Dr Alex Wodak, President of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation, writes:

On 8 September, a policeman involved in a drug bust in Bankstown, Sydney, was shot and died soon afterwards.

Why did this happen?

Most people would assume that drug law enforcement reduces violence. The Vancouver-based International Centre for Science in Drug Policy tested this theory in 2010 by reviewing and analysing the world scientific literature on the subject.

Their report, The effect of drug law enforcement on drug-related violence, is available here.

The authors searched several major data bases for scientific studies of drug law enforcement and violence. They initially identified 306 studies for analysis of which 15 met the required scientific standards and were further evaluated. Of these 15 studies, 13 (87%) found that more intensive drug law enforcement increased drug market violence.

Nine of the 11 studies (82%) employing sophisticated statistical analyses of longitudinal data found that more intensive drug law enforcement increased violence. One study (9%) using a theoretical model concluded that more intensive drug law enforcement reduced violence.

This recent systematic review of all available English language peer-reviewed research on the impact of law enforcement on drug market violence concluded that increasing the intensity of law enforcement interventions to disrupt drug markets is likely to increase drug related violence and homicide rates. Violence in drug markets and in areas with intensive drug trafficking, such as Mexico, enables drug gangs to gain or maintain a share of the lucrative illicit drug market.

The finding of this review should not come as a surprise. As Milton Friedman, Economist & Nobel Laureate, said “many, especially the young, are not dissuaded by the bullets that fly so freely in disputes between competing drug dealers’ bullets that fly only because dealing drugs is illegal. Al Capone epitomizes our earlier attempt at Prohibition; the Crips and Bloods epitomize this one.

Jeffrey Miron
, a Harvard economist, said “Prohibition creates violence because it drives the drug market underground. This means buyers and sellers cannot resolve their disputes with lawsuits, arbitration or advertising, so they resort to violence instead.”

Now the debate is shifting from academia to the political world. Three recent former Presidents of major South American countries issued a report in 2009 condemning current drug policies heavily reliant on drug law enforcement. Fernando Henrique Cardoso (Brazil),  (Colombia) and Ernesto Zedillo (Mexico) said  “Prohibitionist policies based on eradication, interdiction and criminalization of consumption simply haven’t worked. Violence and the organized crime associated with the narcotics trade remain critical problems in our countries.Today, we are further than ever from the goal of eradicating drugs.”

The steady global decline in prices and increasing purity of street drugs suggest that drug law enforcement has not even been achieving its declared objective of ensuring that illicit drugs are hard to obtain.