National Drug Control Strategy: It Isn't Working
Government Seeking to Continue and Expand Past Failure
Below is an assessment of the failed U.S. drug policy from our friends at drcnet.org
The drug czar's office late last week released its final Clinton- era drug policy overview. Though it doesn't say so -- in fact, it claims quite the opposite -- this latest National Drug Control Strategy report documents a set of policies that have failed even by their own criteria while neglecting to mention the role that criminalization of drug use and the drug trade has in exacerbating the social harms it decries. (Visit http://www.whitehousedrugpolicy.gov/policy/ndcs01/strategy2001.pdf to read the "strategy" online.)
What's worse, the NDCS 2001 report promises only more of the same. And although, as the report notes on its first page, a revised strategy can be submitted at any time, there are no indications at this point that President-elect Bush has even chosen a new drug czar, let alone contemplated the rewriting of a strategy with which he seems to be in substantial agreement.
As the Strategy documents with a plethora of numbers, US drug policy is a failure of tragic proportions. Since 1990, ever-increasing federal government anti-drug spending has totaled more than $120 billion dollars, and that is not counting state and local expenditures.
The strategy identifies prevention (based on abstinence education) as a major goal, and enumerates an array of educational and media campaigns to prevent drug use, as well as the law enforcement apparatus that has arrested more than one million people per year for drug offenses throughout the 1990s, a million and a half last year.
So, is America getting its money's worth? Let's start with marijuana use. After declining from historic highs in the late 1970s, in 1990 10.9 million people were current smokers. After a decade of effort, the number had hardly changed, increasing slightly to 11.2 million. Among high school seniors, the number of current users increased from 13.8% in 1991 to 21.6% last year. The retail price of marijuana has stayed steady since declining in the early 1990s.
How about cocaine? Between 1992 and 1999, the number of cocaine users hovered between 1.4 and 1.5 million. Cocaine use did decline markedly from 1985 to 1992, in the wake of crack hysteria, the repressive new laws it engendered, and increasing popular awareness of the drug's nasty downside. [The Progress Report notes -- during those same years, the CIA gradually decreased its sponsorship and selling of the illegal drug.] But in the last decade, use was stable, with prices dropping as supply continued to enter the country despite interdiction and crop eradication efforts in source countries.
Heroin, maybe? Sorry, although the Strategy's spin is that heroin use is "stabilized," a chart on the very same page shows the number of current heroin users increasing from 694,000 to more than 980,000 over the course of the decade. Among high school seniors, past-year use increased dramatically, from 0.4% in 1990 to 1.5% last year. And although the feds seized at least a ton of heroin every year throughout the decade, they seemed to have no impact on price, which declined, or purity, which has been stable since the early 1990s.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but if this drug policy were subjected to the sort of cost-benefit analysis applied to just about any other major federal budget programs, its architects would be looking for new careers. Instead, they promise more of the same and Congress laps it up.
Locked into an abstinence-worshipping, prohibitionist policy stubbornly opposed by millions of American drug-using citizens who persist in their "undesirable behavior" despite all the prison cells built to accommodate them, the architects of this drug strategy are singularly devoid of any new ideas.
Harm reduction? Legalization? Decriminalization? The Strategy acknowledges that such approaches exist, but only notes them in an effort to defend its flanks. It does not seriously engage these perspectives; instead it makes only the bald assertion that if they were adopted, "the costs to the individual and society would grow astronomically."
And here we come to the great blind spot: The Strategy's inability or refusal to acknowledge the costs to the individual and society imposed by prohibition. It regales the reader with links between drugs and crime, but neglects to mention the role of the black market in inflating retail drug prices. It bemoans the rise of the drug cartels, but neglects to say precisely which Dr. Frankenstein created them. It clamors about the cost of law enforcement, but neglects to mention that if we quit arresting nonviolent drug users, we would eliminate one-third of all arrests. It demands public security, yet fails to explain how increasing vulnerability to traffic stops, drug searches, urine tests, and rampaging drug squads makes citizens more secure.
In one scene in the current hit movie "Traffic," the new drug czar asks his assembled advisors for new ideas as their jet skims over a bleak Mexican landscape. The ensuing silence is deafening. If only life didn't imitate art imitating life.
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