Vice Squad
Wednesday, September 24, 2003
Stinging Chicago Drug Consumers

In a column on the Commentary page of today's Chicago Tribune, Carol Marin
describes her experience accompanying Chicago police on a drug sting operation.
In the Harrison district, officers posed as drug sellers: "In less than four
hours, 102 buyers were in plastic handcuffs and on their way to lock-up."
Somehow the fact that there were two such stings in the same location in
the previous five days had not been enough to deter the would-be drug buyers.

Marin records the welcome news, that the homicide rate on the West Side
is down 75% from a year ago. But she also registers the whiff of
futility in the war on drugs, describing the buyers as "an ant army of
addiction" and sellers as "an endless stream of people willing to risk
prison to make big money."

(Steven D. Levitt and Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh found that the money
available to the typical street dealer in one Chicago gang actually isn't big
at all -- generally below the minimum wage, despite the risks of prison and

Marin's conclusion is that the currently depressing equilibrium can be
overcome only by taking the money out of the drug market. Legalization
would be one means, perhaps a further ratcheting up of the drug war, with new
tactics, is another. On the latter, I would suggest that the previous twenty
years of ratcheting up the war on drugs don't leave great room for optimism.

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