Daniel Crotty, Alumni
Law enforcement in the US made nearly 13.7 million arrests in 2009.(1) Over 1.6 million of those arrests were for drug abuse violations, the highest arrest count amongst all crime categories. With possession accounting for 81.6% of these drug-related arrests, and not sale or manufacture, it would appear that the consumer side of the illicit drug trade had suffered a severe defeat, with remaining users dealt a significant legal deterrent. However, the 2009 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) revealed 21.8 million Americans were currently using illicit drugs.(2) Furthermore, arrests for drug abuse violations have hit record numbers in the last decade, tripling since 1980, yet showing little impact on the steadily rising rates of the NSDUH.(3)
In the face of such overwhelming failures accomplished at great cost to the taxpayers, and the upcoming 2010 data promising similar embarrassment, the anti-drug status quo marches on without a single re-evaluation of its dogma. While this tenacity is well intentioned, punitive responses to what is primarily a health issue damage the credibility of the War on Drugs. What is often forgotten in discussions about violent drug traffickers, money launderers and narco-terrorists (evils birthed by prohibition) are the purposes for initially enacting a prohibition: 1) protecting the public from users and 2) protecting current and would-be users from the dangers of drug use by stamping out the substance. Despite these noble goals, when comparing the current situation with late 19th-century America, “a society in which there were almost no drug laws or even drug regulations… levels of drug use were about what they are today.”(4) Given the ultimate futility of criminally prosecuting drug abuse violators, it is essential to assess the progress, methodology, and justifications utilized in the War on Drugs.
Drug users can threaten the public in two fashions: 1) crimes committed while on drugs and 2) crimes committed for drugs. The notion of users breaking the law while high does have merit, but is challenged when presented with evidence of the relationship between alcohol and crime. The most recent data reveals that “an estimated 37% of state prisoners serving time for a violent offense in 2004 said they were under the influence of alcohol at the time of the offense.”(5) When compared to the 28% of state prisoners who committed their violent offense while on drugs, the legitimacy of targeting branded illicit substances, and not alcohol, is called into question.(6)
Government data provides evidence of the second threat drug users present, as over 15% of state and federal prisoners admit to committing their offense purely to support their drug habits.(7) Although the seriousness of these crimes cannot be diminished, it must be noted that the majority of these users were not breaking the law to support a marijuana addiction. Therefore, it is perplexing that marijuana arrests have skyrocketed since the early 1990s, while heroin and cocaine arrests, which peaked in the late 1980s, have seen somewhat of a decline. Even recent attempts to legalize marijuana and free up legal resources, such as California’s Proposition 19, have been firmly opposed by law enforcement, best embodied in Attorney General Eric Holder’s promise to “vigorously enforce”(8) federal laws no matter what the outcome of the election. Countering the threat of “hard” drug users willing to commit crimes to feed their addictions has been sidestepped in favor of capturing non-violent pot smokers, who have committed no crime other than consuming cannabis. Such outcomes illustrate the uncompromising nature of anti-drug agencies and their fidelity to the bureaucratic framework that continues to fund their battles, disregarding decades of defeat.
Prohibition has not only been ineffective in reducing the number of drug users—“drug overdose death rates in the United States have never been higher.”(9) Death rates have quintupled since the 1990s, an increase largely attributable to prescription opioid painkillers, such as OxyContin and Vicodin. Despite being responsible for nearly 40% of the 27,658 unintentional drug overdose deaths in 2007, and killing nearly twice as many people as cocaine and more than five times as many people as heroin, the prescription drug market continues to exist, with health care providers being advised to strictly monitor the pharmaceutical intake of their patients.
Lacking the safeguard of supervising medical authorities or protective legal status, the illicit drug market is self-regulating by necessity, with users exchanging information in an effort to ingest their drugs as safely as possible. Ecstasy users, for example, can purchase pill testing kits to measure the chemical composition of their tablets, then share the results on sites like pillreports.com. The stability of this system can be seen in the steady overdose death rate from the 1970s until just before the explosion of opioid painkiller prescriptions in the 1990s.
Unfortunately, certain drug communities have limited options with regards to safety due to legal constraints. Forced into sharing needles due to the restricted status of syringes, HIV and AIDS devastated the injection drug user (IDU) community. At its worst, IDUs accounted for 31% of all AIDS diagnoses in 1993, before gradual dropping to 16% in 2008.(10) This reduction from 24,372 AIDS diagnoses for IDUs to 6,338 coincided with the eruption of syringe exchange programs (SEPs) throughout the 1990s.(11) SEPs provide clean needles for IDUs, in addition to other health information and services. Despite evidence that “SEPs do not encourage drug use among SEP participants or the recruitment of first-time drug users,”(12) nor do they increase the number of used discarded syringes, SEPs had spent the last two decades being denied federal funding until the ban was lifted in late 2009.(13) The ban against federal SEP funding represents the most hypocritical stance of the current prohibition regime. In attempting to protect IDUs from harm, the restriction of clean syringes only threw IDUs into greater danger by directly exposing them to blood-borne infections. The steps taken to correct this action (SEPs) were then limited to state, local, and private funding. The government is taking the stance that rather than pay around a dollar per syringe, it would prefer that IDUs contract blood-borne infections, and pay the endured health costs then.
Current drug policy does nothing to limit the number of drug users. Current drug policy targets substances that have no greater connection to crime than alcohol. Current drug policy attacks users who represent no threat to the public. Current drug policy has seen overdose deaths soar and has denied reasonable measures to alleviate the suffering. The status quo may seem set but there was a time before prohibition and, one day, there will be a time after it.
1) Arrests – Crime in the United States 2009
2) 2009 National Survey on Drug Use and Health Highlights
3) Bureau of Justice Statistics – Drugs and Crime Facts: Drug Law Violations and Enforcement
4) Drug Prohibition in the United States: Costs, Consequences, and Alternatives
5) Bureau of Justice Statistics – Alcohol and Violent Crime in the US: Table 31. Alcohol Use At The Time Of Offense By State And Federal Prisoners, By Type Of Offense, 2004
6) Bureau of Justice Statistics – Drug Use And Dependence, State And Federal Prisoners, 2004
7) Bureau of Justice Statistics – Drugs and Crime Facts: Drug Use and Crime
8) Prop19 – US Drug Czar Criticizes Prop. 19
9) CDC’s Issue Brief: Unintentional Drug Poisoning in the United States
10) HIV Surveillance in Injection Drug Users (IDU)
11) Syringe Exchange Programs – United States, 2008
12) Syringe Exchange Programs
13) Ban Lifted On Federal Funding For Needle Exchange