Vice Squad
Wednesday, January 21, 2004
Chemical Determinism?

There was a gruesome mass slaying in Gary, Indiana, last Friday night. Four people (all related) were shot and killed inside a home, including a toddler not quite two years old. The murdered adults may have been involved in the drug trade, according to this article (registration required) in Monday's Chicago Tribune. Here's an excerpt: "Police found about $8,000 in cash, firearms and what appeared to be crack and powdered cocaine inside the two-story building. Investigators believe the house was a drug buying spot, and that the slayings could have stemmed from a heist gone awry."

Once again, it appears that these murders are drug-law-related, in that drug dealers attract robbers precisely because dealers (or even users) cannot easily turn to the police for protection. But in this case, I won't harp on this persistent Vice Squad theme, the huge toll that our drug laws take on our friends and neighbors. Rather, consider the subsequent paragraph in the linked Chicago Tribune article: "Police don't know why the toddler was killed, and theorize that the assailants might have been under the influence of drugs. Gary has a problem with formaldehyde-dipped marijuana joints --known as "sherm sticks"--that can cause bizarre behavior, [a police sergeant] said.

I have never heard of sherm sticks before, but I nevertheless think that it is unlikely that they "cause" bizarre behavior -- even if the people who smoke sherm sticks do behave bizarrely, and even if their behavior tends to be more bizarre when they are under the influence. It is common to attribute criminogenic properties to drugs, especially unfamiliar drugs that are used by unsavory "others." This has been the fate of many drugs over the years, including cocaine, crack cocaine, marijuana, PCP, methamphetamine, and on and on. But the evidence that drug consumption per se causes violent or bizarre behavior just isn't there, in general. Do you think that the assailants (there probably were multiple assailants, as casings from three guns were found) in the Gary murders would have killed these people if 20 armed police were surrounding them? If not, then the drugs were not the "cause" of the bizarre behavior. Very little crime which typically is described as drug-related is due to the psychoactive properties of the drugs working on the minds of users. (Indeed, most "drug-related crime" is really "drug-law-related.") The most-likely exception might be alcohol.

The general untenability of the claim that some psychoactive drug use causes crime is addressed at length in Chapter 6 of Jacob Sullum's Saying Yes.

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