One area that could bring large dividends in terms of crime reduction would be to change tactics in the quagmire of the American war on drugs. With blind fidelity to a failed policy, we continue to fritter away scarce law enforcement resources fighting sale and possession of drugs and to put hundreds of thousands in prison at enormous cost to taxpayers and to inmates and their families.
Many substances from alcohol and nicotine to marijuana, cocaine, and heroin impose high social costs on American society, but only the illegal drugs lead to mass incarceration, corruption of police, street killings, and other acts of violence in the effort to market them to a desirous American population.
Just as the end of Prohibition generated enormous crime reductions, legalization of the above drugs would likely bring about similar crime drops, while risking increases in the high costs attending the likely increase in consumption and abuse.
The proper way to deal with all of these addictive substances is to legalize, tax heavily, ban all forms of marketing, and fund efforts to restrain consumption and provide treatment for abusers. Instead, we have pursued a policy that either puts hundreds of thousands of Americans in prison when a coordinated and aggressive regulatory posture could likely restrain demand in a far less costly manner, or gives far too much freedom to stimulate demand and sales by aggressive marketing and advertising.
One potential obstacle to a regime of legalization coupled with discouraging regulation and taxation is that the suppliers of addictive substances will use constitutional arguments to advance their objectives (one can imagine the briefs by sellers of marijuana insisting on their first amendment rights to peddle the drug should legalization occur) or enlist the support of compliant legislators to help stimulate demand (note the activities of the gambling industry for an unwholesome example).
This might suggest that constitutionally enshrined restrictions on the ability to market harmful substances might be an important antecedent to an effort to reduce crime by eliminating the staggering social costs of the war on drugs.
John J. Donohue III, Leighton Homer Surbeck Professor of Law