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When people can legally drink, they suddenly begin committing way more crime

Another study shows the link between alcohol and crime.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

When Americans turn 21, they’re — finally! — allowed to buy alcohol. Most people look at this as a great opportunity to party and drink up legally for the first time.

But a new study comes with a buzzkill for these would-be partygoers: It turns out that suddenly letting everyone consume a drug linked to violence and accidents also tightly correlates with way more crime.

The study, from economists Benjamin Hansen and Glen Waddell, finds that once people turn 21, the number of crimes they commit — particularly lesser assault and drunk driving — increases by 10.6 percent. This chart puts the findings in pretty stark terms, showing that the number of crimes committed rises sharply at 21 years old:

This chart shows crime rising at age 21, when people can legally drink. Benjamin Hansen and Glen Waddell/NBER

The study looked at criminal charges filed in Oregon from 1990 to 2012. It didn’t find an increase in weapons-related assault, robbery, or rape. But it did find a sharp rise in assaults lacking in premeditation, disorderly conduct, and alcohol-related crimes, such as drunk driving and drinking at a public park. There were also increases in more minor crimes, like burglary and trespassing.

Notably, among people with no past criminal record, increases in crime are 50 percent larger overall. This suggests that preventing many of these crimes without restricting alcohol access may be quite difficult, since there’s often no criminal record on which to base a traditional prevention strategy.

The study mostly replicates a previous 2015 study that looked at the numbers from California, finding very similar results. One advantage to looking at Oregon data, the researchers wrote, is that Oregon’s legal age for buying a gun is 18, while California’s is 21 — a fact that made it hard to discern whether the spike in crime in California was linked to new access to guns or new access to alcohol.

The study doesn’t definitively prove that alcohol is linked to all these crimes. Maybe there is something else going on at 21 that could be driving a spike in crime.

But ultimately, the study suggests what most people likely know: Alcohol can make people do very stupid things. And some of those stupid things include crime.

Alcohol is a surprisingly common factor in crime

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Alcohol has been repeatedly linked to crime and violence. According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, alcohol is a factor in 40 percent of violent crimes. And a 2010 study found a strong relationship between alcohol stores and gun assaults. These statistics and research are one of the big reasons that possessing a gun while drunk is largely illegal.

“It’s a disinhibition theory,” Charles Branas, one of the 2010 study’s authors, previously told me. “So it’s not so much aggressiveness, but that decisions and judgment that would normally be held in check are suddenly disinhibited under consumption of alcohol.”

This doesn’t mean America should ban alcohol. When the country tried that in the 1920s and early 1930s, it was a disaster — leading to a spike in crime due to the massive criminal market for booze. But there are other policies that America could take up to limit alcohol-related problems:

  • A higher alcohol tax: A 2010 review of the research in the American Journal of Public Health came out with strong findings: “Our results suggest that doubling the alcohol tax would reduce alcohol-related mortality by an average of 35%, traffic crash deaths by 11%, sexually transmitted disease by 6%, violence by 2%, and crime by 1.4%.”
  • Reducing the number of alcohol outlets: A 2009 review published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine also found that limiting the number of alcohol outlets — through, for example, stricter licensing — in an area can limit problematic drinking and its dangers. But it also found that going too far can have negative results — by, for example, causing more car crashes as people take longer drives to outlets and possibly drink before returning home.
  • Revoking alcohol offenders’ right to drink: South Dakota’s 24/7 Sobriety program effectively revokes people’s right to drink if a court deems it necessary after an alcohol-related offense. The program, specifically, monitors offenders through twice-a-day breathalyzer tests or a bracelet that can track blood alcohol level, and jails them for one or two days for each failed test. Studies from the RAND Corporation have linked the program to drops in mortality, DUI arrests, and domestic violence arrests.
  • Put state governments in charge of selling alcohol: A 2014 report from RAND concluded that when state governments monopolize alcohol sales through state-run shops, they can keep prices higher, reduce access to youth, and reduce overall levels of use.

These are just a few of the ideas that policymakers and experts have put out there. There are many more ways to curtail alcohol consumption and abuse without outright banning it — a lesson that could perhaps be applicable in other aspects of drug policy.

The Oregon study, for its part, gives more powerful evidence that these policies could help prevent crime, especially among those who suddenly gain the legal right to drink.

Hat tip to Christopher Ingraham at the Washington Post for pointing out this study.


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