Study Suggests Low Hard Drug Prices Behind Crime Drop

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Curt Merlo/The Village Voice

​Violent crime has declined dramatically in New York City since 1990, the year when the Big Apple set a record for the most homicides in its history. A new study shows that the price of hard drugs has also plummeted in the past 20 years, and suggests the two phenomena may be linked.

The price of cocaine fell from $400-$460 per pure gram in the early 1980s to less then $200 by the early 2000s, reports Alexander Hotz at The New York World. Similarly, heroin prices dropped from $3,000 to $3,600 per pure gram in the 1980s to about $2,000 by the 2000s.
A team of anthropologists and economists at Manhattan’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York (CUNY) has suggested that the collapse of heroin and cocaine prices might be at least partially responsible for the reversal of crime rates.


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Travis Wendel, John Jay College: “Drugs got enormously cheaper so users didn’t have to hit as many old ladies over the head and steal their pocketbooks”

​”Essentially our paper could be boiled down to this: Most crime is committed by drug users to finance the cost of drug use,” said Travis Wendel, a faculty member at the Anthropology department at John Jay College and the main author of a study examining why crime has plummeted in NYC. (Let’s leave aside for now the fact that Wendel is describing crime by poor people as “most crime,” and thus ignoring the institutionalized crime which occurs on Wall Street and in corporate board rooms.)
The results were presented at “Understanding the Crime Decline in New York,” a recent conference at John Jay College.
Wendel’s paper, eye-catchingly titled “More Drugs, Less Crime,” argues there’s a causal relationship between hard drug prices and the crime rate in New York City. That means that if you know the price of cocaine, crack or heroin in a certain year, you should be able to predict the larceny, assault and homicide rates in the Big Apple for that year.
“Drugs got enormously cheaper so users didn’t have to hit as many old ladies over the head and steal their pocketbooks,” Wendel said. In 1994, two-thirds of men arrested in Manhattan for assault, robbery or larceny tested positive for cocaine.

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​Why hard drug prices declined isn’t covered in the paper, but the authors do list a decline in demand for heroin and crack cocaine as one factor. Part of that lessening demand could come from the increased popularity of pharmaceutical opioid painkillers like OxyCodone.
Wendel and coauthor Ric Curtis first noticed the connection between hard drug prices and crime rates years ago in their research of inner-city drug culture and crime, but they didn’t decide to publish their ideas until they were asked to present a paper at the John Jay conference on the crime decline.
“Ethnography is sort of like the favorite nephew in drugs and crime research, often indulged but never taken very seriously,” Wendel told attendees at the conference. “So we knew to be taken seriously we needed numbers.”
The researchers got the math from John Jay economists Jay Hamilton and Geert Dhondt, who used an “econometric” tool called the “Granger causality” to determine if hard drug prices could predict crime rates.
The economists found that, in most instances, such predictions can be made.
“More Drugs, Less Crime” will be published next year in a special edition of Justice Quarterly. It hasn’t been peer reviewed yet, “but if the theory is correct it suggests some uncomfortable conclusions,” The New York World‘s Hotz writes.
For instance, according to the study, high-priced drugs lead to increased violence. So many instead of trying to reduce the supply and drive up the price, the NYPD should instead try to keep hard drug prices low.
One important implication of the research, Wendel points out, is that if the NYPD actually were to successfully make a major dent in the supply of hard drugs in the Big Apple, the city’s crime rate would skyrocket once again.
In the meantime, ironically, one of the most positive downward pressures on New York City’s crime rate is the ineffectiveness of its police force in eliminating hard drugs.
“What law enforcement should recognize is that they can’t eliminate drugs, they can’t eliminate drug markets, they probably can’t drive up drug prices,” Wendel said. “And if they could, it would be a bad idea.”
To read the study in its entirety, click the link below.
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