In 2012, we crossed a dubious threshold: the War on Drugs has cost American taxpayers $1 trillion since 1971. Nearly 2% of the US population is in prison, most sentenced for drug offenses. Thousands of people have died trying to stop drugs from entering the country. And yet, despite the tremendous cost in treasure and lives, the street price of a gram of cocaine is 74% cheaper than it was in 1980, foreign drug cartels are more powerful and influential than ever, and the proportion of the population who abuse or are addicted to illicit drugs has pretty much remained constant in the last 20 years.
These figures suggest only one thing, that the War on Drugs as we currently know it has failed. In recent years in various states, new laws allow for the dispensation of medical marijuana in defiance of federal laws, and a recent Gallup poll reveals that 50% of Americans favor legalizing marijuana. Meanwhile, marijuana legalization is on ballots in Colorado, Oregon, and Washington, and voter initiatives to allow medical marijuana are underway in Arkansas, Montana, and Massachusetts.
Politicians are typically slow to change national policy on many issues, and drug policy is no different. National party platforms in 2012 are very similar regarding this issue. The Obama Administration is slowly shifting policy away from interdiction and toward treatment. This policy includes allowing federal funding for needle exchange programs, more funding for state-level prison-to-work programs to prevent recidivism, and the recently passed Fair Sentencing Act, which reduces racial disparities in sentencing for crack cocaine offenses. Republican proposals have a similar progressive bent, including federal funding for state initiatives to place nonviolent drug offenders in rehab instead of prison.
Common Sense Lessons from Europe and Home Point to Drug Rehab Treatment as Better than Prison
Make no mistake about it: drug abuse and addiction can destroy your health and happiness and even lead to premature death. The federal government is not ready to surrender in the War on Drugs. Indeed, President Obama has increased funding to Mexico and Central America, still the main route illegal drugs take to American streets, and the Republican 2012 party platform also favors this policy.
After so many years of spinning wheels in the mud, Americans are realizing the folly of pursuing a flawed policy. The approach to drug abuse and addiction in the European Union has always leaned heavily toward rehabilitation and education, and drug abuse in those countries is lower than it is in the United States. Many people think the Netherlands is a haven for pot smokers because of the liberal drug laws there, but only 2% of the population in Holland uses marijuana regularly, compared to about 15% in the United States.
It seems to make more and more sense to change the course of the War on Drugs toward a policy that favors rehab and education over law enforcement and imprisonment for offenders. But we’re still a long way away from an actual change of policy. The medical marijuana fiasco in California is a good example of the growing pains that lie ahead. The law there was intended to allow certain medical patients to receive marijuana legally through a doctor’s prescription. Many studies have shown that marijuana can help patients suffering from the effects of chemotherapy and other diseases, despite its negative effects on the user. But that law in California has become something of a joke—the state issues licenses to prescribe medical marijuana to people who are not actually doctors, allowing for widespread abuse. Other states following California’s lead are trying to tighten regulations. Meanwhile, the federal government continues to consider marijuana a Category I controlled substance subject to federal drug laws.
As the drug rehabilitation industry becomes more and more sophisticated and effective in treating drug abuse and addiction, we can find hope in a practical and more efficient solution. Addiction is a medical condition and should be treated as such, not as a criminal violation.