Use and abuse do not need a noose

By Yaroslav Mikhaylov

According to many, the United States government is marked by waste, with money spent on programs that simply don’t achieve results. With the current rhetorical focus on cutting such pointless costs, it’s time to examine a series of programs that cost the American taxpayers over $15 billion a year, with few positive results  – namely drug enforcement policies. The current system does little in terms of changing the behavior of drug users,  is continually expanding in its budget and mandate and is a misallocation of public funds.

US News
US News

Drug use and abuse fall into three categories – medicinal, recreational and addictive. People who use drugs for medicinal reasons are prescribed them or need to have them prescribed. They need a proper diagnosis of their illness and the prescription of a legal narcotic. Recreational users are often aware what they do is illegal, but prosecution for their high is an accepted risk, and fines or imprisonment are unlikely to change their habits. Finally, addicts are not rational regarding their drug use. No legal threat will have an effect on them because they need their substance of choice to survive. In short – criminal penalties for drug use don’t change users’ behavior.

The American war on drugs is also an ever-expanding enterprise costing more and more every year. Just between 2010 and 2011, $500 million has been added to the National Drug Control Budget. The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) now maintains five international task forces – essentially paramilitary units – to enforce American drug laws abroad. One of those is currently deployed in Afghanistan. Drugs, like terrorism, are considered an existential threat and no expense is spared to combat them – even if the efforts are misguided. None of the above costs include the cost of incarceration, either. The United States has a prison population of over two million inmates who each cost the government $22,000 annually, a large portion of which are non-violent offenders doing time for drug charges.

There are, however, alternatives. In 2000, Portugal decriminalized most drug use. Instead of being prosecuted criminally, drug users are referred to panels which refer the users to treatment and drug education programs. The money and manpower freed up from prosecuting drug users was instead used to target drug smugglers and cartels. British Journal of Criminology research showed this approach bore clear results: a 63 percent increase in the amount of drug users seeking treatment and a six-fold increase in drug shipments seized as a result of reallocated law enforcement priorities. More Portuguese drug users are being treated and counseled through their drug addictions and more drugs are being seized before they can make it to market. Similarly, 21 percent of the Dutch population – with their lax attitudes toward certain drugs – has reported trying controlled substances at least once in their life, compared to the United States’ 34 percent.

Drugs are such a large problem because our society makes them so. The drug war is very lucrative for companies that provide equipment, training and consultation to agencies such as the DEA and the Office of National Drug Control Policy. The criminalization of drug use drives it underground and treats drug addiction as a crime rather than a health problem. Absolved of our social responsibility to treat addiction, we can simply lock addicts away in dark prison cells for the bargain price of $60 a day.

From both a social view and an economic one, it makes sense to look at national drug policy and see how it can be reformed for the better. Our primary way of dealing with drug abuse – incarceration – is neither effective nor efficient. It rarely changes the behaviors of drug users and it costs a fortune even when it does. The approaches used by Portugal and the Netherlands may not be the right answer for the American drug problem, but it is clear that the current system is not working. Massachusetts took the first step two years ago by decriminalizing marijuana and allocating law enforcement resources to more important duties. This could be the groundwork for a new American drug policy, but wherever it originates, one thing is clear – we need a new drug policy.

Yaroslav Mikhaylov is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at [email protected]