Drug War Rethink Long Overdue
Illegal drug overdose deaths have rocketed into a crisis policy challenge, claiming a staggering 325 New Hampshire lives last year, three times our traffic fatalities. Unfortunately, we are hearing same-same from most of our political leaders: tinker around the edges with good ideas that will help (but not nearly enough) and toughen up on the drug war.
The global 50-year, $1 trillion war on drugs is a flagrant policy failure in urgent need of a thorough, evidence-based rethink. Here are the facts:
Here’s how I’d change policy, specifically for heroin and marijuana.
- Supply interdiction drives up violence and drug supplier profits.
- Global illegal drug demand is now $320 billion annually.
- Since 2006, drug trade violence stemming largely from U.S. demand has killed over 100,000 people in Mexico alone.
- U.S. taxpayers spent $7.5 billion last year attempting to eradicate production of opium (the raw material for heroin) in Afghanistan, yet cultivation there has reached record levels, supplying ¾ of global demand and occupying a cultivated land area the size of Rhode Island, and providing a major source of funding for the Taliban.
- Drug addiction and abuse is pervasive and massively damaging.
- Nationally, illegal drug use costs almost $200 billion annually in crime, lost work productivity and healthcare.
- 9.4 percent of Americans are past-year users of illegal drugs, 7.5 percent for marijuana. 39 percent of 12th graders are past-year illegal drug users, 35 percent for marijuana. At my local high school, MJ can be had free for the asking every day and is easier to obtain than alcohol.
- Only 11 percent of 23 million Americans needing treatment for illegal drug or alcohol use are getting such treatment.
- New Hampshire is #12 among the states at 11.2 percent of 12+ population using illegal drugs or abusing pharmaceuticals.
- Substance abuse costs New Hampshire $1.84 billion annually, nearly 3 percent of state GDP.
- U.S. prisons are filled with non-violent drug offenders. With 5 percent of world population, the U.S. has 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. Illegal drugs are readily available even in prisons with many drug offenders leaving prison as hardened criminals and more addicted.
- Drug law enforcement is racially discriminatory. Six in ten drug crime prisoners are black or Latino, though proportions of drug suppliers and users are similar for whites.
For heroin, we can learn from the eight European nations and Canada which operate “heroin assisted treatment” programs. Generally, heroin addicts who have failed methadone or other forms of drug treatment are given access 2-3 times per day to clinical healthcare facilities where they receive controlled doses of pharmacological grade heroin in addition to medical care, drug treatment counseling and social services. The measured outcomes include sharp reductions in illegal drug use, drug crimes, disease, overdose deaths and major increases in addiction treatment retention. In Switzerland, property crimes among enrolled heroin addicts dropped by 90 percent.
In 2001, Portugal became first in the world to decriminalize all drugs and to make drug treatment services fully accessible. In Portugal as generally in the 24 other nations adopting drug decriminalization, use rates did not increase. Drug violators are referred to treatment providers, but not compelled to accept services. Drug-related deaths since 2001 have declined by 80 percent. Rates of past-year drug use have decreased. New AIDS cases among drug injectors resulting from dirty needle sharing declined by 93 percent. In most of the U.S., sterile needles are illegal to possess and one-third of all new AIDS cases result from dirty needle sharing.
For marijuana, Washington should grant states the power to legalize and regulate like alcohol. For New Hampshire, I’d allow sale at state liquor stores if locally approved. Require child-proof packaging and labels disclosing potency and health effects, including the fact that MJ use involves performance and brain developmental effects (though far less in the aggregate than tobacco or alcohol). Prohibit advertising and public use. License in-state wholesale producers and allow personal production in limited quantities. Extend DUI laws to cover marijuana metabolite blood levels.
Washington State is one of four to have legalized and taxed the sale of cannabis products. Over its first year in full effect, Washington saved most of the $20 million previously spent on minor MJ law enforcement and collected $83 million in tax revenues, with revenues used to fund prevention, treatment, research and education programs. Early data show that traffic fatalities and youth marijuana use have not increased.
To sharply reduce human suffering, violence and death, political leaders must confront the fact that the drug war is an abject failure. Real solutions must sharply increase public funding for substance abuse and addiction treatment, which can be more than paid for via reduced drug interdiction and non-violent drug user imprisonment. By dropping rigid thinking about drug policy, we can increase racial harmony and defund criminal drug empires and Afghan terrorists.
Jim Rubens is former GOP state senator and past President of Headrest, a Lebanon-based substance abuse and suicide prevention and counseling center.