IMAGINE a world where people addicted to cigarettes, alcohol or even prescription painkillers were plucked from society and treated as criminals. Sound like an invasion of privacy, a waste of resources or simply a bad idea? Current U.S. drug policy, which is mirrored by many countries throughout the world, dictates that illicit drug abusers are often treated in this way.
Granted, this analogy -- like any other -- isn't perfect. Different substances require different policies. Nonetheless, it is high time that the United States turns a critical eye towards its own strategies for tackling drug use. While wholesale legalization might yield the best results, the government doesn't need to necessarily go that far; simply emphasizing a public health approach over a criminal justice one could save money and have a positive effect on our communities.
For a sweeping reform of the current system, extensive legalization is one option. And this would certainly have enormous positive outcomes. The United Nations estimated in 2005 that illegal drug trade is worth about $321 billion annually. For those willing to accept the risks, this industry is a potential gold mine, lining the pockets of criminals, terrorists and corrupt public officials. Regulating this business would not only make it safer but could line governments' accounts with billions in tax revenue. Countries could certainly put this money to far better use than these illegitimate "narco-states" could.
Of course, the problem with outright legalization is that no one can reliably predict what the results will be. This is especially dependent on which substances are legalized. If the use of cocaine, for example, significantly increased, all of the positives mentioned above could easily be overshadowed by a public health crisis.
The problem with absolute prohibition is, quite simply, that it doesn't work. While the goal is noble and well-intentioned, a "drug-free world" simply isn't realistic. Ethan Nadelmann, founder and executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, argued this point in a Foreign Policy magazine article appearing last year. He pointed out a telling fact: in 1998, a U.N. General Assembly Special Session on drugs committed to "eliminating or significantly reducing the illicit cultivation of the coca bush, the cannabis plant, and the opium poppy by the year 2008." A decade later, the production of and demand for these substances are essentially the same, Nadelmann says.
While the heated debate over legalization rages on, something can be done in the meantime to ease the ill effects of this stalemate. By concentrating less resources on enforcing the criminalization aspect of drug policy, such as the cost of imprisonment, the United States can devote more funding to demand reduction and harm reduction programs.
While curbing demand for anything is extremely difficult, it has been done successfully. Take the case of smoking. Beginning in 1965, public service campaigns determined to highlight the risks of cigarette smoking hit the airwaves. Since then, smoking rates have been cut in half. Certainly some of the credit for this belongs to demand reduction efforts.
The harm reduction piece of the equation comes in the form of both prevention and rehabilitation. Syringe-exchange programs, the availability of antidotes and medication, and the expanded use of drug treatment facilities all are supported by groups such as the American Medical Association. Additionally, the expansion of these programs generally saves taxpayer money, as they are more economical front-end methods of spending that reduce back-end spending such as criminal justice and health care costs.
While such measures have been taken in the United States, they have also been slow in overcoming political inertia. The stigma associated with drug use and the power of social conservatism have made it politically advantageous to cling to the "War on Drugs" rhetoric, and treat substance abuse as a moral sin that must be eradicated. As a result, programs that seek to help addicts rather than punish them have had a difficult time getting enacted.
The repercussions of this should not be written off. According to Mathea Falco, the president of Drug Strategies, a nonprofit research institute, "Federal support for demand reduction is now about one third of the total drug budget, and treatment is available for only one in three of those who need help."
While adopting more public health strategies won't come close to ending the problems of drug abuse, it is a step in the right direction, and one that is long overdue.