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Problems with Current U.S. Policy.

The problems of the U.S. drug war at home and abroad are inextricably linked. Washingtons war on drugs has not achieved its goals of reducing either the quantity of drugs or the level of drug consumption in the United States. Despite decades of the drug war, addicts and more casual consumers spend between $40 and $50 billion a year on illegal drugs. Instead, both sides of the drug equation--drug traffickers and drug enforcement--operate extraordinarily lucrative industries, providing both licit and illicit incomes to criminal syndicates, corporations, politicians, and law enforcement bodies in the U.S. and abroad. Both traffickers and enforcement personnel have a vested interest in protecting the current "war on drugs" model.

Federal spending on antidrug programs has grown from slightly more than $1 billion in 1981 to roughly $19.2 billion in 2001, with two-thirds of these funds directed at enforcement and interdiction programs. Within the U.S., an additional $30 billion in state and local funds is spent on antidrug measures, mostly on imprisonment, policing, and prosecution. Over 400,000 persons are currently imprisoned for drug offenses at an annual cost exceeding $8 billion, and the demand for more cells for drug offenders accounts for billions of dollars in prison construction. The drug war has helped earn the U.S. the dubious distinction of having more prisoners per capita than any other country.

Most incarcerated drug offenders have not committed a violent crime. Those advocating tough law enforcement policies stress that drug users account for 80% of crime in the United States, but most drug users never commit any crime other than possessing an illegal drug. A criminal's use of drugs, on the other hand, simply demonstrates that those willing to steal or commit violence are also willing to break the drug laws. If crime reduction and prevention were viewed as genuine policy objectives, drug treatment would be made readily available to addicts. Yet in 1998, 2.9 million drug addicts--57% of those needing treatment--remained untreated, a number not much improved from a decade before.

Four trends over the last couple decades indicate that escalating expenditures and harsher drug war policies have not been effective. First, there are more deaths from drug abuse than ever. Deaths from drug-induced causes more than doubled from 7,101 in 1979 to 16,926 in 1998, and the death rate has grown from 3.2 per 100,000 in 1979 to 6.3 in 1998. Second, heroin and marijuana were easier for high school seniors to obtain in 1998 than at any time since students were first surveyed in 1975, and crack cocaine was easier to obtain than at any time in the last decade. Third, heroin and cocaine prices have fallen dramatically: from 1981 to 1998, the retail price of a gram of pure cocaine plummeted from $379 to $169, and the retail price of a gram of pure heroin dropped from $3,115 to $1,800. Fourth, drug purity has increased shockingly. Between 1981 and 1998, the purity of retail cocaine rose from 50% to 71%, while heroin purity soared five-fold from 4.7% to 24.5%. Higher strengths pose much greater risks of overdose deaths among vulnerable novice users and former addicts who relapse.

In addition, current domestic drug policies are racist in effect if not in intent. Drug offenses constitute the largest category--over 1.5 million people in 1999--of arrests in America. Although 37% of those arrested for drug crimes are black, 59% of those convicted of drug offenses and 63% of those convicted of drug trafficking are black. Furthermore, only one-third of convicted whites are sentenced to prison, yet one-half of convicted blacks serve time. Blacks convicted of drug trafficking are incarcerated for 26% longer on average than whites; overall, the average black serves an 18% longer sentence than a comparable white criminal.

In addition, "racial profiling" practices by police mean that blacks are stopped and searched for drugs much more frequently than whites--when entering the country, driving, walking down the street, or simply standing in front of their homes. This persecution in the name of fighting drugs means that people of color are disproportionately imprisoned, have their families dislocated, and see their job and educational prospects destroyed.

The law enforcement-based strategy has also increased the health risks to drug users. Many deaths involve poisonings from contaminated drugs due to traffickers' sloppy production methods or because sellers dilute their product with a wide variety of substances unsuitable for injection into the bloodstream. Other deaths arise from diseases such as HIV and hepatitis C, spread by sharing contaminated, forbidden needles.

Current antidrug policy encourages both violence and the inappropriate use of children. Cocaine and heroin are many times more valuable than gold, because they are illegal and are sold for cash. Thus drug markets are prime robbery targets. Every drug market requires armed men to protect the cash and drugs. Drug sellers hire men who have earned reputations for violence or have demonstrated their willingness to shoot people. In addition, children are routinely recruited into drug trafficking. Children are less reliable witnesses in court than adults and are almost never undercover police officers. The stiff penalties for adult drug dealers encourage these adults to recruit minors to sell, because, if caught, these children are likely to be tried in juvenile court.

Drug-linked corruption of police and other law enforcement officers, and to a lesser extent judicial branch officials, is epidemic from coast to coast. Half of all FBI-led police corruption cases involve drugs. In 1992, Detroit's chief of police went to prison for 10 years for embezzling more than $2 million in antidrug funds.

Key Problems

* Current U.S. drug policy does not meet any of its goals. Instead, it is supporting two lucrative industries--drug enforcement and drug trafficking--both with vested interests in protecting the status quo.

* Washington's enforcement-oriented strategy has generated millions of arrests and hundreds of thousands of prisoners, most of whom are black or Latino.

* Cost-effective treatment for hard-core drug addicts receives woefully inadequate funding and support.

Eric E. Sterling <> is president of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation.
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Article Details
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Author:Sterling, Eric E.
Publication:Foreign Policy in Focus
Date:May 8, 2001
Previous Article:Drug Policy: Failure at Home.
Next Article:Toward a New Foreign Policy.

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