Study: U.S. Losing War on Drugs

Discussion in 'Marijuana News' started by Superjoint, Jun 27, 2001.

  1. By Stephanie K. Taylor
    Source: United Press International

    The United States is losing the war on drugs because of the shortcomings and failures of current U.S. drug policy, says a recent report from a major think tank. U.S. policy, which is focused on interdiction and incarceration, has failed to reduce the availability of drugs, while forcing U.S. anti-drug institutions to watch helplessly as street prices of illegal substances mysteriously fell, said the report.
    The report's author Peter Reuter -- a drug policy analyst with the RAND Institute and the founder and former director of RAND's Drug Policy Research Center -- said that this failure occurred despite a more than threefold increase in allotted drug war spending, from $10 billion annually in the 1980s to $35 billion in the late 1990s.

    The paper, "Supply-Side Drug Control," published in the Milken Institute Review in May, said that three-fourths of that $35 billion (of which $18 billion is spent by the federal government and the rest spent by state and local governments), is spent on apprehending and punishing drug dealers and users.

    Most of the people who are incarcerated for drug selling are from the bottom level of the distribution system, the report said.

    The report acknowledges the success of the enforcement policy in keeping the price of drugs high. It cites operations researcher Jonathan Caulkins, who estimates that, if legal, cocaine might retail for as little as $5 a gram. It currently retails for $100 a gram.

    It currently costs $10,000 to ship a kilogram (2.2 pounds) of cocaine from Bogota, Colombia, to Miami, but if cocaine were legal, Federal Express would charge only a $100, Reuter said.

    "The real question, though, is not whether interdiction raises the price of illicit drugs, but whether it is possible through tougher enforcement to make the drugs much more expensive and less accessible than they are now," Reuter wrote. "And to date, smugglers' adaptability has limited the success of interdiction surges."

    So, although the drug problem is "gradually lessening," Reuter said that this has been accomplished at great cost through many dimensions.

    Reuter is not alone in his low appraisal of current U.S. drug policy. Think tank scholars on both sides of the political spectrum acknowledge the limitations of the current policy, and experts from both the right and left say the U.S. needs to begin to look at the drug problem as a public health problem and not a criminal problem.

    Timothy Lynch, director of the Project on Criminal Justice at the libertarian Cato Institute, says even government officials see limitations of the current policy.

    "Well, we've maintained for a long time that the government's efforts have been quite ineffective," Lynch says. "And most government officials who are candid will admit this."

    Sanho Tree, director of the Drug Policy Project at the liberal Institute for Policy Studies, agrees that the current enforcement-based policy has been ineffective in curtailing the U.S. drug problem.

    "Perhaps there is some level of coercion that would work, but I seriously doubt that we would want to live in that type of society," Tree said, citing the Iranian government as an example.

    Lynch cites corruption within law enforcement units, drug overdose-related deaths, and addicts' petty thefts to finance their habits as a few of society's ills that have resulted from an enforcement-based drug policy.

    Law enforcement units not only turn a blind eye to illegal activity as a result of bribery, but perform official duties such as arrests and search and seizures to aid gangs in the current atmosphere of gang rivalry.

    What's Lynch's standard libertarian answer to these criminal justice and public health challenges? The decriminalization of drugs.

    "We have to have a whole new approach to the problem of drug abuse," Lynch says. "Should somebody go to jail just for using drugs? No."

    And some liberals can understand Lynch's reasoning.

    "Prohibition doesn't mean that we control drugs, but that we have given up the right to control drugs," Tree says.

    Lynch says that in a legal regime the so-called black market violence that results from gang rivalry would decrease, along with the number of petty crimes addicts commit to finance their habits, and that drugs would be much less expensive.

    Lynch also thinks there would be significant improvements in public health. The legalization of drugs would allow the government to regulate the quality of drugs, reducing the number of overdose deaths that result from impure products, Lynch says, and addicts would no longer be forced to share needles that can transmit HIV.

    However, Sally Satel, M.D., the W. H. Brady fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, warns of more addicts and the social pathology that she believes would result with the decriminalization of hard drugs.

    Satel acknowledges legitimate concerns about the current drug policy. However, based on her experience as a staff psychiatrist at the Oasis Drug Treatment Clinic in Washington, she is more worried about the massive trade-offs -- more users addicted to cheaper and easier-to-obtain drugs--that she thinks would be brought by decriminalization.

    "Maybe there are some aspects of the current system that we can save," Satel says.

    Tree does not think decriminalization is necessarily the solution to the current policy woes, although he does see the need to regulate drugs. He believes there are a variety of policy options between prohibition and legalization that should be tested.

    Top priority, however, should be universal treatment on request, he says. Insufficient funding sometimes forces clinics to turn away addicts for several months, Tree says, and they may or may not return months later for help.

    Treatment programs seem to very popular with think tank scholars, and Satel also supports an increased focus on diverting addicts to treatment. Although he does not think they are the sole solution, Reuter writes that treatment programs have proven themselves effective and are also desirable in terms of benefit to cost.

    While most of them support treatment, think tanks analysts say that the other leg of demand-based policy--prevention programs--are currently unsuccessful. Reuter's report criticizes the DARE program -- which is ubiquitous in schools across the country -- and he is doubtful about the effectiveness of any type of prevention program.

    "There is no reason to believe that we know how to immunize kids against drug abuse," he writes.

    Tree would also like to see the DARE program abandoned. Although he doesn't know exactly what type of program should replace it, he believes the government should experiment with a variety of approaches.

    Think tank scholars on all sides of the ideological debate seem to realize the ineffectiveness of current U.S. drug policy, but most are uncertain about what steps to take to fix the problem.

    "I don't know what an ideal drug policy would like," Tree says, "but I know what the contours of such a policy would look like." It would be based on European models, but adapted to fit with the cultural differences in the U.S., he says.

    Tree is dissatisfied with what he sees as a lack of flexibility to explore new approaches to drug policy. "Our current policy doesn't work, but we're not being allowed to experiment with what might," he says.

    Source: United Press International
    Author: Stephanie K. Taylor
    Published: Tuesday, June 26, 2001
    Copyright 2001 by United Press International

    Related Article & Web Sites:

    Cato Institute:

    RAND Corporation:

    Institute for Policy Studies:

    Colombia Drug War News:
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