Let’s get serious about our war on drugs

Jeff vonKaenel

With more than 70,000 Americans dying from drug overdoses each year, with 20 percent of the 2.3 million in prison there for drug offenses and many more for drug-related crimes and with drug cartels to blame for many of Mexico’s 29,000 murders a year, it is time we got serious about our war on drugs.

Let’s find solutions that actually work in the real world, instead of taking the politically expedient path. Calling for increased law enforcement and longer prison terms has been used by countless elected officials of both parties. Police officers, prison guards, prosecutors and drug agents may be dedicated, hard-working and brave, but unfortunately their efforts are not effective, and in fact may be making the problem worse.

In Narconomics: How to Run a Drug Cartel, Tom Wainwright, previously a reporter for the Economist in Mexico City, brilliantly explains the absurdity of much of our current drug policy.

For example, the United States spends billions of dollars in South America to eradicate coca plants. Wainwright explains that even if this effort tripled the cost of coca plants, this represents only 1 percent of the street price of cocaine. So this program has almost no impact on our cocaine problem.

And instead of using incarceration as an opportunity to treat addictions or teach job skills, prison can become a training ground for crime and an employment pool for crime organizations. Increased penalties have not solved the drug abuse problem, even in states with three strikes laws, such as California.

There is little correlation between tougher sentences and reduced drug use. It may be just the opposite. That is what Portugal found in 2001 when it became the first country to decriminalize the possession and consumption of all illicit substances. Rather than being arrested, those caught with drugs might be given a warning, a fine or sent to a local commission made up of a doctor, a lawyer and a social worker to learn about treatment and support services. The result over the last 17 years has been a significant drop in drug use and HIV.

Wainwright also writes about Switzerland’s approach to dealing with 3,000 hardcore addicts. While they represented 10 percent to 15 percent of Switzerland’s heroin users, they accounted for 60 percent of heroin use. By providing them with free heroin under supervised conditions, the government reduced the number of robberies by 90 percent, and many addicts stopped selling drugs as well—a double win for public safety. As a result of this change in policy, Switzerland’s illegal drug market collapsed.

Compare that to our criminally focused drug wars. We are spending billions of dollars each year to lock up drug offenders. But every dollar spent on drug treatment is 48 times more effective than the same dollar spent on prisons. Let’s spend money on solutions that really work. 

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About the Author

Jeff vonKaenel
Jeff vonKaenel is the president, CEO and majority owner of the News & Review newspapers in Sacramento, Chico and Reno.