The Drug War Yields Urban Casualties


Although the war in the Persian Gulf is over, the war bac home is escalating. The number of murders is breaking records in urban areas nationwide. Indeed, during the 100-hour ground war against Iraq, more Americans were gunned down on the streets of our cities than on the battlefield.

New figures last week showed increases from 1989 to 1990 in the number of murders in nine of the nation's ten largest cities.

Many blame the growing murder rate on a "culture of violence" fueled by greater firepower, as top-of-the-line weapons have increasingly become part of the urban landscape. But part of the violence may be the deadly residue of a stagnating illegal drug market. Thus, the good news about declining national drug use may in fact be bad news about drug-related violence.

Although drug statistics are hotly contested, most experts agree that the drug market boom is over and that overall drug consumption patterns are down.

The latest figures from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), although rough estimates at best, indicate this general trend. While there has been little success in lowering hard-core addiction, the crack market has stagnated (at about 500,000 users over the past two years), and casual use of any illicit drugs (the vast majority of the market) has dropped significantly, from 23 million in 1985 to 12.9 million in 1990. Casual use of cocaine has declined even more sharply, by 72 percent from 1985 to 1990.

With the drug market declining, a basic economic principle comes into play: When markets shrink, competition intensifies. When the market is illegal, competition is -- literally -- cutthroat. Force, not law, prevails as drug entrepreneurs compete by shooting each other rather than suing each other.

The greater the competition in the drug market, the greater the violence. The consequence is the kind of drug violence that is plaguing urban areas across the country.

The evolution of the drug market helps explain our present predicament.

Over the last decade, the growth of cocaine, and its cheap derivative, crack, fueled the underground drug trade. Some estimate the size of the U.S. drug market to be as high as $100 billion annually -- more than twice what the country spends on imported oil.

One consequence of this boom was the mobilization of a massive labor force in the 1980s to service the nation's seemingly unquenchable thirst for drugs. In cities such as Washington, New York and Los Angeles, where legal employment opportunities have been scarce, this meant primarily low-income minority youths who found an alternative outlet for their entrepreneurial talents in the expanding drug business.

The employment boom in the drug trade coincided with severe underemployment and unemployment in the legal economy. In hundreds of cities, "blue-collar industries that once constituted the urban economic backbone and provided entry-level employment opportunities for lesser educated residents either vanished or relocated elsewhere," says John Kassarda, director of the Center for Competitiveness and Employment Growth at the University of North Carolina. "With no prospect for upward mobility in the mainstream economy," he notes, "unskilled and uneducated black youth have sought access to a surrogate economy in which there is mobility -- the illicit and exploding underground drug economy."

But while the drug market has declined in recent years, the number of young drug-selling entrepreneurs has not. The tragic but logical result is brutal competition over smaller and smaller pieces of a shrinking pie. Thus, "turf wars" (battles for market shares) intensify, reflected in high numbers of drug-related homicides. These bitter economic realities in the drug market -- coupled by the easy availability of handguns -- has produced an explosive formula for mounting urban violence.

Many law enforcement officials confirm this trend. "Now, with a shrinking [drug] market, they [dealers] have to compete aggressively," notes Stephen Rickman, director of statistics analysis for the office of Criminal Justice Plans and Analysis. "That sparks a certain level of violence.

Also, the decline of the drug market helps fuel non-drug-related violence. According to Lawrence Sherman, president of the Crime Control Institute, a Washington think tank, "As kids under 18 got involved in drug dealing, they got armed. Even if drug dealing declines, they still have the guns. Once the guns have been stockpiled, you can expect they will be used in all kinds of disputes."

The killings will only increase as the drug economy suffers from the shocks of the post-boom period. To make matters worse, as the country slips deeper into a recession, legal alternatives are .. even more scarce. Despite the extreme occupational hazards of street dealing, the potential financial rewards of the drug trade will continue to attract new recruits.

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