Drugs and Deterrence

by Kieran Healy on January 28, 2004

Mark Kleiman notes that the Arrestee Drug Abuse Monitoring (ADAM) program has been killed. This was a useful dataset on patterns of drug-use amongst criminals. In his post, Mark quotes John Coleman, a former bigwig at the DEA, who says

The importance of ADAM always has been its stark statistics showing the large percentage of criminals high on drugs and alcohol at the time of their crimes. ADAM surveyed arrested felons and then drug-tested them to confirm their statements about drug use. It was all voluntary but showed, nonetheless, extraordinary levels in some cases of drug use by criminals.

This confirms my non-expert belief that there’s a great deal of evidence telling us that a big chunk of violent crime happens when the perpetrators have been using alcohol or some other drug. People under the influence of drugs tend to have a diminished capacity for rational decision-making. This makes me skeptical about, e.g., fiendishly clever analyses of the rational deterrent effect of prison sentences on crime rates. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with the detail of such analyses per se, it’s that they throw away reliable knowledge before they begin. Ignoring information of the sort that ADAM provides may make an elegant theory of crime more tractable, but it makes a true theory of crime less likely.



Antoni Jaume 01.28.04 at 10:05 pm

Right-wingers need crime to assert their hold on the rest of peoples. Then reducing the number and seriousness of crimes runs counter to their interest.



Dan Simon 01.28.04 at 11:33 pm

Uh, if harsh sentences don’t deter crime because crime is largely a product of drug-induced diminished capacity, then wouldn’t harsh sentences for drug users and drug dealers deter crime by locking up all those folks busy inducing diminished capacity in themselves or others?

Gosh, Kieran, I’d never have pegged you as a War-on-Drugs hawk. But welcome aboard anyway….


Sigivald 01.29.04 at 12:08 am

The question is, are they committing crimes because they’re high, or are they getting high because they want to “psych up” for the crime?

I imagine some various crimes of passion (especially things like bar fights) and/or stupidity are the former, and drug use by “career criminals” mainly the latter. (Or simply that someone who commits crimes as a way of making a living is certainly going to have easy access to illegal drugs, generally won’t care about penalties for them, and often has no care for either social norms or self-preservation in the long term.)


zizka 01.29.04 at 12:12 am

Getting a grip on which drugs are most directly associated with crime might help the Drug War fine tune what it’s doing, not that they want to. My guess is that alcohol and amphetamine are at the top, with heroin pretty close (making allowances for the fact that junkies commit crimes when they aren’t high, rather than when they are). I don’t know where cocaine would be, perhaps up with the others, but marijuana, hallucigens, and designer drugs would be at the bottom.

To make sense of this you’d have to distinguish between crimes committed by people when they used drugs, and crimes which were crimes simply because drugs were involved (i.e. possession and sale).

The categorization of drugs in American law is a godawful mess, with alcohol almost unrestricted, morphine, amphetamine and cocaine medically legal, and heroin, marijuana, the designer drugs and hallucigens always illegal. There’s no rhyme or reason to it.

Joke: in what sense are heroin and cocaine controlled substances. Don’t they seem out of control to you?

And of course, medically tobacco kills more people than all the others put together.

People are tired of hearing this shit and they tune out (Truth Fatigue), but it’s all true.


Sebastian Holsclaw 01.29.04 at 12:43 am

Legalize and tax marijuana, cocaine, and one or two of the lower-level opiates (but probably not heroin). Enforce ‘driving while high’ laws very publically and forcefully. The Drug Wars have been too damaging to our civil liberties with not enough up-side.


Matt Weiner 01.29.04 at 1:58 am

Dan, that effect isn’t called “deterrence”; deterrence is getting an agent to refrain from doing something because he is afraid of the consequences.
Anyway, I don’t think it’s controversial that, because much crime is committed by repeaters, that we could lower the incidence of crime by locking up all offenders forever. It doesn’t follow that it would be worth it. I don’t speak for Kieran as to war-on-drugs hawkery, of course.


Dan Simon 01.29.04 at 4:12 am

Zizka–Mark Kleiman quotes John Coleman as saying, “I recall several years ago reading that more than half the juveniles arrested for homicide in Washington DC tested positive for pot.” Doesn’t sound like marijuana necessarily belongs at the bottom of your list….

Matt: I believe repeat offenders do usually receive substantially stiffer sentences than first-timers. Are you saying you disapprove of that policy?


zizka 01.29.04 at 4:55 am

What proportion of all the juveniles in Washington test positive for pot? What proportion of the juveniles arrested for murder test positive for coffee and nicotine?

For metabolic reasons, marijuana stays in the system for weeks, so a test tells you whether the person has used the drug in the recent past, not whether they’re under the influence at the time. Whereas if someone tests positive for alcohol or most of the other drugs, it means that they’re drunk or under the influence.

Policeman here in Portland (OR, USA) prefer to do marijuana busts because stoners submit quietly. Drunks and amphetamine users tend to be violent while under the influence (as well as users of “angel dust”, which is a legal drug illegally used).

Professional criminals dealing in any drug can be extremely violent, of course, but that’s a function of illegality.


Ken 01.29.04 at 1:54 pm

There’s a simpler explanation for these figures.

If you’re already risking jail by doing other criminal activities, you’re already not properly deterred by jail, so there’s really nothing to stop you from indulging in recreational pharmaceuticals as well. So you’ll have a higher probability of partaking than the rest of the population.

In order to properly evaluate the criminality caused by drug use, we have to find the complimentary figure; i.e., what percentage of drug users commit real crimes?

Of course, finding that number requires us to determine how many drug users are not coming to the attention of the police. And as long as drug use remains illegal, that number will be kind of hard to determine with any level of accuracy; such drugs users avoid coming to the attention of the police by successfully hiding their drug use. In fact, any attempt to find the percentage of drug users that commit real crimes will tend to overestimate that percentage, since non (real) crime-committing drug users will be undercounted.


Jonas M Luster 01.29.04 at 9:24 pm

As an aside, criminologists to this day aren’t fully sure, wether the large incidence of arrestees on drugs (incl. prescription drugs and alcohol) is cause for the assumption that drugs are complimentary to crime.

In arguing with Merton and Durkheim, these numbers are also influenced by the very reason, that drugs diminish an individuals capacity to rational and self-protective actions. A stone-cold sober arrestee might not make the same mistakes, give the same clues, or permissions, that will lead to his or her conviction. He might slam the door in the face of cops without a warrant, refuse to speak or consent to a search, and argue his position more effectively than an incapacitated offender.

Merton has raised this question repeatedly concerning lower and upper-class criminals. Does lower income and education really create a higher susceptibility to anomal and dysfunctional behavior, or are the means of defense against detection and assessment simply better?


Matt Weiner 01.30.04 at 4:33 pm

If that had a deterrent effect, there would be no repeat crime. There is, so it doesn’t.
As for my ideas, I refer you to Mark Kleiman, who knows what he’s talking about.

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