Crime and (a Preference for) Punishment: The Effects of Drug Policy Reform on Policing Activity

33 Pages Posted: 2 Mar 2021 Last revised: 26 Sep 2021

See all articles by Adam Soliman

Adam Soliman

Duke University, Department of Economics

Date Written: June 25, 2021


We still know very little about the incentives of police, often due to data constraints and the underlying policy environment. Using geocoded crime data and a novel source of within-city spatial and temporal variation in punishment severity, I am able to shed light on enforcement behavior. I find that in parts of a city where drug penalties were weakened, there is a 13% decrease in drug arrests within a year; there is no displacement of non-drug offenses and majority black neighborhoods have a larger decline in drug arrests. If offenders were significantly deterred by harsher penalties, as the law intended and Becker’s (1968) model predicts, there should have been an increase in drug arrests. My results are therefore consistent with police treating enforcement effort and punishment severity as complementary. I also find that citywide crime and drug use do not increase following the weakening of drug penalties; this calls into question the "War on Drugs" view of punishment and suggests that certain types enforcement can be reduced without incurring large public safety costs.

Keywords: crime, enforcement, deterrence, punishment, enhanced penalty zones

JEL Classification: K40, K42, H40

Suggested Citation

Soliman, Adam, Crime and (a Preference for) Punishment: The Effects of Drug Policy Reform on Policing Activity (June 25, 2021). Economic Research Initiatives at Duke (ERID) Working Paper No. 303, Available at SSRN: or

Adam Soliman (Contact Author)

Duke University, Department of Economics ( email )

419 Chapel Drive
213 Social Sciences Building, Box 90097
Durham, NC 27708-0097
United States


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