Yesterday, the White House drug czar, R. Gil Kerlikowske, wrote an article that implies drugs cause crime. He based this on the fact that more than half of adult male arrestees test positive for at least one drug. This does not mean that drugs cause crime.* It means that drug use, like tattoos, correlates with criminal behavior. One of the reasons for this correlation is that criminalization and media propaganda can statistically link anything with crime – even bananas.
This Banana Effect can be demonstrated by a hypothetical scenario. In an imaginary United States bananas are made illegal and every media source begins spouting that eating bananas is irresponsible, dangerous, and horrible for one’s health. Responsible, law-abiding, health-conscious citizens would stop eating bananas. Surveys of banana eaters would start to show that they commit more crimes and are unhealthier than non-banana eaters. Bananas did not change. The population using them changed.
This is exactly what happened when drugs were criminalized at the beginning of the 20th century. An opiate authority at the time was Dr. Charles Terry. He wrote, “… a very large proportion of the users of opiate drugs were respectable hardworking individuals in all walks of life, and … only about 18% could in any way be considered as belonging to the underworld.” (1)
Numerous studies have discovered that drug-using criminals are usually criminals before their drug use begins. One study found that a heroin user’s first arrest typically occurs 18 months before heroin use starts. (3) The exorbitant costs of drugs caused by criminalization undoubtedly drive some addicts to crime, however, most addict-criminals were criminals first. The drugs and crime nexus is driven more by the population using the drugs than by the drugs themselves.
* Kerlikowske knew he did not have evidence of causation which is why he used the weasel word “link” instead of “cause.”
Note: I am presenting the Banana Effect in the next edition of You Will Die: The Burden of Modern Taboos, and assume that I am not the first person to have recognized it. If you know of someone who has already coined a term for self-selection bias due to the influence of the media and/or criminalization please contact me so that I can give proper credit.
1. Opiates include drugs like morphine and heroin. Mike Gray, Drug Crazy (1998), p. 53.
2. R. Gil Kerlikowske, “Study: More Than Half of Adult Male Arrestees Test Positive for at Least One Drug,” HuffingtonPost.com, 17 May 2012. LINK
3. Richard Miller, Case for Legalizing Drugs (1991), pp. 60, 189.