Thursday, January 7, 2016

Public Interests, Public Interest

Earlier this week at RealClearPolicy, Robert VerBruggen had a thoughtful piece exploring how the facts have caused him to have some doubts about his libertarian inclination to legalize drugs.  In addition to questions of principle, VerBruggen had thought that the negative consequences of legalizing drugs would be relatively few:
But I did think legalization would easily pass a practical cost-benefit test: reduce incarceration, if perhaps not as much as some might think; end an illegal market whose violence spills far beyond our borders; and expand personal freedom, all for the acceptable price of an extra overdose or other health problem here and there, plus maybe some extra property crimes by addicts stealing to feed their habit.
Drug addiction couldn't go up that much. The War on Drugs is an utter failure and drugs are widely and cheaply available anyway. Everyone knows that.
However, as VerBruggen notes, some of the facts seem to indicate that a more permissive approach to various powerful drugs might increase the real risks of drug addiction after all.

Due to a variety of reasons (including a more permissive approach to opioid prescriptions and, probably, a drop in the price of heroin), the rate of drug-overdose deaths has skyrocketed.  VerBruggen marshals CDC data to find that the drug-overdose death rate has gone from 6 per 100,000 people in 1999 to 14.8 per 100,000 people in 2014.  Thus, over 15 years, the drug-overdose death rate has more than doubled.

VerBruggen notes that a lot of forces influence drug usage, but this picture causes him some concern:
I don't know; this is not an issue I write about frequently or have studied in much depth. But it sure looks like loosening control of a drug made all hell break loose, and that's not what I would have predicted, say, ten years ago.
Regardless of whether a substantial increase in deaths from legalizing drugs would be a sufficient argument against drug legalization (and Jonah Goldberg says that it might not be), there's another perspective we can use here: that of public concern.

For months now, President Obama and many in the media have devoted great attention to the challenges of "gun violence."  Often, the language of crisis has been used in talking about firearms.  Some on the left have even moved in the direction of supporting gun bans (and perhaps even confiscation) in the name of ending gun violence.

However, unlike drug overdoses, the rate of firearm homicides has dropped substantially over the past 20 years.  Drawing on federal data, Pew finds that the firearm-homicide rate dropped from 7 per 100,000 in 1993 to 3.4 per 100,000 in 2014.  Most of this drop occurred in the late 1990s, but it has declined a bit since 2000, too.  This drop in the homicide rate likely cannot be simply attributed to improvements in medical technology over the past 20 years; the non-fatal firearm crime victimization rate has plummeted as well (it's about a quarter of what it was in 1993).  People today are much less likely to be shot and/or killed by firearms than they were 20 years ago.  (The overall firearm death rate has been fairly stable since 2000; a drop in the homicide rate has been counterbalanced by a rise in the suicide rate.)

Thus, we have seen many of those in positions of power and influence devote great attention to gun-related deaths, even though the gun-homicide rate is lower than the drug-overdose death rate and is shrinking rather than growing.  In 2014, the drug-overdose death rate was about 435% the firearm-homicide death rate.  Since 2000, the risks of dying from a drug overdose more than doubled, while the risks of having someone kill you with a firearm went down.

Obviously, we can work solve multiple problems at once.  Let's leave to the side for a moment whether President Obama's executive actions on firearms would actually do anything to reduce violent crime and whether they are in accord with Constitutional principles (including the Bill of Rights and separation of powers).  Those are clearly huge questions.  But we shouldn't overlook the fact that, in terms of public safety, drugs are currently racking up more bodies than firearms in the United States.

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