BY: DANIEL KORN
Illegal drug trade is a huge problem internationally for a few reasons. While drug-related murders only account for an estimated 5% of all murders in the United States, it becomes much worse in developing countries. Honduras, the country with the highest murder rate in the world, is also a country that 79% of the United States’ cocaine passes through. Meanwhile, the Mexican government estimates that 90% of violence on the Mexican-U.S. border is related to the drug trade. Aside from this shocking loss-of-life, hundreds of billions of dollars (estimates on the true cost of the drug trade vary) are sapped away from the economy thanks to the illicit drug trade. And due to overly-strict drug use and possession punishment laws, the total U.S. prison population has quadrupled in the past 30 years to become the largest prison population in the world, with at least 1.5 million inmates incarcerated in 2013, and quite possibly about a million more.
The war on drugs has been very inefficient in decreasing addiction while spending has risen steadily each year.
Steps are being taken to help rectify this, but it’s not enough. Brute force police crackdowns have been the United States government’s primary method of quelling the ongoing drug crisis, even though decades-old research has proven that drug abuse treatments are much more cost-effective and long-lasting.
In 1995, a study by RAND Corporation—a non-profit think tank dedicated to improving government policies through research and analysis—laid out the problem, specifically focusing on the cocaine epidemic. Though the number of cocaine users had gone down from 12 million in the 1980s to five million in 1992, the total amount of cocaine consumed remained the same as its mid-1980s peak. The number of heavy users – defined as individuals who used once a week or more – was growing. Essentially, this meant that while the participants may have changed, the drug trade and its consequences remained the same.
By looking at the annual cost of reducing cocaine consumption by 1% a year through various programs – including domestic enforcement, control in source countries, interdiction at borders, and treatment for drug abuse – some pretty decisive results were found. To wit, an increase of $34-million per year for treatment was easily the most cost-effective way to cut consumption by that average 1%. For comparison’s sake, the second most economically efficient method—local law enforcement—would cost an increase of more than five times that amount, and the most expensive—cutting supplies at the source—almost 20 times. And it keeps people off drugs more readily than punishment too, as 80% of individuals in treatment programs stay off drugs during treatment, and about 13% of heavy users either stop using entirely or greatly reduce their amount of cocaine usage.
The failing war on drugs has caused a militarization of law enforcement, and an increase in police violence.
Other sources support this method as well. A 2005 study by Belenko et al found that participants of treatment-based alternatives to prison were 18% less likely to be re-arrested and 23% less likely to be re-convicted in comparison to individuals in the traditional prison system. In 2012, a study by the National Institute of Drug Abuse found that proper treatment cuts drug use in half and decreases criminal activity substantially afterwards.
Despite this, law enforcement is still one of the most-funded methods of drug control. It has gotten better over the years—in 1995 only one out of the 14 billion dollars budgeted for this issue was put towards treatment programs, while about half of 2014’s $25-billion National Drug Control budget went towards prevention and treatment initiatives. That being said, the majority of the other half of that same budget is still going towards law enforcement. It’s not that domestic enforcement is useless—on the contrary, the RAND study makes a point to note that enforcement is an important method of inducing resistant heavy users to accept treatment—it’s just substantially more costly and less effective than treatment overall.
Drug-related prison populations continue to rise; yet putting addicts through rehab only costs 25% of keeping them in prison.
So why is the United States government still focusing so hard on enforcement tactics?
It comes down to the unwillingness of many to accept the reality of drug addiction as a public health issue. Conservative America isn’t exactly happy for heavy users to receive only rehabilitation as penance for their crimes. Many want punishment, fire and brimstone, and for the “sinners” to be struck down by the hand of God —or better yet, Clint Eastwood. Since they’re the taxpayers, there’s only so much the government can allocate to progressive methods before having to quell deafening cries of misuse.
It’s going to take a change in the public consciousness before any substantial changes are made; a realization that many drug users are just as much victims as the general public are. Excessive drug abuse is a health issue driven by difficult-to-combat mental impulses and systemic cultural problems. And although I agree that people who commit drug-related crimes should take responsibility for their actions, without forgiveness, education, and a belief in the propensity for others to improve, drug users will never be given the opportunity to do so.