You are already paying for addicts’ drug habits. Why not treat addiction in a more humane way that reduces crime, defunds drug gangs, better helps the addicts, and saves society money?
Lots of people complain about crime, especially property crime. People complain especially on websites such as nextdoor. Likewise, many newspapers and TV news shows like to run stories about crime.
Here’s a simple way to stop a lot of — maybe most — property crime, including shoplifting, and to save money spent on policing, security, and incarceration.
The solution is to make it easier for people with substance abuse disorder (aka addicts) to get treatment, so that they don’t have to steal to support their habits. Depending on the person, treatment may involve
- entering a recovery program;
- taking a drug like Suboxone, to deal with craving and withdrawal;
- taking a managed opiate such as methadone;
- or even — and some people will oppose this option — taking controlled, subsidized harder drugs, possibly in a safe injection site.
You may think, “OMG, why should the taxpayer subsidize someone’s drug habit? Are you nuts? That’s just helping them to hurt themselves.”
Not at all. The sad, harsh fact is that you are already subsidizing their drug addiction, by suffering from their thefts and by paying for police, prisons, security guards, emergency room treatment, and higher prices for goods at stores, which need to raise prices to make up for money lost due to shoplifting. (See below for some statistics on this.)
And there already are thousands of unsafe injection sites all over our communities. Why not have safe injection sites where the quality of the drugs can be monitored, overdoses prevented, and addicts can be guided towards treatment?
An added benefit is that this approach defunds drug gangs.
Furthermore, methadone clinics have been around for years, and methadone is an opiate. Likewise, the other popular drug treatment, Suboxone, contains an opiate as well: buprenorphine (the second component of Suboxone is naloxone). So your tax money already pays for opiates. Are you outraged? Few people would propose eliminating such treatments. For many addicts they work. So, there’s not really much difference between option 3 and option 4 above.
Unless you want to throw drug addicts in jail — a very expensive option — the only alternative is treatment. And the sad fact is: rehab clinics don’t work for many addicts. It’s like alcoholism; some alcoholics are set in their ways and can’t be swayed. It’s a fact. Deal with it.
I contend that society as a whole will save money and improve lives if we end the failed war on drugs and help addicts recover from their addictions, or (if recovery is impossible) live safely with their addictions.
In other words, instead of criminalizing or legalizing drug use — both of which don’t work well — manage drug use as a medical and social problem. What I’m saying is not new. Books such as Johann Hari’s Chasing the Scream and Gabor Maté’s In the Real of Hungry Ghosts explore the failed war on drugs and the absurdity of criminalizing what should be considered a medical problem. See also The Drug War Drives Exploitation. We Need Drug Regulation, Not Criminalization.
What I hope is new is my way of framing the problem: You are already paying for addicts’ drug habits. This framing may convince more people that supporting addicts via treatment and management of their addiction is better for everyone than criminalizing it.
You could say: the war on drugs causes crime.
The rest of this article explores this topic in detail and includes some stats and evidence from interviews with local police officers.
I have been told that the use of the term ‘addict’ is insulting towards people with substance abuse disorder. I have chosen to retain the word because it is more concise and because I dislike euphemisms. (This often gets me in trouble with people from both sides of the political spectrum.) My use of the term addict is not meant to imply a moral judgement; it’s just descriptive of their physiological state.
This article probably annoys some progressives, because I use the word ‘addict’ and because I acknowledge that a lot of crime is due to addicts’ behavior. The article probably annoys some conservatives because I criticize the criminalization of addiction, which does more harm than good.
To address the drug problem there are several approaches:
- Criminalization: the war on drugs.
- Complete legalization.
- Decriminalization but not total legalization, with treatment and management of addiction. Drug possession would be a misdemeanor, not a crime.
The first option, the war on drugs, has been a failure, despite decades of trying, despite tens of billions of dollars spent, and despite filling prisons with (mostly nonviolent) drug offenders. Heroin, meth, fentanyl and other hard drugs are still readily available. Likewise, alcohol Prohibition failed dismally in the 1920s. Some people want to double down on criminalizing drugs, even suggesting locking up addicts in prison or other facilities til they become sober. That would certainly be extremely costly — do you want to pay taxes for that? — and is probably a cruel violation of the addicts’ rights.
The second option, complete legalization, would risk creating more addicts. Few people and countries support that option. I certainly don’t, because hard drugs like heroin and meth are too addictive, and because addicts can become too debilitated to be productive members of society. But let’s briefly explore complete legalization. Some libertarians believe that government has no business telling people what they can and can’t do, provided the people don’t harm others in doing it. Legalizing drugs could introduce a competitive, legal market for drugs. If the price for hard drugs were as high as prices for pharmaceutical drugs, then many addicts couldn’t afford them — especially since such addicts have trouble holding down jobs — and the addicts would need to steal to pay for their hits. So, complete legalization is unlikely to help.
The third option is middle-of-the-road between strict criminalization and strict legalization. Portugal is trying the third option. Portugal decriminalized drug use but did not make drugs legal. “Drug use became an administratively sanctionable misdemeanor, but not a crime, and was placed under the jurisdiction of the Commissions for the Dissuasion of Drug Addiction.” (source) In many ways, America is trying the third option, too, since many addicts are diverted to drug treatment programs, including use of the opiate methadone. This makes sense, too, given that the U.S. already has one of the highest rates of incarceration in the world.
Some opponents of management of addiction say that it makes it too easy for people to become addicts. But few people would choose to become addicts, and drug use would still be a misdemeanor. Getting treatment or managed drugs would require approval of medical professionals.
The National Institute of Health found that Vancouver’s experiment with safe injection sites was a success.
King County Bar Association’s Drug Policy Project calls for “a shift from the principal reliance on criminal sanctions as a response to drug use towards greater availability of effective addiction treatment, drug education and research.” Quoting at length,
In late 2000, in response to an editorial by KCBA President Fred Noland lamenting the failure of the “War on Drugs,” an outpouring of interest among lawyers, judges, public officials, scholars and concerned citizens led to a comprehensive effort to examine and reform current drug policy. Policy-oriented task forces conducted extensive research and prepared reports with recommendations for reform, resulting in the release of a major report in 2001, Is It Time to End the War on Drugs?, which found that current drug policy is fundamentally flawed and is associated with numerous negative societal consequences, including:
the failure to reduce problematic drug use, particularly among children;
dramatic increases in crime related to prohibited drugs, including economic crimes related to addiction and the fostering of efficient and violent criminal enterprises that have occupied the unregulated and immensely profitable commercial market made possible by drug prohibition;
skyrocketing public costs arising from both increased drug abuse and increased crime;
erosion of public health from the spread of disease, from the concealment and inadequate treatment of addiction and from undue restrictions on proper medical treatment of pain;
the abridgement of civil rights through summary forfeitures of property, invasions of privacy and violations of due process;
disproportionately adverse effects of drug law enforcement on the poor and persons of color;
and the clogging of the courts and compromises in the effective administration of justice, as well as a loss of respect for the law.
The origin of the war on drugs is apparently the desire of Richard Nixon to weaken his political opposition — African Americans and hippies — by demonizing their drug use, as described here and in the following image.
How much crime is caused by drug addicts stealing to support their habits?
Let me start with some evidence from an informal survey of local police officers.
A few months ago I saw five policemen drinking coffee in the seating area at a store on Mercer Island. I approached them and ask if they have an opinion about this question: what percent of property crime is due to addicts looking to support their habits. One policeman said, “about 90%.” The others nodded. I asked if there are any hard statistics about that. He said that hard stats are probably hard to come by, since the perpetrators often don’t tell the truth. But I could try calling King County social services. (I did that but didn’t get any hard figures.)
Later I asked a Bellevue police officer. He estimated that 40% of property crime is due to drug addicts supporting their habits.
I asked another police officer, from Bellevue, the same question, and she estimated that the answer is 75%.
Yet another police officer from Bellevue estimated “over 50%”.
A different police officer, also from Bellevue, estimated that “about 70%” of property crime is caused by addicts supporting their habits
Again, today (Oct 4, 2022), I found a Bellevue police officer at Factoria Mall. His rough estimate was 2/3rd. I told him the gist of this article and he nodded in agreement and said that everyone is basically paying a tax (in the form of stolen goods and higher prices) to subsidize addicts’ habits. He agreed that harm reduction is better than criminalizing the problem. He said that while police officers tend to be conservative, there are also progressive officers.
Now for some harder stats.
The U.S. Department of Justice reports that “More than half (58%) of state prisoners and two-thirds (63%) of sentenced jail inmates met the criteria for drug dependence or abuse, according to data collected through the 2007 and 2008-09 National Inmate Surveys (NIS).” About 45% of sentenced and jailed state prisoners are dependent on drugs, and about 63% abuse drugs. Rates of drug abuse in the general population are more than ten times less (under 5% of the general population).
Quoting the above report, the Prison Policy Institute’s article BJS report: Drug abuse and addiction at the root of 21% of crimes says “Almost 40% of people locked up for property crimes and 14% of those incarcerated for violent crimes reported that they had committed their most serious offense for drug-related reasons.” Also: “About 40% of the state prison population and sentenced jail population report using drugs at the time of the offense for which they were incarcerated.”
Motivations, substance use and other correlates amongst property and violent offenders who regularly inject drugs “The majority of both property (71%) and violent offenders (73%) reported being under the influence of drugs the last time they committed an offence.” And “The majority of property offenders (75%) attributed their offending to financial reasons.”
A story about management and treatment of an addict
The son of a friend has a bad drug habit. For a while he was on methadone. But he was unable to continue it. The clinic was open only a few hours a day, and he had to walk or take his electric bike to the clinic. He often missed appointments because of health issues and general disorganization. When he missed an appointment, he was punished and was unable to get his future doses at maximum strength. Over weekends, the clinic closes, so if he didn’t get his methadone on Friday, he’d have to wait til Monday — which sometimes forced him to resort to using street drugs. The man reported this sad fact: injected heroin works better than methadone (which is a liquid, taken orally) and causes a quicker response. With all these impediments, and despite being in subsidized housing, he gave up on methadone treatment and got worse.
Methadone clinics need to follow strict federal guidelines meant to prevent drug abuse. The rules have the effect of making it hard for addicts to comply. The fear is that loose rules would allow the addicts to sell the methadone doses on the street and use it to buy their drug of choice (e.g., heroin). I hear that happens a lot.
Several times this man’s family forced him into treatment programs, and he also spent time in jail for drug-related offenses. As soon as he was released from confinement, he went right back to using drugs. Family or society can force an addict to enroll in a treatment program, but such programs will fail if the addict’s heart isn’t it. People change when they’re ready to. Some never will. Like or not, this is a fact. Just like with alcoholics.
Furthermore, drug rehabilitation facilities are often over-priced and vary in quality. Insurance coverage is uneven.
Several of this man’s buddies got into trouble with the law, too (e.g., car prowling). Several of his friends died from drug overdoses, including his girlfriend. It’s a serious problem.
The New York Times daily email to subscribers says:
Drug overdoses now kill more than 100,000 Americans a year — more than vehicle crash and gun deaths combined….Experts have a concise, if crude, way to summarize this: If it’s easier to get high than to get treatment, people who are addicted will get high. The U.S. has effectively made it easy to get high and hard to get help.
I’ve read, though, that addicts don’t take drugs to get high. Maybe that’s why they did it at first. But once they’re addicted and acclimated to the drug, they need the drug to feel normal. Without it, they’re miserable.
The good news is that many addicts do recover as they get older. And for those who don’t their addiction can be managed. We need to figure out the cheapest and most humane way to do.
A big win for everyone
Drug companies such as Purdue Pharmaceutical helped provoke the addiction crisis by promoting opiate painkillers. They thereby made billions of dollars in profit. (Later they were sued.) Fentanyl, a synthetic opiate, is replacing heroin as the drug of choice for drug cartels, because of its potency and easy production. This suggests that if hard drugs were decriminalized they could be manufactured very cheaply. Indeed, the Guardian reports: “A 2019 DEA report estimated that each fentanyl pill costs only $1 [for drug cartels] to produce.” If there were no risks of being arrested, it could no doubt be produced even more cheaply.
So, if government subsidized drug production, it could do so cheaply, by removing the profit motive, taking money away from drug gangs, and taking away the incentive for addicts to steal. It’s a huge win for society!
For people who are ideologically opposed to paying for addicts’ drugs, let me say this: You are paying for them already. If openly paying for their treatment or their drugs (whether methadone, Suboxone, or some harder opiate) saves money overall for society, while reducing crime and overdose deaths, why not support it?