To the editor:

The authors’ arguments hold up in the case of violent offenders, but what about those who are incarcerated because of drug offenses? [John Paul Wright and Matt DeLisi, “What Criminologists Don’t Say, and Why,” Summer 2017.] I have just started reading The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander, who argues that illegal drug use by whites is at least as high as that by blacks but that young black males are much likelier to go to prison. (Anecdotally, what I’ve seen of drug use by whites at elite colleges supports this claim.) Alexander further argues that once a young black male has a criminal record, his ability to succeed in mainstream American society is close to nonexistent. Liberal or not, her arguments have convinced me.

Michael Sundel

Houston, TX

To the editor:

I can’t help but think about the effects of the War on Drugs. Prohibition significantly increased organized crime (the “drug cartels” of the time), and if common possessors of alcohol had been actively pursued, arrested, and prosecuted when Prohibition was in effect, it would have amounted to a huge “crime wave” at that time.

Andras Kovacs

Victoria, British Columbia

John Paul Wright and Matt DeLisi respond:

Trafficking and selling, not using, are the primary drug charges for which individuals are incarcerated. According to the National Drug Threat Assessment, a systematic national-level data source more compelling than readers’ anecdotal evidence, drugs are imported into the U.S. via overwhelmingly Hispanic transnational criminal organizations and transported and sold across the U.S. by overwhelmingly black and Hispanic criminal gangs. In the most disadvantaged communities with the highest rates of crime and violence, drug-selling has effectively displaced conventional involvement in education and work. These behavioral differences explain race/ethnic differences in drug crimes that appear in prison data.

Many make the claim that drug offending is innocuous, but the evidence is overwhelming that drug offenders, like offenders generally, are versatile and engage in multiple forms of antisocial conduct spanning drug crimes, violent crimes, property crimes, regulatory crimes, and other forms of noncompliance with the law. Moreover, analyses show that criminal offenders who use drugs commit three to four times more offenses than criminal offenders who do not.

None of these data truly captures the nefariousness and immorality of drug use, however. Those who abuse or are dependent on illicit substances often prioritize drug use above all other responsibilities. They commonly abandon their family, work, school, and community roles. They sometimes prostitute themselves in exchange for drugs, endanger their children, and burn every social bridge. And they commit lots of theft, burglary, robbery, and other crimes. We view the confinement of these offenders as money well spent.

Ban Nicotine?

To the editor:

Vaping is the equivalent of injecting heroin to avoid the scourge of opium dens. [John Tierney, “The Corruption of Public Health,” Summer 2017.] If all nicotine and other addictive drugs were removed from vaping liquid, it wouldn’t be harmful to start vaping. But the entire point of vaping is getting a nicotine fix to avoid drug withdrawal. If getting people addicted to nicotine is acceptable, why not get them addicted to opiates, too?

Michael Pettengill

Manchester, NH

John Tierney responds:

There’s a big difference between opiates and nicotine. Opiates can harm people’s health, impair their skills, and disrupt their lives, but nicotine has none of those drawbacks. “Nicotine itself is not especially hazardous,” Britain’s Royal College of Physicians concluded after an exhaustive review of the medical literature. Instead of trying to outlaw nicotine, the British group recommended “radical reform in the way that nicotine products are regulated and used in society,” pointing out that millions of lives could be saved if nicotine could be provided “in a form that is acceptable and effective as a cigarette substitute.”

In Sweden, which has the lowest rate of smoking in Europe because so many adults get nicotine from the smokeless tobacco called snus, long-term studies of snus users have found no increased risk of cancer, heart attacks, strokes, or any other illness linked to smoking.

Nicotine is more like caffeine than heroin. Like a cup of coffee, nicotine causes temporary increases in blood pressure and heart rate, but the long-term effects are not worrisome. Meanwhile, nicotine delivers lots of benefits. It can act as either a stimulant or a relaxant. It helps people control their weight. It speeds their reaction time and improves memory, alertness, and mood. That’s why 36 million Americans go on endangering their health by smoking cigarettes. When they quit, they typically gain ten pounds, have trouble concentrating, and report being irritable and depressed.

Trying to prevent people from vaping will cause many to smoke instead. In fact, Cornell and Yale researchers have shown that local restrictions on the sale of e-cigarettes to minors have resulted in higher rates of teen smoking.

FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb has wisely moved away from the deadly prohibitionism of the Obama administration by postponing regulations that would have outlawed most vaping products next year. He coupled that recent announcement with plans to force a reduction in the nicotine content of cigarettes. That was good politics—a sop to Democratic legislators and activists—and it might give some smokers further incentive to switch to vaping. But it will probably also induce many smokers to light up more cigarettes in order to replace the lost nicotine. And it could well create a black market in high-nicotine cigarettes. Prohibition didn’t work with alcohol, and it won’t work with nicotine, either.


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