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HIGH CRIMES: Sheriff says drugs are fueling the crime crisis in California

A California sheriff accused lawmakers of refusing to acknowledge the impact of permissive drug laws on rising crime. But how intertwined are the two issues?

A California sheriff blamed substance abuse for rising crime in his state and accused lawmakers of adding fuel to the fire with permissive drug laws. 

“In the shootings that we are involved with, where law enforcement is involved with a suspect that is shooting at us or we get involved in some type of officer-involved shooting,” Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco said, “almost all of them involve drug use.”

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Bianco added that the majority involve a substance like methamphetamine, heroin or alcohol combined with marijuana.

“Those are the statistics that nobody wants to hear,” he said. “Our lawmakers just refuse to have any type of dialog that has anything to do with fact or statistics, because the facts and the statistics show that we’re correct.”

The data around drug use, criminality and officer-involved shootings are often outdated or limited in scope.

More than 70% of people shot by police in San Bernardino County over six years exhibited signs of drug or alcohol use, according to an investigation by KPCC and The San Bernardino Sun. But that rate was more than twice as high as in Los Angeles County, despite similar rates of drug use in both locations.

Historically, alcohol has been more consistently associated with violence than any other drug, factoring into 19-37% of violent crimes between 1997 and 2008, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. But that may be changing as more than 20 states have legalized recreational marijuana since 2012.

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About 35% of state prisoners reported using drugs when they committed a violent offense, according to a 2016 BJS survey, while 34% reported using alcohol. The gap widened even farther for property crimes, when 49% of inmates reported using drugs and just 24% reported using alcohol.

“Almost all crime can be traced back to some type of a drug,” Bianco said, listing gang shootings, human trafficking, robberies and burglaries as examples. “They were either committed while on drugs or they were committed for drugs.”

He accused lawmakers of fueling the fire by making drugs “basically legal.” Bianco previously criticized the voter-approved Prop 47 — which downgraded many drug crimes from felonies to misdemeanors — for making it more difficult to force people into drug treatment programs.

“It’s causing a major increase in drug use in amongst our kids, amongst our adults,” he said. “That leads into crime where we’re seeing more violent crime — more crime in general — and it’s a spiral that we’ve got to start doing something to stop.”

Bianco acknowledged that police “only deal with the people that are committing crimes,” not casual drug users.

“It’s not the lawyer who smokes weed on the weekends or goes home and smokes a joint, or somebody that’s a casual smoker of marijuana and has been for years and they’re still highly functional,” he said. “They have a moral, ethical background that stops them from victimizing people. That’s not the population that law enforcement deals with.”

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Click here to hear more from Bianco.

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