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:
By MARK OSLER
October 11, 2010
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.