Today President Clinton’s director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy presented his final report on the results of the Drug War. Drug Czar General Barry McCaffrey claims “substantial progress” in the fight against illegal drugs during his tenure. Critics challenge his criteria for success.
“Barry McCaffrey will be remembered as yet another failed drug czar — one whose rhetorical calls for more treatment and less incarceration were not matched by any substantive change in policy or budgetary priorities,” said Ethan Nadelmann, director of the Lindesmith Center – Drug Policy Foundation, a leading drug policy institute in New York. “But, to be fair,” he added, “the war on drugs persists because most politicians dare not admit that the strategy itself is fundamentally flawed.”
Nadelmann points to the following indicators of the public health costs of drug use and our current prohibitionist policy:
- Though much of the drug czar’s rhetoric focuses on the importance of treatment, only 31% of the federal drug budget is spent on treatment and prevention compared to the 69% dedicated to law enforcement and interdiction. According to the White House, only 40 percent of addicts who need treatment receive it.
- Deaths associated with drug use are at a record level. In 1998, the last year for which records are available, there were nearly 17,000 deaths – up 1,000 from the previous year. Heroin overdose deaths have jumped dramatically in many parts of the country.
- 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 nearly 500,000 people for drug law violations. That represents a dramatic increase over the 50,000 in 1980, and is greater than 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 any time 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. As President-elect Bush considers Barry McCaffrey’s successor, he should recognize that 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.
According to the Lindesmith Center – Drug Policy Foundation, if the government were serious about the health and welfare of its citizens, it would immediately take the following steps:
- 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.