Blame city violence on the drug war

To end the violence in Baltimore and beyond, dismantle the war on drugs.

Baltimore City State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby recently lamented in an op-ed piece about the difficulty of prosecuting crime because witnesses refuse to come forward. Rep Elijah Cummings recently issued an emotional appeal for "blacks lives [to] matter to black people." The city police chief recently announced that 10 federal agents would embed within the department to stem the rising violence.

Baltimore is not unique in its surging crime rate. Politicians, police officials and community leaders around the country get on TV and appear baffled by the "senseless" violence. But the cause of the violence is not a mystery nor is it "senseless." It is the logical and rational outcome of our public policy choices. Violence is the currency in an underground economic system that we as a society have created. It has nothing to do with poverty, race, social status or the availability of guns.

Let's declare the "war on drugs" a failure. A war can't be launched against inanimate objects. The war on drugs is a misnomer, disguising what it really is: a war on people. It's a war launched by the government against taxpayers forced to fund it and citizens, mostly black, forced to endure roadside searches and late night raids reminiscent of totalitarian regimes. (Is it any wonder that citizens distrust an aggressive militarized police?) For decades this artificial war has vilified and demonized young black men for making what, in economic terms, is a completely rational choice given the incentives created by the war on drugs.

The drug business is a big business. The drug business is a business like any other. You need customers, supply chains and logistics to deliver a quality product at competitive prices in an unregulated market. Unlike other businesses, there is no mechanism to resolve business disputes. Violence serves as the only effective mechanism to ensure that market participants adhere to the customs of the trade. Violence is the unwritten code needed to make sure that the goods and money flow efficiently. It prevents "seepage" of either cash or inventory and is an effective tool to expand market share. The murders and shooting aren't "senseless" from an economic point of view.

The war on drugs creates a huge incentive to get into the drug business. A $50 per day habit for Baltimore's estimated 19,000 heroin addicts generates $950,000 a day, every day. A sharp kid who corners just 1 percent of the market will make $9,500 a day tax free. From that angle, it's completely rational to get involved in the drug trade and equally rational to use violence to protect it. Add in the sales of other drugs, and the market might top $1 billion dollars a year in Baltimore alone. All the lecturing, begging, pleading and cajoling will have no effect. Legions of cops in bulletproof vests or even tanks and a gaggle of ATF agents cruising the streets will not change the attractiveness of $1 billion dollars in cash.

Fixing the situation permanently means changing the economic incentives. Changing the incentives will stop the violence; nothing else will work. New incentives can be created to encourage police, social workers, criminal defense attorneys, prosecutors and the courts to refer those who want help for treatment. A reduction in demand causes a price drop.

Dismantling the foolish war on drugs will cause drug prices to tumble. Violence is no longer effective in a high volume, low margin business. As "high crime" areas recede police departments can demilitarize and return to what they did before the war on drugs morphed them into paramilitary units.

Ms. Mosby ought to understand that the threat of violence is much more persuasive than a prosecutor in a cubicle and that it actually would be "senseless" to testify. The $200,000 earmarked to study the problem should be used to send 20 heroin addicts to treatment. The 10 federal agents patrolling the streets should retire to the DEA hooker party in Bogotá; it would be just as effective and less costly. Rep. Cummings should immediately start drafting legislation to dismantle the war on drugs and the police state it has birthed. Freeing black men lured by the siren song of drug-business riches may be the greatest civil rights battle ever.

Joseph Scalia is an attorney and Baltimore native who heads, an effort to help Baltimore adopt pro -growth strategies. He can be reached at

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