On Thursday the Office of National Drug Control Policy will present Congress with an annual report on the results of the Drug War. Drug Czar General Barry McCaffrey claims “substantial progress” in the fight against illegal drugs in the past year. Critics challenge his criteria for success. “It is senseless to claim success when the death, disease, incarceration and suffering resulting from current drug policy continue to rise,” said Ethan Nadelmann, director of the Lindesmith Center, a leading drug policy institute in New York.
Nadelmann points to the following indicators of the public health costs of drug use and current prohibitionist policy:
- Deaths associated with illicit drug use are at a record level. In 1997, the last year for which records are available, there were 15,973 deaths – up 1,130 from the previous year. Heroin overdose deaths have jumped dramatically in many parts of the country.
- According to the White House report, only 40 percent of addicts who needed treatment received it.
- Drug related transmission of diseases such as HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis C continue to climb. Nationwide, one in five new HIV infections in women are attributable to injection drug use.
- The United States now incarcerates more than 400,000 people for drug law violations. That represents an eightfold increase since 1980, and is roughly equal to the number of people incarcerated in western Europe for everything.
- The federal government now spends close to $20 billion per year, and state and local governments at least that much again, on combating illegal drugs — yet cocaine and heroin are more plentiful and cheaper than anytime in the past two decades.
“The current approach, with its drug free rhetoric and over-reliance on punitive, criminal justice policies costs billions more each year yet delivers less and less. U.S. drug policy needs a new bottom line — one that focuses not on reducing the total number of people who use drugs but rather on reducing the death, disease, crime and suffering associated with both drug use and drug prohibition.” Nadelmann said. “If the government were serious about the health and welfare of its citizens, it would take the following steps tomorrow:
- Make appropriate treatment available to every addict who seeks it, including methadone maintenance – which has been proven to be the most effective treatment for heroin dependence.
- Make sterile syringes readily and legally available through pharmacies and needle exchange programs in order to reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS. The United States is alone among advanced industrialized western nations in refusing to provide a penny for such programs, which save lives without increasing drug use.
- Stop incarcerating citizens for drug possession, repeal federal mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses, and return sentencing discretion to judges.