New study suggests drug price crash a force behind the city’s crime decline

Cocaine, heroin, marijuana, ecstasy, two loaded guns (one of which was a machine gun), knives, machetes and 50 indictments. That was what authorities netted in a recent Bronx raid on the notorious Trinitario gang earlier this month. The successful operation, which involved the NYPD’s gang and narcotics units as well as the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, briefly made headlines, in part because it was so unusual: Big illicit drug operations, and violence connected with them, are an increasingly rare phenomenon in New York City.

Every New Yorker knows that violent crime has declined dramatically since 1990, the year that the city saw the most homicides in its history. But only a habitual user is likely aware that the price of hard drugs has also plummeted since then. The price of cocaine fell from $400 to $460 per pure gram in the early 1980s to less than $200 by the early 2000s. Similarly heroin 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 John Jay College of Criminal Justice has posited that the collapse of heroin and cocaine prices might be responsible, at least in part, for the reversal of crime rates. “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 Manhattan’s John Jay College and the main author of research presented at a recent John Jay College conference about an enduring question: Why has crime plummeted in New York City?

Wendel’s paper, cheekily titled “More Drugs, Less Crime,” argues that there’s a causal relationship between the price of hard drugs and the crime rate. In other words if you know the price of cocaine, heroin or crack cocaine in a certain year, you can reasonably predict the larceny, assault and homicide rates in New York City for that year.

Explains Wendel, “Drugs got enormously cheaper so users didn’t have to hit as many old ladies over the head and steal their pocketbooks.” In the United States the link between drugs and crime is well documented by the National Institute of Justice in reviews of urine tests from arrestees. In 1994, two out of three men arrested in Manhattan for assault, robbery or larceny tested positive for cocaine.

Why the price declined isn’t within the scope of the paper, but the authors do list a decline in demand for heroin and crack cocaine as a factor. Part of that waning demand may stem from the increased popularity of prescription drugs like oxycodone. Recently Mayor Michael Bloomberg created a task force to target the growing market.

Wendel and his co-author Ric Curtis first noticed the connection between the price of hard drugs and crime rates years ago in their own research of inner-city drug culture and crime, but they didn’t decide to write about the idea until they were asked to present a paper at the John Jay conference.

“Ethnography is sort of like the favorite nephew in drugs and crime research, often indulged but never taken very seriously,” Wendel told the audience. “So we knew to be taken seriously we needed numbers.”

To get those numbers Wendel and Curtis turned to John Jay economists Jay Hamilton and Geert Dhondt, who used an econometric tool called the Granger causality to determine if the price data could be used to forecast crime rates. The economists found that in most instances it does.

“More Drugs, Less Crime” will be published next year in a special edition of Justice Quarterly and is yet to be peer reviewed, but if the theory is correct it suggests some uncomfortable conclusions. According to the paper, high-priced drugs lead to increased violence. One implication is that rather than trying to eradicate the supply and therefore driving up the price, the NYPD should instead be working to keep prices low.

NYPD efforts to eradicate drug markets date back at least to the 1980s, with initiatives like Operation Pressure Point on the Lower East Side. The Giuliani administration made the NYPD’s drug task force a priority, and in 2000 Operation Condor paid overtime to some 500 police officers to target drug gangs. Today, according to the New York City Independent Budget Office, the NYPD Narcotics Squad has 1,417 officers – half the squad’s size in 2000 but still a formidable commitment of personnel.

The authors of the John Jay paper clarify that their theory does not invalidate the work done by police. It’s clear that NYPD efforts to eradicate drugs did reduce crime, said Wendel, by driving operations off the streets and behind closed doors. But the trade still continued, underground.

Wendel points out an important implication of his research: if the NYPD were to actually make a major dent in the supply of drugs on the street, it would raise the price of those drugs – and send the city’s crime rate back upward.

“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,” said Wendel. “And if they could, it would be a bad idea.”

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