The current model of drug control relies primarily on law enforcement to seize drugs and imprison drug offenders. While these efforts have produced large numbers of arrests, incarcerations and seizures, drug overdose deaths have increased 540% since 1980 and drug-related problems have worsened:1 emergency room visits, adolescent drug use, and the spread of disease (particularly AIDS and hepatitis) have also risen substantially and drug-related crime continues at high levels. In an effort to minimize drug-related crime, illness and death, the Effective National Drug Control Strategy advocates a policy which emphasizes public health approaches to drug control.
How many people must we incarcerate for current drug policy to work?
Figure 1 Sources: Bureau of Justice Statistics. Trends in US Correctional Populations, 1995. US Department of Justice; National Institute on Drug Abuse. Data from the Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN): Annual Medical Examiner Data, [1981-1991]; Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Data from the Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN): Annual Medical Examiner Data, [1992-1997].
The drug war has succeeded in arresting and incarcerating large numbers of people. There are over 1.7 million Americans behind bars. As of June 1996, 5.5 million Americans were under some form of control by the justice system. This translates into 1 out of every 35 adults in the nation.2 According to the Department of Justice, 85% of the increase in the federal prison population from 1985 to 1995 was due to drug convictions.3 Figure 1 illustrates the massive expansion of drug offenders in the jail and prison population, which has increased nearly 12-fold from 1980 to 1995, and a strikingly similar rise in drug overdose deaths over the same period. The graph cannot express the financial and psychological damage endured by the children and spouses of those incarcerated. Nor does it express the damage that certain communities and racial groups experience. For example, black males born today have a nearly one in three chance of going to prison.4
Current government policy seeks to prevent children from gaining access to illegal substances. Since 1975, the federal government has been asking high school seniors how easy it is for them to obtain marijuana. Illustrated by Figure 2 on the left, adolescents' access to marijuana is virtually unchanged by the drug war. In 1975, 87% of youths said it was very easy or fairly easy to obtain marijuana. Twenty-three years and millions of arrests later, 89.6% said it was easily obtained. Has the drug war succeeded in reducing adolescents' access to drugs?
Since 1992, federal surveys show there has been a rise in adolescent drug use. This has coincided with record spending, record arrests and record incarceration rates. The drug war has escalated for decades, but has not resulted in less adolescent drug use.
Drug crimes receive some of the most severe criminal sanctions in our legal system. Based on federal surveys and by definition of state and federal law, more than 50% of all high school seniors are drug criminals who should be imprisoned. Is this a realistic or appropriate approach to controlling juvenile drug use? If not, then why should only some be arrested?
The current model of youth drug control essentially relies on the random chance of arrest, coupled with an increasing use of locker searches, drug-sniffing dogs, and just say no television ads to reduce adolescent drug use. These are unsophisticated approaches to youth drug use that are not based on strategies proven to work. The evidence shows that these strategies have not decreased the availability of drugs for school-aged kids, nor has it deterred their use of drugs.Does the current drug control strategy reduce the supply of drugs and raise their price?
The indicators of a successful supply-reduction effort are rising drug prices and decreasing drug purity levels.5 Using data supplied by the ONDCP (Office of National Drug Control Policy), it is clear that the price of heroin has instead dropped significantly over time, while its production has risen greatly. The price of cocaine has similarly dropped from $275.12 per gram in 1981 to $94.52 in 1996.
Despite massive investments in border patrols, overseas crop eradication efforts, Department of Defense involvement and arrests of drug smugglers and drug dealers, the drug war has not reduced the supply of drugs nor made them more costly to obtain.
The market prices for illegal drugs follow the same laws of supply and demand that apply to all commodities. The drug war creates an artificially high commodity price, and these huge profit margins have encouraged more drug producers to enter the market. Greater production has created economies of scale. Lower production costs allow drug cartels to earn the same high profit margins with lower retail prices. The cartels accommodate for interdiction efforts by over-producing their commodity to account for the losses. Since a kilogram of raw opium has been reported to sell for $90 in Pakistan, but is worth $290,000 in the United States, law enforcement seizures at our borders have very little impact on cartel operations or profitability.6Does the current strategy protect public health?
Easy availability, increased purity and lowered prices have resulted in high levels of overdose deaths and hospital emergency room drug episodes. Figure 6 illustrates the steady rise in emergency room drug episodes as recorded by the Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN).
Even more alarming has been the devastating expansion of the HIV and Hepatitis C epidemics due to the prohibition on needle possession. Sharing of needles is an engine for the spread of HIV and Hepatitis C. Each day 33 more people are infected with HIV due to injection drug use.7 The epidemics have been particularly onerous on African-American and Latino communities. By the end of 1997, it was estimated that more than 110,000 African-Americans and 55,000 Latinos were living with injection-related AIDS or had already died from it.8
These facts make it hard to avoid the conclusion that the current model of drug control: 1) does not reduce adolescent drug use; 2) does not reduce the supply of drugs; 3) does not reduce the harm caused by drugs.
It is time to develop a drug strategy that works.
Since we are failing to reduce the supply and use of drugs, while incarcerating record numbers of drug offenders, we need to accept that criminal laws cannot effectively solve the complex issue of drug use. Indeed, there is mounting evidence that the extreme criminal sanctions we employ today may actually worsen some of the problems of drug abuse. The Effective National Drug Control Strategy provides a detailed alternative model of drug control based on sound research and empirical evidence, and was developed by a wide range of professional associations. The Effective Strategy emphasizes public health approaches, investment in our children and confronting the underlying economic and social problems, which are the root causes of drug abuse. As can be seen from the chart below, the Effective Strategy seeks to balance law enforcement, treatment and prevention efforts. As this strategy takes effect we expect that law enforcement's role in drug enforcement can be reduced further. We urge that five years after implementation, the policy be evaluated and a longer term strategy be developed.