Monday, July 24, 2017

Behavioral Aspects of the War on Drugs

The War on Drugs has been going on for 50 years with little to show for it except on-going criminal/gang activity, the highest prison population in the world and the occasional headline story of a “drug-lord” or “kingpin” captured or convicted – cheered by the police and press as a great victory, and cheered by the next in line in the drug cartel as a long-awaited promotion.  But are we making any progress?

Based on a survey of 67,800 one source found:  “In 2013, an estimated 24.6 million Americans aged 12 or older – 9.4 percent of the population – had used an illicit drug in the past month. This number is up from 8.3 percent in 2002.”  No progress there.  And the CDC puts this number at 10.1% in 2015.  Up again.  US News piles on with a report of a “heroin epidemic” showing a 15-year increase.  So the main purpose has been thwarted, and we get the bonus of unintended consequences.

One major failing is how drug prohibition keeps organized crime in business and funds terrorist activities – Afghanistan being the world’s number one producer of heroin.  The dynamic of illegal activities and violence in America is eerily similar to that of alcohol prohibition in the last century although drug-war proponents refuse to admit it.  Today the government has, in effect, handed control of a multi-billion dollar market to violent criminal networks and gangs overseas, in Mexico and in the streets of our major cities.  With all the money involved the incentive is far too great to persuade them to give up even when faced with threats of arrest or being murdered by rival operators.

A second failure comes with the increased danger of the products.  Drugs are dangerous themselves, but the danger escalates when illegal, often backroom operations are involved in production and distribution.  Buyers can’t be sure of what they are getting, purity or dosage.  The danger is many times greater than unintentional overdoses of prescription drugs with that info available right on the label.

Another danger comes to law-abiding citizens indirectly from higher exposure to the criminal element on city streets and from muggings and property crimes to support the habit (with fewer resources freed up to investigate those other crimes).  Those already addicted who want help have less chance of getting it, afraid of reporting their problem.  And what about kids asleep in the bedroom while their parents cook up meth in the kitchen?

Just as legalizing alcohol did not lead to a spike in drinking, there is no reason to believe that legalizing drugs would lead to a sharp increase in drug use.  Colorado and a few other states have become laboratories to test the validity of this assumption while enjoying added benefits.  Yesterday Fox Business reported that Colorado “made an extra $200 million in tax revenue last year from legalized marijuana sales” and New Jersey expects to raise $300 million a year.  Revenue from marijuana sales no longer goes to street gangs, Mexican smugglers or other shady characters.

Legalizing drugs is not an endorsement of drug abuse any more than legal liquor is an endorsement of alcoholism.  The idea would be to control quality and regulate supply.  No one wants to see fellow citizens struggle with drug addiction; but the current situation is unacceptable, and doing the same thing, or doing the same thing with increased intensity, will not change the outcomes. 

It makes sense to take the same approach to the illicit drug abuse problem as we are taking to the more recent prescription abuse problem.  It should not be treated as a legal problem but a public health and education problem.  On balance, the failed war on drugs has been much more deadly and destructive than the drugs themselves, solely because the drugs are illegal, leading to deadly violence between warring factions, battles between the police and suppliers and harm to innocent bystanders from shootouts, chases and explosions.

But recreational drug use is immoral!  So are gambling and drinking, some say, and smoking and dancing and rock and roll!  Where do you draw the line?

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