Calculating the economic cost of drug-related crime

Aug 31 2017

Calculating the economic cost of drug-related crime

“Drugs and crime go hand in hand.”

It’s a message that’s been burned into our minds since before Nixon declared his War on Drugs. But it’s also an overly simple message that belies the complex nature of the problem and has more often provided an excuse for authorities to target minority populations than it has a roadmap for social services. Despite acting as a barrier to progress, it’s an idea that still maintains a firm place in many Americans’ conception of drugs and their effects.

Perhaps that’s why a new study looked to reduce the human aspect of the drug problem even further by trying to determine the economic cost of drug-related crime, and the savings that could be gained from people going to treatment.

Researchers from British Columbia and UCLA looked at over 30,000 patients who were admitted to treatment for opioid use disorders in California. Each participant was going to treatment for the first time, and they each received services from a publicly-funded treatment provider. Researchers then looked at all interactions between the individuals and the criminal justice system and tried to determine the total cost of any crimes those individuals committed and the amount that could be saved by going to treatment.

The study was funded by the National Institutes of Health and found that “daily costs of crime during treatment compared with after treatment were $126 lower for opioid agonist treatment (OAT) and $144 lower for detoxification.” When looking at the six-month period after initiating treatment, researchers “estimated that enrolling an individual in OAT as opposed to detoxification would save $17,550.”

Researchers also noted that treatment provides a benefit not just because of its potential for crime reduction, but also savings in healthcare costs and worker productivity.

Ostensibly, the goal of the study was to see if publicly-funded treatment would provide a cost benefit to taxpayers by reducing the amount of crime committed by drug users. While providing pathways to treatment instead of criminal prosecution is a worthwhile pursuit, the study by its very design seems to reinforce the false message that all drug users are criminals. It suggests that users will eventually commit crimes, it’s just a matter of when, and offers treatment as the only means by which to avoid these behaviors.

The message from the NIH fails to acknowledge that many users’ first interactions with the criminal justice system are a direct result of drugs themselves being criminalized. Were they to be decriminalized, how much more money could be saved as a result?

Overall, the study may be an argument for the benefit of treatment, a message that shouldn’t be lost in the politics of the criminal justice system. But let’s not be disingenuous about the relationship between drugs and crime, and let’s certainly not continue false messaging that leads to prejudice and destructive social policies.