Is there a connection between drugs and violence? Yes, but it is the violence of the illegal traffickers in vicious competition with each other or in conflicts with law enforcement. Putting it another way, drug violence is usually the product of our laws against drugs, not of the use of drugs.
Earlier this year Attorney General Jeff Sessions was quoted saying, “Experts are telling me there’s more violence around marijuana than one would think and there’s big money involved.” Yes, of course there is big money being made in illegal drugs and in an industry without recourse to courts for dispute resolution, we should expect violence.
Yet, demagogues insist on linking violence with drugs in a way that suggests drugs turn the user into a monster. An example appears in a 2011 book by an author I will not name, as I think his intentions at least were honorable. This author cites an Arrestee Drug Abuse Monitoring study of detention centers in major U.S. cities which found that 87% of adult inmates tested positive for a narcotic after being booked for a crime.
From this data he draws the conclusion that “Almost 90% of those who commit the crimes that make us shudder at the nightly news or gasp in disbelief as they occur in our neighborhoods, are apparently created by (or at least strongly linked to) a single, identifiable cause: illicit drugs.”
This statement is so overblown as to be laughable in the context of his discussion, which was not about violence among traffickers, but one dealing with whether drug users turn violent. In his enthusiasm for a nexus between drugs and violence he cites the cases of violent men, whose crimes he suggests were drug related. Of these he says, “A link between drug abuse and their behavior is apparent throughout.” In an online search what I found was these examples were all nut jobs, not actually on drugs.
Serial killer John Wayne Gacy, likely used marijuana at times, but there was no apparent link between his use of any drug and his raping and killing 33 boys, whose bodies he buried under his house. He was schizophrenic with multiple personality disorders, not deranged by drugs. Jeffrey Dahmer who murdered seventeen people was an alcoholic. He, too, was psychotic. I could find no evidence he used any illicit drugs, nor even that alcohol figured in his crimes. Brian Dugan showed classic symptoms of psychopathy from an early age. At 13 he poured gasoline on a cat and lit it. He murdered three and raped several more women who survived. According to the Chicago Tribune, neuroscientist Kent Kielh said Dugan was a psychopath. An NPR report mentions Dugan’s alcoholism, but without any suggestion he was drug deranged.
Writers like the above author and various commentators often speak of drug violence without making it clear they are speaking not of crimes induced by chemical intoxication, but rather the activities of the traffickers. Ironically, they are usually arguing in favor of our anti-drug laws, when the true argument actually runs the other way–the law fosters the violence.
In a comprehensive review of the research literature the authors conclude: “Overall, the violence and substance use relationship is very complex and the extant research regarding the directionality of this relationship is inconclusive.” By “directionality” they mean which way the causation works. Does a drug cause a violent tendency, or does a violent tendency sometimes cause drug use? In other words, we can’t say for sure that drug use causes anyone to be violent and we certainly cannot say it turns a normal person into a violent actor. The study also mentions that violence prone people are usually teenagers and young adults. With age, violent tendencies dissipate. We know that drug use and addiction are also behaviors primarily of the young. It is plausible to think that the same emotional imbalance that underlies the violent personality sometimes underlies drug use and addiction.
It is high time journalists and writers across the country take care not to mislead people on the nexus between drugs and violence.
© Rights reserved to Dave Finch 11/16/2017
For much more on drug policy issues visit my Reform Drug Policy Project.