The Drug War’s Death Toll and a Case for Legalization

Whenever drug legalization is raised, the anti-legalization side always raises the specter of increased addiction. That is, the argument is framed as a choice between legalization and the harm due to increased addiction. But this ignores a key factor–the death toll due to the ‘War’ on (Some People Who Use) Drugs:

We’ve heard a lot about the terrible death toll Mexico has suffered during the drug war — over 11,000 souls so far…
Still, we’ve heard nothing about the American death toll. Isn’t that strange? So far as I can tell, nobody has even tried to come up with a number.
Until now. I’ve done some rough math, and this is what I found:
To repeat, that’s 6,487 dead Americans. Throw in overdoses and the cost of this country’s paralyzing drug laws is closer to 15,000 lives….
So he [former Maryland State narcotics officer Neill Franklin] started brooding on the drug war’s body count. “Baltimore is a city of just a hair over 600,000 people. Our annual homicide rate was fluctuating between 240 and 300 every year for decades. Think about that: 240 to 300 homicides annually, and 75 percent to 80 percent are drug related. It’s either gangs that are using drugs to support operations, or territorial disputes among drug dealers, or people just getting caught in the line of fire. And Baltimore is a small city compared to others,” Franklin notes. “So we’re not talking a handful of homicides; we’re talking about the majority of the homicides in any city in the U.S. So if you add those cities up — just lowball it, take just 50 percent — I guarantee you, you’ll find the numbers are quite similar to what they have in Mexico.”
I took his advice. In 2007, the last year for which hard numbers are available, 16,425 people were murdered. Since our most recent Census said that 79 percent of the country is urban, I cut out the rural Americans — although there’s plenty of drug use there, too — and came up with 12,975 urban homicides. Low-balling that number at 50 percent, I arrived at a rough estimate of 6,487 drug deaths. Using 75 percent, the toll rises to 9,731.

But what about the increased addiction argument? Franklin (italics mine):

“First, there’s no concrete study to support such a belief — it’s all completely speculation,” Franklin insists. “So in my left hand I have all this speculation about what may happen to addiction rates, and then I look at my other hand and I see all these dead bodies that are actually fact, not speculation. And you’re going to ask me to weigh the two? Second, if the addiction rate does go up, I’m going to have a lot of live addicts that I can cure. The direction we’re going in now, I’ve got a lot of dead bodies.”
I told Franklin I was surprised to hear a cop express so much sympathy for drug addicts. Even pro-drug types don’t do that much. “I do have sympathy,” he says. “What they’re dealing with is a health issue, not a criminal issue. And as long as you treat it as a criminal issue, we’re treating the symptom and not the cause.”

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5 Responses to The Drug War’s Death Toll and a Case for Legalization

  1. Tony P says:

    So what do you do with those third of cops who we don’t need? Maybe get them into social service agencies.

  2. doug l says:

    Excellent perspectives here. I suggest people google the acronym LEAP (law enforcement against prohibition). Send ’em $5 or more and they’ll send you a cool cloisone pin and help end the insane war of drug users.

  3. David says:

    6,487 – very precise. good to have the facts on your side.

  4. 6487 that was found, and may be 10 times more of what not found…

  5. Gene Doctor says:

    I agree that addiction is a health issue, not a criminal one, and that we need more help for addicts on that front rather than just throwing them in jail.
    If you legalize drugs, you will reduce the violence – look at Amsterdam. In addition, the drugs will be safer given that they’ll have to go through quality control. Lastly, the government can tax the hell out of them like they do alcohol and cigarettes and actually make a dent in the deficit as well as increase funding for education and health. It’s a win-win situation. As a bonus, you also save the $ that’s going to the war on drugs. It’s all such a waste.

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