Did Crack Cause the ’80s Crime Spree?

As journalists cast around for explanations for the sharp decline in violent crime in the U.S. since 1991, they’ve seized on the waning of the “crack epidemic” of the 1980s as one crucial factor. In the past week alone, for example, Gregg Easterbrook, in a cover story in the New Republic on how great life in America is, writes, “Conspicuous in recent crime trends is the decline of crack,” while in today’s New York Times Fox Butterfield emphasizes “the critical role of crack in leading violent crime up and then down.”

The decline in crack and the beneficent effect of that decline on urban crime rates both seem plausible, but one of the odd things about all these articles and studies is that only rarely do they have any hard statistics on crack usage. (Neither Easterbrook nor Butterfield cite any numbers on actual usage.) Even more perplexing is the explanation offered for the mysterious drop in popularity of a drug that was once described as uniquely addictive, namely that, as Easterbrook puts it, “The ‘90s generation of inner-city kids, having seen the medically destructive effects of crack and the self-genocide produced in minority communities, wants little to do with the opiate of the ‘80s.” (Butterfield, citing two criminologists, makes the identical argument.)

Obviously, there’s something pleasing about this argument, and about the image of young people recoiling from the devastation of their communities. But it’s unclear why the young people of the 1980s, who were witnessing that same devastation as it was occurring, wouldn’t have recoiled in the same way. There wasn’t ever a time when people thought crack was harmless. As soon as it hit, the havoc it wreaked was palpable. Similarly, the idea of teenagers turning down a drug because of its “medically destructive effects”, comforting as it may be to the folks at DARE, sounds, well, a bit improbable.

And even if young people aren’t flocking to crack the way they did in the 1980s (assuming it was young people who did flock), what happened to all the crack users of the 1980s? The vast majority of them didn’t die, and given our stingy funding of drug treatment, most of them probably didn’t go through rehab. Did they just kick on their own because of the drug’s “medically destructive effects”? If they are still using, where are they buying?

The “where are they buying” question is an interesting one because sometimes journalists suggest that the real change is not that young people no longer use crack, but rather that they will no longer sell it. If true, this would represent a rather serious challenge to neoclassical economics, since it would be one of the first times in history that sellers did not materialize to meet demand for a product. And that, I think, suggests that something else must be going on here.

Unfortunately, I don’t know what that something is. But there are a few interesting possibilities. One is that drugs, like everything else, are subject to the vagaries of popular taste, and that just as teens today prefer brown shoes to Nikes, so they have lost interest in crack. (This is similar to the received wisdom, but slightly different from it). Another is that crack use has declined because crack users were more price-sensitive than we imagined they were, since the price of cocaine has risen significantly this decade, and presumably the price of crack has done the same. Another, of course, is that harsher sentences worked, so that dealing’s risk-to-reward ratio has risen significantly. Finally, one could argue that the drug wars of the 1980s were typical of an illegal industry in its early stages, the equivalent of the kind of competition you saw among auto companies in the first part of this century, and that the relative calm we’re seeing now is the product of consolidation. As the number of players has shrunk, so too has the violence.

Some of these factors have been important and some haven’t. But we’ll have to move past the simple explanation offered by the “younger brother effect” before we can find out which is which.