

The bill that GOP leadership is currently joining with Democrats to try to ram through Congress is being masqueraded as sentencing "reform." In fact, it should be called the "Early Release for Sociopaths Certain to Recidivate Act." And there is no rational reason for the support it has gotten from top Republicans ... except its appeal to libertarian donors, who believe we should not have laws against narcotics trafficking. Hence, one of the two major falsehoods behind the anti-incarceration push: The nation's jails overflow with "non-violent drug offenders."

This claim, which leading Republicans now join President Obama in peddling, is preposterous. As Heather Mac Donald has shown, drug offenders make up well under a fifth of the state prison population (which would be unaffected by the federal legislation, notwithstanding Washington's reliance on a fairy-tale depiction of it). The lion's share of state convicts are violent felons (54 percent) and property offenders (19 percent). In recent congressional testimony in opposition to the "reform" bill, Mac Donald observed (citing a 2011 study by researchers of the Harvard School of Public Health and UCLA School of Public Health): "The size of America's prison population is a function of our violent crime rate. The U.S. homicide rate is seven times higher than the combined rate of 21 Western nations plus Japan."


This is from Andrew C. McCarthy, "On Crime, Will the Party of Reagan Become the Party of Bill Ayers?" PJ Media, May 12, 2016.

There are two things to note.

First, McCarthy is right that sentencing for state prisons would be unaffected by the federal legislation. This is a separate point, though, from whether the nation's jails overflow with non-violent drug offenders, which is the point he's trying to refute.

Second, by his own admission, "drug offenders make up well under a fifth of the state prison population." OK. So how much "well under?" Is it, say, 15%? If so, and if all these drug offenders are non-violent (they aren't--a point I will address anon), then it doesn't seem like much of an exaggeration to say that the nation's jails are overflowing with them. Certainly, letting 15% of state prisoners out would substantially affect the capacity problem.

As I stated above, though, and as McCarthy argues, not all of these drug offenders are non-violent. But what percent of them are violent? This would seem to be the crucial issue for McCarthy to address. He doesn't give evidence on that.

Instead, he goes back to considering only federal prison inmates. This would make sense if he wants solely to address the sentencing legislation he criticizes. But it doesn't make sense if he wants to challenge the idea of many non-violent drug offenders in the "nation's jails," which include, not only the relatively small number of federal prisoners but also the much larger number of prisoners in state and county jails.

But let's consider his case on its own terms. Are people in federal prison for drug offenses non-violent? McCarthy doesn't answer this either, but he appears to think he does. He writes:

As former federal drug czars Bill Bennett and John Walters explain, a whopping "99.5 percent of those incarcerated for [federal] drug convictions are guilty of serious drug trafficking offenses." These are real felons - drug importers and distributors, not mere users. Drug trafficking, moreover, is an inherently violent crime. Indeed, it is well-settled federal law that firearms and other weapons so commonly seized in drug investigations are admissible evidence in court because "guns are tools of the trade" of narcotics trafficking.

So his first point is that virtually all of the people in federal prisons for drug crimes are there for importing and distributing. But this falls short of the point he was trying to make. One can import and distribute illegal drugs without being violent. One probably needs to be willing to be violent, but that's different from being violent. In fact, I would bet that the vast majority of drug transactions, even at a high level, are not violent. Drug trafficking, in short, is not inherently violent.

How does McCarthy handle this problem? He really doesn't. He points out that firearms are commonly seized in drug investigations. That doesn't make drug trafficking violent. It is violent only if the guns are used against people. And McCarthy doesn't make that claim. Moreover, if they were used against people, the odds are that they were used illegally, even if the users were simply trying to protect their property. But if that's so, then why put drug traffickers in prison for drug trafficking rather than for shooting people? It would appear that the prosecutors don't have enough evidence that the traffickers really were violent.

McCarthy could be right that the vast majority of drug offenders in prison (federal or otherwise) are there for violent offenses. But he needs to make the case. He hasn't. I would bet that it's because he can't.


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COMMENTS (10 to date)
GregS writes:

Ok, interesting. I thought you were going to make a different point, that the rates of violence seen in drug trafficking depend on the drug trade’s legal status. You’re making a different claim, which I rarely see made: even a black market drug trade isn’t “inherently” violent. It’s almost certainly more violent than it needs to be, but most transactions surely end peacefully (even if under a high state of tension).

I’m curious if you’ve read “The Social Order of the Underworld” by David Skarbek. It describes in detail the conflict resolution/violence-reducing mechanisms and institutions used by criminals, mostly focusing on prison gangs but many of these apply to the drug trade outside of prisons. There is an interesting system of “taxes” paid by street dealers to prison gangs, and the prison gangs then decide which street gangs “own” which territories. One could say this is an example of criminals sanctioning violence against the non-compliant street gangs (who don’t pay their “taxes”), but I think of it as a focal point for defining property rights and minimizing conflict. (Minimizing violence almost always involves someone else’s implicit threat of violence to stop violence, so it’s not like this is unique to gang activity.) It’s worth noting that a lot of libertarians probably get this wrong. They sometimes say things like, “There’s no recourse to conflict resolution and no property rights in a black market.” It might be more appropriate to say that these things exist but are weaker and are occasionally uprooted by law enforcement.

McCarthy’s switching his example between state and federal prisons is really fishy. So is his mention of “libertarian donors.” Not sure what he thinks this kind of ad hominem accomplishes. It would be nice if we could stop impugning each other's motives and engage with each other's arguments instead.

Pajser writes:

Drug dealing is usually violent in sense that criminals are well known in the area they control, but they threat with retribution against citizens if they inform police about crime.

sourcreamus writes:

Drug dealing is inherently violent because drug dealers are dealing with immensely valuable products that are small and easily hidden and thus easily stolen. Since they can't call the police on their stolen drugs they resort to violence to both punish and deter theft.

Mr. Econotarian writes:

Good info on federal drug sentencing here, including federal district Judge Mark Bennett who says “Never could I have imagined that…after nineteen years [as a federal district court judge], I would have sent 1,092 of my fellow citizens to federal prison for mandatory minimum sentences ranging from sixty months to life without the possibility of release. The majority of these women, men and young adults are nonviolent drug addicts.”

Jon Murphy writes:

I'm not a lawyer, but what does he mean by "Indeed, it is well-settled federal law that firearms and other weapons so commonly seized in drug investigations are admissible evidence in court because "guns are tools of the trade" of narcotics trafficking,"? What is used to determine whether something is a "tool of the trade" or not?

Greg G writes:

Drug trafficking isn't necessarily inherently violent. Pharmacies routinely do it peacefully.

When private violence is the only way to enforce a contract, then drug trafficking, or trafficking in anything else for that matter, becomes a lot more violent.

Brian Donohue writes:

Glenn Frey (RIP) disagrees:

There's trouble on the street tonight, I can feel it in my bones
I had a premonition that he should not go alone
I knew the gun was loaded, but I didn't think he'd kill
Everything exploded, and the blood began to spill
So baby, here's your ticket, and the suitcase in your hand
Here's a little money, now do it just the way we planned
You be cool for twenty hours, and I'll pay you twenty grand
I'm sorry it went down like this, but someone had to lose
It's the nature of the business, it's the smuggler's blues
Smuggler's blues

The sailors and the pilots, the soldiers and the law
The payoffs and the ripoffs and the things nobody saw
Don't matter if it's heroin, cocaine or hash,
You've got to carry weapons 'cause you always carry cash
There's lots of shady characters and lots of dirty deals
Every name's an alias in case somebody squeals
It's the lure of easy money, it's got a very strong appeal
Perhaps you'd understand it better standing in my shoes
It's the ultimate enticement, it's the smuggler's blues
Smuggler's blues

You see it in the headlines, you hear it every day
They say they're gonna stop it, but it doesn't go away
They move it through Miami and sell it in L.A.
They hide it up in Telluride, I mean it's here to stay
It's propping up the governments in Columbia and Peru
You ask any D.E.A. man, he'll say there's nothing we can do
From the office of the president right down to me and you
Me and you
It's a losing proposition, but one you can't refuse
It's the politics of contraband, it's the smugglers' blues
Smuggler's blues

Nathan W writes:

Well I guess if you've got the most powerful army in the history of mankind at your back when heading to negotiations, I guess you probably don't often have to resort to violence to protect your turf.

To what extent does that exaggerate the situation? Not as much as it should, I think.

Oh, are we talking the kinds of drugs that grow with a little water and sun and would cost pennies a dose if they were legal and unregulated, or the kinds of drugs that cost thousands of dollars a year or more and come in pills?

The only reasons there's violence is fighting over turf. If there were the same security guarantees as for other industries, it would not be violent.

Hugh E. Brennan writes:

What a tendentious argument. You reply to McCarthy's citations of fact with speculations, projections, and questionable judgments.

If the number of prisoners convicted of non-violent drug offenses is 20% or less, and if the vast majority of drug offenders are guilty of large-scale or high-level drug importation and/or distribution, then it follows that the prisons cannot be over-flowing with low-level, non-violent, small-scale, drug offenders.

Only if we join you in your speculative leaps and join in your poorly-founded assumptions, can we ignore the experienced and widely known and respected Judge McCarthy's warnings.

I wonder if you have tried living in any urban or rural neighborhood or town beset by rampant drug use and trafficking? You may place an overlay of violent crimes in America over the drug dealers' markets and you will find a perfect correlation. Daily life for ordinary folks in those areas is fraught with the constant threat of violence unknown to most Americans.

Drug dealing is inherently violent. The drugs are sourced in regions engulfed in rampant violence. Columbia, Mexico, Afghanistan, Burma and a dozen lesser sources witness every kind of violent crime due to the American appetite for drugs. The Cartel War in Mexico and the Narco assault on the Columbian state have both cost as many or more lives than our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Every American who takes a snort of coke, has a hit of crack or fires up a shot of heroin is complicit in murder.

Every cop, prosecutor, judge, and resident of a drug afflicted community knows that drug dealing is an inherently violent crime. The drug dealers know it's an inherently violent crime. An analysis of criminal activity proves a correlation between drugs and violence.

Why, exactly, do you not believe it so? Your comment on drug traffickers not being convicted of murder speaks to a naivete regarding criminal procedures and the realities of crime fighting. You convict of the crimes you can prove. Or, as is more likely, you negotiate a plea to the crime for which you have the strongest proof.

Based on the presence of drugs and weapons and the known activities of drug dealers, it is hardly speculative to assert the connection between drug dealing and violent crime. What demands a willing suspension of disbelief is to assert that there isn't.

I wonder what the parents- and the children- of the thousands of Americans killed by heroin already this year, think of the idea that the drug trade is non-violent? It is not widely appreciated, but we are in the midst of a heroin epidemic with a concurrent epidemic in heroin fatalities. ( about 2000 heroin deaths in 2001 and about 10000 in 2014- deaths increased over 20% last year and are still rising.)

You are what I might term a "drug violence denier."

Incidentally, have you considered that if you are right the harm is that convicted drug dealers serve their sentences, while, if Judge McCarthy and I are right, the harm is that innocent human beings will be murdered?

David R. Henderson writes:

@Hugh Brennan,
If the number of prisoners convicted of non-violent drug offenses is 20% or less, and if the vast majority of drug offenders are guilty of large-scale or high-level drug importation and/or distribution, then it follows that the prisons cannot be over-flowing with low-level, non-violent, small-scale, drug offenders.
My discussion was about whether they are violent, not the “level” at which they deal. So your point about level simply doesn’t deal with my point.
Regarding overflowing, fill a glass of water to 98% full. Then add 15% more water and see what happens. I guarantee that it will overflow.
Incidentally, have you considered that if you are right the harm is that convicted drug dealers serve their sentences, while, if Judge McCarthy and I are right, the harm is that innocent human beings will be murdered?
No. I haven’t. And the reason is that I understand prohibition. Lighten up the sentences and more-peaceful people will enter the business. Make drugs completely legal and the amount of violence will fall. Check sometime the history of Prohibition.
You also discuss the thousands of people who die from heroin. Much of that is due to the fact that it’s illegal. Also, even those who die from heroin don’t typically die violently, just as those thousands of people who die by drinking themselves to death don’t typically die violently.

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