Tag: war on drugs

Jeff Sessions Misunderstands Drugs and Crime

Attorney General Jeff Sessions writes in Sunday’s Washington Post:

Drug trafficking is an inherently violent business. If you want to collect a drug debt, you can’t, and don’t, file a lawsuit in court. You collect it by the barrel of a gun. 

Sessions correctly understands a major source of crime in the drug distribution business: people with a complaint can’t go to court. But he jumps to the conclusion that “Drug trafficking is an inherently violent business.” This is a classic non sequitur. It’s hard to imagine that he actually doesn’t understand the problem. He is, after all, a law school graduate. How can he not understand the connection between drugs and crime? Prohibitionists talk of “drug-related crime” and suggest that drugs cause people to lose control and commit violence. Sessions gets closer to the truth in the opening of his op-ed. He goes wrong with the word “inherently.” Selling marijuana, cocaine, and heroin is not “inherently” more violent than selling alcohol, tobacco, or potatoes. 

Most “drug-related crime” is actually prohibition-related crime. The drug laws raise the price of drugs and cause addicts to have to commit crimes to pay for a habit that would be easily affordable if it were legal. And more dramatically, as Sessions notes, rival drug dealers murder each other–and innocent bystanders–in order to protect and expand their markets. 

Homicide rates 1910-1944

We saw the same phenomenon during the prohibition of alcohol in the 1920s. Alcohol trafficking is not an inherently violent business. But when you remove legal manufacturers, distributors, and bars from the picture, and people still want alcohol, then the business becomes criminal. As the figure at right (drawn from a Cato study of alcohol prohibition and based on U.S. Bureau of the Census, Historical Statistics of the United States, Colonial Times to 1970 [Washington: Government Printing Office, 1975], part 1, p. 414) shows, homicide rates climbed during Prohibition, 1920-33, and fell every year after the repeal of prohibition. 

Tobacco has not (yet) been prohibited in the United States. But as a Cato study of the New York cigarette market showed in 2003, high taxes can have similar effects:

Over the decades, a series of studies by federal, state, and city officials has found that high taxes have created a thriving illegal market for cigarettes in the city. That market has diverted billions of dollars from legitimate businesses and governments to criminals.

Perhaps worse than the diversion of money has been the crime associated with the city’s illegal cigarette market. Smalltime crooks and organized crime have engaged in murder, kidnapping, and armed robbery to earn and protect their illicit profits. Such crime has exposed average citizens, such as truck drivers and retail store clerks, to violence.

Again, to use Sessions’s language, cigarette trafficking is not an inherently violent business. But drive it underground, and you will get criminality and violence. 

Sessions’s premise is wrong. Drug trafficking (meaning, in this case, the trafficking of certain drugs made illegal under our controlled substances laws) is not an inherently violent business. The distribution of illegal substances tends to produce violence. Because Sessions’s premise is wrong, his conclusion–a stepped-up drug war, with more arrests, longer sentences, and more people in jail–is wrong. A better course is outlined in the Cato Handbook for Policymakers.

 

Will Congressman Tom Marino be the Trump Administration’s Drug Czar?

CBS reports that President Trump plans to name Congressman Tom Marino (R-PA) to head the Office of National Drug Control Policy, an office colloquially known as the federal government’s “Drug Czar.”

Rep. Marino has a long history of taking a hard line on the drug war. He voted against the Rohrabacher-Farr Amendment that barred the Department of Justice from spending federal funds to prosecute state-legal medicinal marijuana operations. The amendment, which has passed several times with bipartisan support, allows state medical marijuana industries to function without the constant fear of federal prosecution. Rep. Marino also voted to prevent Veterans’ Affairs doctors at facilities in states with legal marijuana from prescribing medical marijuana to their patients.

While the Drug Czar has a limited impact on policy, the expected nomination of Rep. Marino is another red flag for marijuana reform advocates.

44 states and the District of Columbia allow some form of legal cannabis consumption, including eight states (and D.C.) which have legalized the recreational use of marijuana. The dire predictions of drug warriors in those states have not come true.

As we’ve noted before, Donald Trump campaigned on a relatively moderate platform regarding marijuana legalization, but his choices for key drug policy positions in the administration continue to raise the specter of a federal crackdown on marijuana reform efforts.

Of course the drug war isn’t just about marijuana.  A new Cato policy analysis from Christopher J. Coyne and Abigail R. Hall demonstrates how four decades of a hardline approach to drug policy in America have failed. 

With a growing heroin and opioid epidemic, it’s time to ditch the failed prohibitionist policies of the drug war. Countries like Portugal have successfully abandoned the militarized approach to drug policy; it’s time for the United States to do the same. 

Unfortunately, President Trump appears to be moving in the wrong direction.

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. 

For public opinion analysis sign up here to receive Cato’s upcoming digest of Public Opinion Insights and public opinion studies.

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.

Loretta Lynch Confirmed as Attorney General

After one of the longest confirmation processes in the history of the Attorney General’s office, Loretta Lynch was confirmed by the Senate today as Eric Holder’s successor.

From a criminal justice perspective, whether Lynch will embrace or abandon Holder’s position on state-level drug legalization and his announced commitment to reforming civil asset forfeiture are two questions that spring immediately to mind.

Loretta Lynch zealously defended civil asset forfeiture during her confirmation hearings, and was a devoted practitioner of it as a U.S. Attorney in New York.  One of her seizure cases, that of the Hirsch brothers [$], garnered widespread attention and condemnation, and helped spur the nationwide calls for reform to which Eric Holder responded.

Colorado Pushes Back against Oklahoma and Nebraska Marijuana Suit

In 2012, the people of Colorado voted to legalize marijuana through a state constitutional amendment, which went into effect in January of 2014.  Two of Colorado’s neighbors, Nebraska and Oklahoma, subsequently filed a lawsuit urging the U.S. Supreme Court to prohibit the state of Colorado from constructing a regulatory regime for the marijuana industry.  Last Friday, Colorado filed its response.

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.  

While some notable conservatives appear to be coming around in favor of a federalist experiment on drug legalization, it is a testament to the unfortunate power of the drug war that two state governments that routinely invoke the merits of federalism would abandon it in favor of federal prohibition.  As discussed previously, federalism would hardly be the only cherished principle to be left in the drug war’s wake.

DEA ‘Cold Consent’ Encounters Constitute Federal Stop-and-Frisk

Over at Forbes, the Institute for Justice’s Nick Sibilla details a new report from the Department of Justice concerning the Drug Enforcement Administration’s practice of cold-stopping travelers at airports, bus stations, and train stations and asking to search their property looking for forfeitable assets.

Federal drug agents may be racially profiling and unjustly seizing cash from travelers in the nation’s airports, bus stations and train stations. A new report released by the Office of the Inspector General for the U.S. Department of Justice examined the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA)’s controversial use of “cold consent.

In a cold consent encounter, a person is stopped if an agent thinks that person’s behavior fits a drug courier profile. Or an agent can stop a person cold “based on no particular behavior,” according to the Inspector General report. The agent then asks the people they have stopped for consent to question them and sometimes to search their possessions as well. By gaining consent, law enforcement officers can bypass the need for a warrant.

While many people who believe they have nothing to hide may–inadvisably–consent to a police search, they may not be familiar with federal civil asset forfeiture laws, which give federal agents wide latitude to seize property, especially cash, without charging anyone with any crime. Sibilla notes that the DEA agents even go so far as to carry affidavits for search targets to sign disclaiming any rights to the property being seized. 

Disturbingly, the Inspector General found that DEA interdiction task force groups have been seizing cash from travelers and then urging them to sign forms disclaiming their own cash and “waiving their rights.” In one cold consent encounter, DEA agents stopped another African-American woman in part because she was “pacing nervously” before boarding her flight. After gaining her consent, the agents searched her luggage and found $8,000.

Quiet Change Expands ATF Power to Seize Property

A quick glance at the Federal Register (Vol. 80, No. 37, p. 9987-88) today reveals that Attorney General Eric Holder, who earned cautious praise last month for a small reform to the federal equitable sharing program, has now delegated authority to the Director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) to seize and “administratively forfeit” property involved in suspected drug offenses.  Holder temporarily delegated this authority to the ATF on a trial basis in 2013, and today made the delegation permanent while lauding the ATF for seizing more than $19.3 million from Americans during the trial period.

Historically, when the ATF uncovered contraband subject to forfeiture under drug statutes, it was required to either refer the property to the DEA for administrative forfeiture proceedings or to a U.S. Attorney in order to initiate a judicial forfeiture action.  Under today’s change, the ATF will now be authorized to seize property related to alleged drug offenses and initiate administrative forfeiture proceedings all on its own.

The DOJ claims this rule change doesn’t affect individual rights (and was thus exempt from the notice and comment requirements of the Administrative Procedure Act) and that the change is simply an effort to streamline the federal government’s forfeiture process.  Those who now stand more likely to have their property taken without even a criminal charge may beg to differ.

Further, the department claims that forcing the ATF to go through a judicial process in order to seize property requires too much time and money.  Whereas an “uncontested administrative forfeiture can be perfected in 60-90 days for minimal cost […] the costs associated with judicial forfeiture can amount to hundreds or thousands of dollars and the judicial process generally can take anywhere from 6 months to years.”  In other words, affording judicial process to Americans suspected of engaging in criminal activity takes too long and costs too much. 

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