Mark Osler: Four Hard Truths about the Drug War

The policies of the drug war failed, but ignoring the problem certainly won’t make it go away. Here are four steps we need to take:


October 11, 2010

Mark Osler

Though it is out of the spotlight in a bad economy, the United States still has a drug problem, and it may be getting worse. The use of methamphetamine, a particularly pernicious narcotic, is increasing again. Few things can harm a family or community like meth.

It shouldn’t be surprising that drug use is on the rise. The federal government, in particular, has turned its attention to something else: immigration. Just 14 years ago, about 40 percent of federal defendants who received a sentence were charged with drug crimes, while just 12 percent were up on immigration charges. For the 2009 fiscal year, 32 percent of federal defendants faced immigration charges, while only 30 percent were narcotics violators.

In highlighting this shift, I am not arguing that we go back to what we did at the height of the drug war. Those policies largely failed. If we choose to take drug interdiction seriously, we must try new approaches and take real-world facts into account, including four hard truths:

1The strategy of incarcerating large numbers of street dealers in federal prison does not work. Narcotics trafficking is a business, and that business structures itself to easily replace the lowest-level employees; it’s the same strategy we see with restaurants and retailers. While such enforcement policies make for exciting numbers, they do not actually solve any problem.

2The way law enforcement has approached harmful narcotics lacks coherence and is widely viewed as racist. While there is a very harsh federal reaction to black offenders carrying crack or rural people making meth, very little is being done to address the fastest-growing and most-dangerous trend in narcotics — the abuse of prescription drugs like Adderall (prescription amphetamine) and OxyContin (a synthetic opium) — which are often abused by white students, wealthy retirees and others who are neither black nor poor.

The Center for Disease Control has raised the alarm on shocking rates of overdose by those using synthetic opium such as OxyContin. If we are going to “protect” black communities by harshly enforcing drug laws, we should do the same for white communities where users include many elderly and college students.

3We may need to make minor personal sacrifices if we want drug abuse to go down. For example, the most promising effort in combating meth is what we have seen in Oregon. In 2004, there were about 400 incidents involving illegal meth labs in that state. In 2008, there were 20. Oregon made the cold medication pseudoephedrine, which is a key ingredient in illegal meth, available by prescription only. This kind of regulatory approach doesn’t fill the prisons, but it does solve the problem. So why don’t other states follow Oregon’s lead? In part, because people don’t want the hassle of getting a prescription for a cold medication.

4We need to recognize that marijuana is different than other drugs. It is the most widely used illegal drug and, per dose, takes up the most room — you can put more than 100,000 doses of LSD in a vial the size of one marijuana joint. Because of these two facts, marijuana tends to quickly fill any net we set up for drugs, and it takes resources away from stopping the flow of more serious drugs. For example, the Western District of Texas contains a broad swath of borderland, including the cities of El Paso and Del Rio. Most of the cocaine, methamphetamine and marijuana smuggled into the United States comes over the Mexican border and through an area that includes that stretch. Yet, the overwhelming number of cases (more than 60 percent) of the drug cases in that district involve marijuana, far more than the number of sentencings for more serious drugs like meth, which makes up just 10 percent of the cases. Is it worth it to devote so many resources to marijuana?

If we are serious about narcotics, we should act like it by making hard choices and personal sacrifices. If we aren’t, it is time to stop building prisons.

Mark Osler is a law professor at St. Thomas University.

This column originally appeared in the Minneapolis-St. Paul Star-Tribune.  Please read Mark Osler’s excellent blog, Osler’s Razor.

2 thoughts on “Mark Osler: Four Hard Truths about the Drug War

  1. Thanks, Mark, for these insightful suggestions. I think taking your truth #4 with utmost seriousness, perhaps even to the extent of legalizing and taxing cannabis much as we do liquor would also put a severe dent in the Mexican drug cartels. I’m glad the Star-Tribune published this.

  2. Mark is fundamentally right on target but the comments on meth are at the heart of a lot of the problem — a highly distorted view of the drug problem itself

    the market has reacted and meth use is at a very low point, but availability of precursors or the final pt roduct has nothing to do with it.


    Only two prohibited drugs contribute to more than two percent of all cases of drug abuse and addiction, marihuana about 18 percent and cocaine about 6 percent. Methamphetamine contributed to less than one percent in 2008. As with most problem users of marijuana and cocaine, problem users of meth have a background of alcohol abuse or addiction and often continue to abuse alcohol concurrently.

    Meth remains readily available. Increased law enforcement closed some labs in the US but demand is easily met from Mexico. Meth is harder to get as a prescribed legal drug called Desoxyn used in some cases of ADD and to counter obesity. A very similar drug dextro-amphetamine has been issued by the government to combat pilots since Viet Nam when it was shown to improve safety and performance at appropriate doses.

    Meth is an unpopular drug which about five percent of us have chosen to try. Most who try it soon give it up and most who continue use control their use at a safe level. About 14 million have tried meth and on average since 2001 only about one in eight (1.7 million) used it in the past year and one in twenty in the past month. Data from 2008 continues to show a decline in use to well below average use levels.

    In a regulated system, states would decide details. Presumably those would include some variation of prescription sale to licensed adults. This would supply controlled users and provide accurate safety information and ways to recognize a growing problem before it develops further. It might also reveal an untreated problem with alcohol. Finally it might encourage the use of less dangerous variants of the drug that would meet the users needs with less risk of problems.

    STATEMENT OF DR. BARRY M. LESTER September 27, 2005

    …  Addiction is a complex disease with multiple mental health co-morbidities; women who use drugs also tend to be depressed and anxious and may have even more severe mental health problems. … Methamphetamine is a stimulant like cocaine and produces similar effects on neurotransmitters in the brain.

    In terms of treatment, even a cursory examination of the data shows that methamphetamine is not uniquely addictive, and that methamphetamine abuse is treatable.  …  Most people who use methamphetamine do not become addicted and those who do become addicted can be treated. The recent open letter by dozens of leading researchers notes:

    ” … claims that methamphetamine users are virtually untreatable with small recovery rates lack foundation in medical research. Analysis of dropout, retention in treatment and reincarceration rates and other measures of outcome, in several recent studies indicate that methamphetamine users respond in an equivalent manner as individuals admitted for other drug abuse problems. Research also suggests the need to improve and expand treatment offered to methamphetamine users.”

    “The use of stigmatizing terms, such as “ice babies” and “meth babies,” lack scientific validity and should not be used. …  The suggestion that treatment will not work for people dependant upon methamphetamines, particularly mothers, also lacks any scientific basis.” … Does this mean that methamphetamine is harmless? Is it acceptable for women to use meth during pregnancy? Of course not. … Again – to put this in context – not very different than what you’d see with cigarette smoking.

    For the foster children, being taken from their mothers was more toxic than the cocaine.  … It is extremely difficult to take a swing at “bad mothers” without the blow landing on their children.

    What we need is a balanced approach – one that will attack the root causes of drug addiction. Sending more people to prison for longer periods of time is not the answer. We know enough now to fight addiction with treatment and do much more to keep many families safely together.

    Barry Lester
    Psychiatry & Human Behavior and Pediatrics, Director, Brown Center for the Study of Children at Risk
    Phone: +1 401 453 7640
    Barry Lester’s research is on the study of developmental processes in children at risk. This includes children at risk because of biological factors and children at risk due to social factors.

    see Drug Use, Abuse and Dependence (Addiction) In America

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