Tag: drug war

Americans Want Police to Prioritize Fighting Violent, Property Crime, but Few Prioritize Drug War

Although Americans are divided in their perceptions of how police do their jobs, majorities across demographic and partisan groups agree on what law enforcement’s top priorities ought to be.

A newly released Cato Institute/YouGov survey of 2,000 Americans finds that when people are asked to select their top three priorities for the police they choose the following:

  1. Investigating violent crime like murder, assaults, and domestic violence (78%)
  2. Protecting individuals from violent crime (64%)
  3. Investigating property crime and robbery (58%)

Notably, only 30% think police should make enforcing drug laws a top three priority. Some may find these results surprising, given that police made more arrests for drug abuse violations (1.6 million) than they did for violent crimes (498,666) in 2014. The estimated number of violent crimes committed that year was 1.2 million.

Find the full public opinion report here.

Nineteen percent (19%) say police should make enforcing traffic laws a top priority. In other words, Americans de-prioritize the task leading to the most common interaction individuals have with the police—receiving a traffic ticket.[1]

Another 18% think police should prioritize going beyond traditional law enforcement responsibilities by “providing guidance and social services to troubled young adults.” And another 12% say police enforcing public nuisance laws is most important. 

Black, white, and Hispanic Americans, Democrats and Republicans prioritize the same top three tasks for law enforcement. However, groups differ in their intensity of support. African Americans and Hispanics (45%) and Democrats (51%) are less likely than white Americans (63%) and Republicans (63%) to prioritize the police investigating property crime and robbery. (Although this difference largely dissipates among individuals above the median income.) African Americans, Latinos, and Democrats (27%) are about twice as likely as whites (15%) and three times as likely as Republicans (9%) to say the police should prioritize “providing guidance and social services to troubled young adults.”

No racial group is more likely to prioritize the police enforcing drug laws—30% of whites, Hispanics, and blacks each say it should be a top priority. Even partisans generally de-prioritize fighting the drug war. Thirty-five percent (35%) of Republicans and 27% of Democrats say it should be a top three priority.

Despite these modest differences, Americans across partisanship and demographics agree that the police should prioritize fighting violent and property crime and protecting people from being victims of violence. 

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The Cato Institute/YouGov national survey of 2,000 adults was conducted June 6–22, 2016 using a sample drawn from YouGov’s online panel, which is designed to be representative of the U.S. population. YouGov uses a method called sample matching, and restrictions are put in place to ensure that only the people selected and contacted by YouGov are allowed to participate. The margin of sampling error for all respondents is +/-3.19 percentage points. The full report can be found here, topline results can be found here, and full methodological details can be found here.


[1] Christine Eith and Matthew R. Durose, Contacts between Police and the Public, 2008, edited by Bureau of Justice Statistics (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice, 2011), https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/cpp08.pdf.

Drug Prohibition Was a Loser Last Night

Marijuana legalization keeps rolling. The legalization of recreational marijuana was on the ballot in five states yesterday. The people of California, Massachusetts, and Nevada voted to legalize.  As of this writing, legalization maintains a slim, too-close-to-call lead in Maine as well. Legalization failed in Arizona by a small margin.

Beyond legalizing marijuana in America’s most populous state, the vote in California also means the entire West Coast has now rejected marijuana prohibition. The vote in Massachusetts makes it the first state east of the Rocky Mountains to do the same.

In addition, medical marijuana was legalized in Arkansas, Florida, and North Dakota, while restrictions on medical marijuana were relaxed in Montana.  In Oklahoma, which prides itself on being “the reddest state in the nation” (Donald Trump won every single county last night), voters passed an amendment to state law that recategorizes a variety of drug offenses from felonies to misdemeanors.

All of these developments speak to a growing (and increasingly bipartisan) acknowledgment that Americans are tired of the failed drug war, and especially the government’s crusade against marijuana. More people are arrested for marijuana offenses than for all violent crimes combined in this country, and voters increasingly think it’s time to put a stop to it.

As my colleague Jeff Miron points out, marijuana prohibition is predicated on myths. The allegations that marijuana legalization leads to huge increases in use; causes increases in crime, traffic fatalities, and addiction; and leads to abuse of other, harder drugs simply do not comport with the data we’ve seen from legalization policies in the U.S. and around the world.

Despite this building momentum for reform, last night also injected a bit of uncertainty into the prohibition discussion. Marijuana remains illegal under federal law. The Supreme Court has already ruled that federal marijuana prohibition is constitutional, state-level legalization notwithstanding (although Congress has put temporary limits on federal funding for that purpose). As a result, the progress we’ve seen thus far has depended on President Obama’s commitment to respect the will of the states when it comes to marijuana enforcement. Essentially, President Obama has refused to enforce federal marijuana laws when those laws conflict with legalization bills passed by state voters.

President-elect Trump is not required to continue that commitment. He, along with his pick for Attorney General, could decide to begin enforcing federal marijuana laws in states that have voted to legalize (provided Congress provides funding), in which case the successful experiments in legalization would end virtually overnight. The more states legalize marijuana, however, the less likely it seems that the federal government will try to force the cat back into the bag.  

President-elect Trump should let the state experiments play out, and respect the will of the American voters who increasingly reject the failed policy of prohibition.

Every 25 Seconds: Human Rights Watch and the ACLU Document More Harms from Drug Prohibition

A new report from the ACLU and Human Rights Watch details many of the harms associated with the criminalization of drug possession. The most striking finding from the report is that police in the United States arrest more people for marijuana offenses than for all violent crimes combined. The title of the report, “Every 25 Seconds,” refers to how often police arrest someone for drug possession in this country.

The full report can be found here, but other key findings include:

  • More than one out of every nine state-level arrests are for drug possession, amounting to 1.25 million arrests per year.
  • Nearly half of those arrests for marijuana possession.
  • While drug usage rates are roughly the same across racial lines, black adults are more than two-and-a-half times as likely as white adults to be arrested for possession.
  • More than 99% of drug possession convictions were the result of guilty pleas, rather than trial verdicts. The authors of the report describe this as “rendering the right to a jury trial effectively meaningless.”
  • The average bail amount for drug possession defendants was $24,000, meaning that poor defendants typically remained incarcerated while awaiting trial and had a strong incentive to plead guilty even if they believed they were innocent.
  • Defendants often did not understand the multitude of collateral consequences of a drug conviction.

When it comes to actual policy recommendations, the report urges legislators, judges, prosecutors, and police officers to de-emphasize the policing and prosecution of drug possession crimes, effectively calling for decriminalization of drug possession across the board.

While the authors stop short of recommending full legalization, even the decriminalization recommendation would be a positive step. We know this because in 2000, Portugal decriminalized all drugs. Despite predictions from critics that decriminalizing drug use would lead to massive spikes in addiction and prove a disaster, a 2009 Cato study by Glenn Greenwald put that speculation to rest. Decriminalization in Portugal has been a success, and there is no substantial movement today to return the country to prohibition.

Similarly, state experiments with legalized recreational marijuana in the U.S. are proceeding well. And the tide in favor of ending marijuana prohibition continues to grow. Next month, five more states (Arizona, California, Nevada, Maine, and Massachusetts) will vote on whether to legalize marijuana. Those states would join Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, Washington state, and Washington D.C. as jurisdictions that have renounced prohibition for marijuana.

Last month, a U.S. federal judge declared that the “principle casualty” of the war on drugs has been the U.S. Constitution. The ACLU/HRW report sheds new light on the truth of that declaration. It’s well past time to admit the failure of the drug war, allow the police to focus on actual crimes, ease the mounting tensions in over-policed communities, and restore our individual liberty.

Drug War Defeats Taxpayers

The federal government spends about $30 billion a year on the war on drugs. Much of the spending is wasteful and counterproductive. This week, for example, an auditor’s report revealed how the drug bureaucracy flushed $86 million down the drain on an anti-drug aircraft that was never used.

The Washington Post described this Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and Department of Defense (DOD) boondoggle:

The plan was for DOD to modify a DEA plane to be used in counter-narcotics operations in a combat zone. … The Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General (IG) determined “collectively, the DEA and DOD spent more than $86 million to purchase and modify a DEA aircraft with advanced surveillance equipment to conduct operations in the combat environment of Afghanistan, in what became known as the Global Discovery Program. We found that more than 7 years after the aircraft was purchased for the program, it remains inoperable, resting on jacks in Delaware, and has never flown in Afghanistan.”

The IG found that the “program has cost almost four times its original anticipated amount of $22 million.” Sadly, this sort of failure is par for the course when it comes to federal capital investments.  

Thank goodness for the IGs who uncover such waste, but what will come of these findings? Will anyone be fired? Will policymakers begin to rethink the drug war? Not yet it seems. When the Washington Post asked the DEA and DOD about the report, “the Pentagon did not reply and the DEA response was short boilerplate.”

For more on the government’s drug war, see Jeff Miron’s work here.

Supreme Court Rejects Nebraska & Oklahoma Marijuana Suit against Colorado

This morning the Supreme Court declined to take up a lawsuit by the states of Nebraska and Oklahoma challenging Colorado’s Amendment 64 measure that legalized the sale and use of marijuana. Not just medical marijuana, but recreational use as well.

We detailed the arguments involved in the case last year:

The Nebraska/Oklahoma argument: because the federal government, through the Controlled Substances Act, has banned marijuana, states are not allowed to contradict that ban by creating a regulatory framework for legalization.  Further, Colorado’s official regulation of recreational marijuana imposes a nuisance burden on surrounding states due to an alleged increase in drug trafficking.  While Nebraska and Oklahoma disclaim any intent to force Colorado to “re-criminalize” marijuana, the suit argues that Colorado’s official efforts to regulate the legal marijuana industry bring the state into conflict with federal and international drug laws.

Colorado’s response: there is no conflict.  Federal marijuana prohibition is still in effect, and the decision not to prioritize enforcement in states that legalize marijuana came from the federal government, not Colorado.  If Nebraska and Oklahoma object to the manner in which the federal government is discharging its law enforcement duties in Colorado, they should be suing the federal government.  Colorado’s regulation of the marijuana industry is within its prerogatives under the CSA. As to the nuisance claim, Colorado argues that mere policy differences between states that don’t directly injure the sovereignty of other states are not actionable nuisances.

The legal basis for the lawsuit has been questionable from the beginning, with legal commentators both challenging its merits and pointing out the irony in two of America’s “reddest” states taking a legal posture that overruns state sovereignty in favor of federal power.

And, of course, if prohibition states are concerned with the costs, they could always legalize and regulate marijuana themselves and spare their justice systems the immense costs of prohibition.  

Today’s result is not surprising, especially after the Obama Administration urged the court to decline the case, and the outcome fits with our analysis of the case’s prospects in 2014:

Will the Supreme Court accept this case for review? That’s impossible to predict. However, the constitutional argument being advanced by Nebraska and Oklahoma is weak and so would likely fail. Just because the federal government enacts a law against marijuana, it does not follow that all the states have to enact laws against marijuana. And just because the federal police (FBI and DEA) have grown accustomed to having state and local police conduct marijuana raids and arrests, it does not follow that the local authorities can’t stop doing that. So long as the local police are not arresting or threatening to arrest federal agents for trying to enforce the federal law, there is no “conflict.” Thus, the Supremacy Clause does not come into play.

Today’s action at the Supreme Court amounts to a big boost to the marijuana legalization movement, which continues to gather strength and momentum.

For those interested in a deep dive into the legal issues, check out the Cato Policy Analysis by Robert A. Mikos, On the Limits of Federal Supremacy: When States Relax (or Abandon) Marijuana Bans.

A Libertarian Argument for Bernie Sanders?

Will Wilkinson notes that there is a libertarian argument for Bernie Sanders. I’m not sure I buy the precise point Wilkinson is making. Sanders says he wants to make the United States more like Finland, Sweden, and Denmark. And those countries do indeed rank higher than the United States in the Cato Institute’s Human Freedom Index, compiled by my colleagues Ian Vásquez and Tanja Porčnik. But Sanders wants to emulate those countries in the ways they are less free than the United States (i.e., expanding government transfers), not in the ways they are more free (taxes and regulation). I think this powerful Sanders ad featuring Eric Garner’s daughter Erica is a much better libertarian argument for Sanders.

A Round-Up of President Obama’s Gun Control Proposals

This week, President Obama announced a package of proposals with the ostensible goal of stemming gun crime in America.  Unfortunately, however, the proposals represent a mishmash of ideas that lack a solid logical nexus to the problems they’re being offered to solve.  President Obama even acknowledged this incongruity himself when he admitted that the tragic shootings he emotionally invoked would not have been prevented by his recommendations.

But faced with a Congress that fundamentally disagrees with the president’s views on gun control, his authority to act is limited, and these proposals are proof.   The full “Executive Action” plan released by the White House can be found here, but I thought it would be useful to sum up the major points.

“Engaged in the Business” of Selling Firearms

One of the primary goals of the Obama Administration has been expanding the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS).  The president and his gun-control allies have long called for universal checks in order to close the (non-existent) “gunshow loophole,” but Congress has thus far refused to go along (and for good reason).

Still, the president gave the impression during his remarks that he would use his executive authority to expand the background check system by reconsidering what it means for people to be “engaged in the business” of selling firearms.  For almost 50 years, the ATF regulations have interpreted this somewhat vague phrase by distinguishing those who sell guns commercially as a means of livelihood and those non-commercial sellers who transfer the odd gun every so often. Commercial sellers are required to perform background checks through the NICS system, while non-commercial private sellers are subject to a federal statute requiring that the transferor not know or have reason to know that the recipient of the weapon is prohibited from having it. Every transfer, in other words, is currently regulated by federal law.  The only difference is which law applies.

While President Obama’s announcement and the action plan released along with it suggested a move to broaden the category of transferors that are required to put customers through the NICS system, it’s not clear that there has been any change at all.

As Jonathan Adler writes at The Washington Post, there hasn’t been  a new ATF rule issued making any substantive change to the government’s interpretation of what it means to be “engaged in the business.”  The criteria President Obama and Attorney General Loretta Lynch gave for how they would be assessing whether someone is engaged in the business of selling firearms closely mirror language the ATF included in a recently issued “guidance document.” 

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