Over the past two years voters in seven
states and the District of Columbia
passed initiatives favoring medical
marijuana or decriminalization
of marijuana generally and treating drug
offenses as a health issue rather than a
law enforcement issue. Recently, a wide
array of groups, including the NAACP,
Volunteers of America, YWCA, the
Evangelical Lutheran Church of America,
the United Methodist Church
and the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, have
called for a new approach to drug control.
There are at least three good reasons for revaluation of our current
Does Not Protect
Last year almost 10 percent of America's
children between the ages of 12 and 17 used illegal drugs.
That's nearly twice the 1992 percentage.
Before graduating from
high school, half will try an illegal drug.
Throughout the last two decades approximately 90 percent
of high school students have said illegal drugs are easy for them to get
- easier than beer.
Advocates for the current policy claim
drug use has decreased since 1978. These claims are highly doubtful.
1) These figures come from a voluntary
survey conducted by the federal government. Do we think people will
be as honest about
their drug use in the repressive 90s as they would have been in the more permissive
70s? 2) Certain key populations, among them prisoners, are not included in the
3) Even according to this survey, last year, nearly 14 million Americans
used illegal drugs. That's an increase of over 1.5 million drug users since
the beginning of the Clinton Administration. 4) The health and social
problems associated with drugs have worsened since 1978 - overdose deaths
and mentions of drugs in hospital emergency rooms
are at record highs, while the spread of disease such as AIDS and hepatitis-C
These serious health problems are largely the result of prohibition which
makes it impossible to know the purity of illegal drugs, discourages people
from seeking prompt medical treatment for fear of incarceration, and often
prohibits the sale of sterile syringes thereby spreading disease.
Americans recognize the drug war is not working:
gangs and cartels are
getting richer; adolescents have easy access to drugs,
overdose deaths are at record highs. We are spending too much on a policy that doesn't work.
At the Federal level the drug control budget has increased from $9 billion
to $18 billion in less than a decade. Since the Reagan-era nearly $200
billion has been spent on the drug war by the federal government. Nationally
we spend approximately $50 billion annually on drug control.
Drugs are more potent and less expensive
despite record arrests and incarceration of drug offenders.
Since 1991, the price of pure heroin has dropped from over $3,000 per gram to $1,000 per gram, cocaine prices have dropped from $275 per gram to $94 per gram.
The economics of drug prohibition are undermining the economies and
democratic institutions in foreign countries. The drug market is a $400
billion per year industry, equaling 8% of the world's trade according
to the United Nations. The US Office of National Drug Control Policy
estimates that $57 billion is spent annually on drugs in the US alone.
Drug profits fuel insurgency movements, corrupt public officials and
undermine the world's economy because prohibition turns plants into
products more valuable than gold.
Arrest and incarceration rates are at record highs. Over 1.5 million
people are arrested each year for drug offenses, two-thirds for mere
possession according to the FBI. Nationally, 1.8 million Americans are
behind bars; 400,000 are incarcerated for drug offenses.
Only 11% of the nation's drug users are black; however, blacks
constitute almost 37% of those arrested for drug violations, over 42%
of those in federal prisons for drug violations, and almost 60% of those
in state prisons for drug felonies.
What Can We Do?
We can be more effective if we are pragmatic, base our policy
choices on the facts and are not afraid to face-up to the failure of
current policy. Citizens need to get informed, get active and help end
a very expensive and destructive policy. Future columns will
discuss alternatives to the drug war. To learn more now, please visit
www.csdp.org for alternative
approaches, accurate information and connections to reform-minded
organizations. And let us know how you or your organization can
help spread the reform message.