Rx for U.S. Drug Policy: A New Paradigm
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No sensible person doubts that drugs can cause enormous harm. They can ruin lives. They are implicated in a wide range of crimes, and they enrich criminals. Drug trafficking fosters extraordinary brutality, endangers innocent citizens, and undercuts the development and practice of democracy by corrupting public officials in numerous countries, including the United States. That said, there remains considerable disagreement over the nature and extent of drug-related harm, the factors that contribute to its many facets, and the best ways to go about addressing the numerous issues that cluster together under the canopy of “the drug problem.”
For more than a century, beginning with the passing of the Harrison Narcotic Act in 1914, U.S. drug policy has been based on the concept of prohibition, on the desire for a “drug-free America” with “zero tolerance” for drug users, producers, and traffickers. For the last 40 years, it has been known as the War on Drugs. It is truly a war, with all the hallmarks of war: displaced populations, disrupted economies, excessive violence, terrorism, the use of military force, the curtailment of civil liberties, and the demonizing of enemies. And like other wars we have been engaged in over this same period, victory has been elusive.
In the Baker Institute’s Drug Policy Program, we are convinced that U.S. drug policy, as presently designed, is premised on incorrect assumptions, aimed at the wrong targets, and too often unresponsive to human needs and aspirations. Unfortunately, that is not a new insight. In fact, apart from the reference to the Baker Institute, that sentence is a verbatim quote from the 1973 report of the National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse, appointed by President Richard Nixon, led by former Republican governor of Pennsylvania Raymond P. Shafer, and comprising a blue-ribbon panel of establishment figures chosen mostly by Nixon himself.
On June 17, 1971, Nixon announced that his administration was about to launch a “total war against Public Enemy Number One in the United States—the problem of dangerous drugs.” He did not use the words “War on Drugs,” but he characterized the effort as “a new, all-out offensive.” In a taped conversation with his chief of staff H.R. Haldeman in May, he had said, “I want a goddamn strong statement on marijuana … I mean one on marijuana that just tears the ass out of them. By God, we are going to hit the marijuana thing, and I want to hit it right square in the puss … against legalizing and all that sort of thing.”
Nixon’s plan was foiled by facts. In March 1972, the commission issued a preliminary report, Marihuana, A Signal of Misunderstanding, which declared that “neither the marihuana user nor the drug itself can be said to constitute a danger to public safety” and recommended that Congress and state legislatures decriminalize the use and casual distribution of marijuana and seek means other than prohibition to discourage use. Endorsers of these recommendations included the American Medical Association, the American Bar Association, the American Association for Public Health, the National Education Association, and the National Council of Churches.
Nixon angrily rejected the report and Congress declined to consider its recommendations, but the Shafer Commission pressed on and a year later ISSN 1941-6466 2 issued a second, more comprehensive report, Drug Use in America: Problem in Perspective. Nixon also ignored that one, declaring his intention to ratchet up his “attack on all fronts” in an “all-out war,” and “just kick the hell out of it.” He proposed and Congress approved the creation of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), which merged existing anti-drug agencies into a single federal agency charged with coordinating government drug control actions. Forty years later, the DEA is one of the largest and most powerful agencies in the government, with a worldwide reach.
Since 1973, federal, state, and local governments have spent an estimated $1 trillion on eradication, interdiction, and incarceration. They have destroyed thousands of acres of crops, seized countless tons of contraband, and imprisoned more people than any other country in the world, a disproportionate number of them poor and black. Despite these efforts, illicit drugs continue to be available to meet a remarkably stable demand. As the Shafer Commission observed, “Drug policy can be thus summed up: increased use of disapproved drugs precipitates more spending, more programs, more arrests, and more penalties, all with little positive effect in reducing use of these drugs.”
Because that same statement holds true 40 years later, the NAACP, the US Conference of Mayors, the Latin American and Global Commissions on Drugs and Democracy, the Organization of American States, a growing number of influential think tanks and advocacy groups, and more than 80 percent of Americans regard the War on Drugs as a failure. Still, a century of anti-drug propaganda has shaped a set of convictions that serve as formidable barriers to sensible, humane drug policy, despite clear evidence that the propaganda is fraudulent. Current U.S. drug policy can never succeed. We need a new paradigm. Fortunately, we have the material to construct one.
After its surveys revealed a marked disjunction between public perception and empirical reality, the Shafer Commission urged federal and other levels of government to “maintain and monitor an ongoing collection of data necessary for present and prospective policy planning, including data on incidence, nature, and consequences of drug use.” That recommendation has been well satisfied. Monitoring the Future (MTF), begun in 1975, questions approximately 50,000 teens annually, with follow-ups in later years. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH)6 interviews approximately 70,000 people 12 years and older annually. These surveys, which qualify as big data, provide a rich and revealing picture of drug use in America and are consistently confirmed by other surveys. Still, although the information is available to anyone with a computer, few people appear to know the size or actual contours of drug use in this country, and the data play only a small role in public policy, mass media presentations, and popular perception.
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