Class A Drug Prohibition and law enforcement

As taxes rise on cigarettes leading to a black market and some health officials are beginning to call for the illegalisation of tobacco what lessons can be learnt from Class A prohibtion? This paper comes from Canada and here are the key findings, basically law enforcement is counter productive.

“Our findings suggest that increasing drug law enforcement is unlikely to reduce drug market violence. Instead, the existing evidence base suggests that gun violence and high homicide rates may be an inevitable consequence of drug prohibition and that disrupting drug markets can paradoxically increase violence. In this context, and since drug prohibition has not meaningfully reduced drug supply, alternative regulatory models will be required if drug supply and drug market violence are to be meaningfully reduced.”

The BBC’s Mark Easton gives us this analysis from the full report.

“Police efforts to fight drug gangs tend to lead to more violence and an increase in murders, according to a new international study.

The authors, writing in the International Journal of Drug Policy, admit they were surprised by their own findings.

Their hypothesis was that the results “would demonstrate an association between increased drug law enforcement expenditures or intensity and reduced levels of violence”. But that’s not what they showed. Instead, they report:

“From an evidence-based public policy perspective and based on several decades of available data, the existing scientific evidence suggests drug law enforcement contributes to gun violence and high homicide rates and that increasingly sophisticated methods of disrupting organisations involved in drug distribution could paradoxically increase violence.”

Following a systematic review of 15 peer-reviewed studies in North America and Australia, the researchers at the University of British Columbia argue that policy makers must find “alternative regulatory models for drug control… if drug market violence is to be substantially reduced”.

version of the report was produced last year. Now an updated and peer-reviewed paper has been published and will be presented to a conference of drug experts in Beirut next week.

As the authors concede, their findings fly in the face of conventional wisdom and appear paradoxical. However, they have theories as to why the so-called “War on Drugs” may be making the world a more dangerous place.

One possibility, they say, is that: “by removing key players from the lucrative illegal drug market, drug law enforcement has the perverse effect of creating new financial opportunities for other individuals to fill this vacuum by entering the market.”

The very act of disruption, they suggest, creates a more violent climate: “As dealers exit the illicit drug market, those willing to work in a high-risk environment enter, and that street dealing thereby becomes more volatile.”

It is a problem well understood by Britain’s Serious Organised Crime Agency (Soca), which already tries to factor in the unintended consequences of intervening in a drugs market.

I wrote about this in 2009, revealing how one senior agent had listed the possible negative implications of seizing, say, a large shipment of heroin:

  • it might lead to higher prices, which in turn might lead to an increase in acquisitive crime
  • it might mean poorer quality supply on the streets which might result in more drug-related deaths
  • disrupting an organised gang might trigger a “turf” war with increased violence, use of firearms, and murder

While recognising the harm that disrupting narcotics gangs can unwittingly cause, Soca does not accept that drug law enforcement is counter-productive. Around the same time, the influential think-tank UK Drugs Policy Commission was publishing a report suggesting that police might “tolerate” some drugs markets rather than risk the violence that would flow from breaking them up.

This week’s paper from the University of British Columbia reminds readers of the steep increase in gun-related homicide that followed alcohol prohibition in the United States in the 1920s, and the spike in murder and violence that followed the dismantling of Colombia’s Cali and Medellin cocaine cartels in the 1990s.

“In this second instance,” the report’s authors note: “The destruction of the cartels’ cocaine duopoly led to the emergence of a fractured network of smaller cocaine producing cartels that increasingly used violence to protect and increase their market share.”

The authors suggest that such violent crime “may be an inevitable consequence of drug prohibition when groups compete for massive profits without recourse to formal non-violent negotiation and dispute-resolution mechanisms”.

Another theory to explain the paradox is that if the police get tougher, the drug dealers respond by getting more brutal themselves: “Target hardening, wherein vulnerable entities become increasingly militarised in the face of risk of attack, has occurred among drug organisations facing increased drug law enforcement,” the report says.

The authors accept that there are some inevitable shortcomings in their analysis. Most of the studies they looked at involved longitudinal research without a randomised control group. In other words, they couldn’t compare the results with what would have happened if there had been no drug law enforcement and therefore cannot state that police action against drug gangs actually causes violence.

Another limitation they considered at the beginning of their review was the risk of “publication bias”. They noted that research funders “have traditionally been unsympathetic to critical evaluations of the ‘war on drugs’,” and that, as a result, there might be a lack of critical evaluation of potential negative consequences of drug law enforcement.

They needn’t have worried. Of the eleven studies that analysed empirical data, 10 found “a significant association” between drug law enforcement and violence. The only paper that described “drug law enforcement having a positive effect on reducing drug market violence was based on a theoretical model” rather than hard data.

The clear sub-text of the analysis and its exhortation to policy-makers to find “alternative regulatory models for drug control” is that governments should consider decriminalisation or legalisation of illicit substances.

Since, politically, an end to the policy of prohibition is not on the table in Britain, the question is how police and crime agencies ensure that their actions don’t end up making a bad situation even worse.”


Violence is amongst the primary concerns of communities around the world and research has demonstrated links between violence and the illicit drug trade, particularly in urban settings. Given the growing emphasis on evidence-based policy-making, and the ongoing severe drug market violence in Mexico and other settings, we conducted a systematic review to examine the impacts of drug law enforcement on drug market violence. We conducted a systematic review using Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta Analyses (PRISMA) guidelines. Specifically, we undertook a search of English language electronic databases (Academic Search Complete, PubMed, PsycINFO, EMBASE, Web of Science, Sociological Abstracts, Social Service Abstracts, PAIS International and Lexis-Nexis), the Internet (Google, Google Scholar), and article reference lists, from database inception to January 24, 2011. Overall, 15 studies were identified that evaluated the impact of drug law enforcement on drug market violence, including 11 (73%) longitudinal analyses using linear regression, 2 (13%) mathematical drug market models, and 2 (13%) qualitative studies. Fourteen (93%) studies reported an adverse impact of drug law enforcement on levels of violence. Ten of the 11 (91%) studies employing longitudinal qualitative analyses found a significant association between drug law enforcement and drug market violence. Our findings suggest that increasing drug law enforcement is unlikely to reduce drug market violence. Instead, the existing evidence base suggests that gun violence and high homicide rates may be an inevitable consequence of drug prohibition and that disrupting drug markets can paradoxically increase violence. In this context, and since drug prohibition has not meaningfully reduced drug supply, alternative regulatory models will be required if drug supply and drug market violence are to be meaningfully reduced.”

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6 Responses to Class A Drug Prohibition and law enforcement

  1. Smoking Hot says:

    The black market is an industry that is thriving in the recession and the government seem hell bent on making sure it continues. One doesn’t need a paper from Canada either … just look and learn from history … or is that too simple for them to do?

    Problem is with these people is they have no knowledge whatsoever of the streets. Sit them down and make them watch the HBO series The Wire

  2. TheBigYin says:

    Hi Dave, welcome to the blogosphere. Great site and I will peruse it at my leasure.

  3. Dave,
    Good find. That is an interesting analysis.

    It really should not come as a surprise to anyone, though, once they understand that organized crime operations and states are functionally quite similar in many ways. One of those ways is that they seek a monopoly on the use of violence in their area (defined geographically, though perhaps also in terms of area of endeavor), and with that create laws, taxes, etc. that benefit the syndicate as well as the “right” people in the area it controls. When the monopoly exists, it is a fairly stable and nonviolent situation (if one actor has a near-monopoly on violence, exercising violence against it is suicidal, and the threat alone is enough for the monopoly) unless a syndicate/state gets an imperialistic urge to go after its neighbors. Commerce in a functioning state, and just as much in a stable organized crime setting, does not involve violence very often because the rules are enforced by a threat of such overwhelming violence that low-level violence just does not pay.

    Conversely, when that monopoly does not exist (extreme case: when someone has invaded and is trying to overthrow the regime; less extreme: when there is war in the streets because no one can solidify their monopoly) then engaging in violence can be beneficial. Government violence against organized crime operations is basically an invasion that disrupts the monopoly in an area (another way of putting some of the same things quoted above). No surprise about what happens then.

  4. Junican says:

    I am popping this idea around the sites that I frequent. I am sorry if this post is not ‘on topic’.

    On 29th May 2011, the Independent published a blatant, propaganda attack on Tobacco Companies. I must say immediately that I have no personal involvement with Tobacco Companies whatsoever other than buying cigarettes.
    In the article, it was stated that a study by the Office of National Stats shows that more people are going to pubs. In fact, the study shows nothing of the sort. It shows only that, of the people surveyed, some said that they THINK THAT they go to pubs more often. Also, the same survey showed that women especially feel inclined to go to pubs less, as a result of the smoking ban. It is very obvious, therefore, that the findings of this survey in no way justify the claim that more people are going to pubs, which is what Tobacco Control claimed. In any case, pub closures affect the people in the immediate neighbourhood of that pub. Even if it were true that more pubs are opening than are closing, it does not mean that the opportunities for people to meet together are not, in a large part of our country, being decimated by Tobacco Control. On this basis, I have complained to the Press Commission about the misuse of the Office of Nat Stats statistics in this article published by the Independent. I claim that the Independent should ensure that the facts stated in the article are correct.

    When I found out about this article (via….sorry, I do not remember), I made various comments at the Independent – albeit rather late. But what is really important is that I decided to make a complaint to the Press Complaints Commission. I have done so. I have complained about the misuse of the ONS statistics. I have complained that the Independent should check that the ONS statistics are being correctly interpreted. I have complained that the Independent has not checked the facts stated in this article (an article which is promoted by the Independent) before publication.

    This thought then popped into my mind: how much more likely to succeed is a complaint to the Press Commission as compared with a comment on a newspaper article in the newspaper’s comments section? I asked this question elsewhere, and someone said, ” Should we not also be applying this idea to the Charities Commission (words to that effect)?”

    I agree.

    We must ask ourselves about the efficacy of complaints to the Press Complaints Commission and the Charities Commission. I propose that 100 complaints to those organisations are worth 10 000 comments in newspaper articles. I am therefore proposing that we make as many complaints as possible to these bodies. But, of course, the complaints must be real and genuine and factual. Do not make make complains based upon emotions (stinks, for example).

    I believe (with no evidence whatsoever except gut feeling!) that organisations such as the Press Complaints Commission and the Charities Commission are the Achilles Heel of Tobacco Control and Alcohol Concern and other such special interest groups. Complaints to MPs and to Newspapers do not instigate a process, whereas complaints to commissions do. One could also complain to the Health and Safety Executive, it you can figure out how to do it.

    There are thousands of us. If we all complain to the appropriate COMMISSION, sensibly, about what ASH et al are causing to be published, then ‘the authorities’ will be forced to take note. We must complain as often as possible and upon every subject where ‘freedom’ is being eroded.

    I commend this idea to everyone.

    As I said, I am going to spread this idea around. I hope that people do not mind. I hope that it bears fruit.

  5. Pingback: Weekly suggested reading in Tobacco Harm Reduction – 1 June 2011 « Tobacco Harm Reduction: News & Opinions

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