The US Congress Joint Economic Committee yesterday held a historic hearing on the economic costs of US drug policy. The hearing, titled Illegal Drugs: Economic Impact, Societal Costs, Policy Responses, was called at the request of Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA), who in his opening remarks described the all-too-familiar failure of US drug policy to accomplish the goals it has set for itself. It was the second hearing related to incarceration that Webb has convened under the auspices of this committee.
Jim Webb at 2007 incarceration hearing (photo from sentencingproject.org)
"Our insatiable demand for drugs" drives the drug trade, Webb pointed out. "We're spending enormous amounts of money to interdict drug shipments, but supplies remain consistent. Some 86% of high schoolers report easy access to marijuana. Cocaine prices have fallen by about 80% since the 1980s," the freshman senator continued. "Efforts to curb illegal drug use have relied heavily on enforcement. The number of people in custody on drug charges has increased 13-fold in the past 25 years, yet the flow of drugs remains undiminished. Drug convictions and collateral punishments are devastating our minority communities," Webb said.
"Our current policy mix is not working the way we want it to," Webb declared. "The ease with which drugs can be obtained, the price, the number of people using drugs, the violence on the border all show that. We need to rethink our responses to the health effects, the economic impacts, the effect on crime. We need to rethink our approach to the supply and demand of drugs."
Such sentiments coming from a sitting senator in the US in 2008 are bold if not remarkable, and it's not the first time that Webb has uttered such words:
In March of last year, he told George Stephanopoulos on the ABC News program This Week: "One of the issues which never comes up in campaigns but it's an issue that's tearing this country apart is this whole notion of our criminal justice system, how many people are in our criminal justice system more -- I think we have two million people incarcerated in this country right now and that's an issue that's going to take two or three years to try to get to the bottom of and that's where I want to put my energy."
In his recently-released book, A Time to Fight, Webb wrote: "The time has come to stop locking up people for mere possession and use of marijuana," "It makes far more sense to take the money that would be saved by such a policy and use it for enforcement of gang-related activities" and "Either we are home to the most evil population on earth, or we are locking up a lot of people who really don't need to be in jail, for actions that other countries seem to handle in more constructive ways."
Still, drug reformers may be impatient with the level of rethinking presented at the hearing. While witnesses including University of Maryland criminologist Peter Reuter, author of "Drug War Heresies," and John Walsh, director of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) offered strong and familiar critiques of various aspects of US drug policy, neither of the words "prohibition" or "legalization" were ever uttered, nor were the words "tax and regulate," and radical alternatives to current policy were barely touched upon. Instead, the emphasis seemed to be on adjusting the "mix" of spending on law enforcement versus treatment and prevention.
The other two witnesses at the hearing, Kings County (Brooklyn), New York, Assistant District Attorney Anne Swern and community coordinator Norma Fernandes of the same office, were there to talk up the success of drug court-style programs in their community.
[The written testimony of all four witnesses is available at the hearing web site linked above.]
"US drug policy is comprehensive, but unbalanced," said Reuter. "As much as 75% of spending goes to enforcement, mainly to lock up low-level drug dealers. Treatment is not very available. The US has a larger drug problem than other Western countries, and the policy measures to confront it have met with little success," he told the committee.
Reuter said there were some indications policymakers and the electorate are tiring of the drug war approach, citing California's treatment-not-jail Proposition 36, but there was little indication Congress was interested in serious analysis of programs and policies.
"Congress has been content to accept rhetoric instead of research," Reuter said, citing its lack of reaction to the Office of National Drug Control Policy's refusal to release a now three-year-old report on drug use levels during the Bush administration. "It's hardly a secret that ONDCP has failed to publish that report, but Congress has not bothered to do anything," he complained. "We need more emphasis on the analytic base for policy."
But even with the paltry evidence available to work with, Reuter was able to summarize a bottom line: "The US imprisons too many people and provides too little treatment," he said. "We need more than marginal changes."
"US drug policies have been in place for some time without much change except for intensification," said WOLA's Walsh, noting that coca production levels are as high as they were 20 years ago. "Since 1981, we have spent about $800 billion on drug control, and $600 billion of that on supply reduction. We need a stiff dose of historical reality as we contemplate what to do now," he told the committee.
With the basic policies in place for so long, some conclusions can now be drawn, Walsh said. "First, the balloon effect is real and fully relevant today. We've seen it time and time again, not just with crops, but also with drug smuggling routes. If we want to talk about actually reducing illicit crops and we know eradication only leads to renewed planting, we need to be looking for alternatives," he said.
"Second, there is continuing strong availability of illicit drugs and a long-term trend toward falling prices," Walsh said, strongly suggesting that interdiction was a failed policy. "The perennial goal is to drive up prices, but prices have fallen sharply. There is evidence of disruptions in the US cocaine market last year, but whether that endures is an open question and quite doubtful given the historical record," he said.
"Third, finding drugs coming across the border is like finding a needle in a haystack, or more like finding lots of needles in lots of different moving haystacks," he said. "Our legal commerce with Mexico is so huge that to think we can seal the borders is delusional."
With respect to the anti-drug assistance package for Mexico currently being debated in Congress, Walsh had a warning: "Even with US assistance, any reduction in the flow of drugs from Mexico is unlikely." Instead, Walsh said, lawmakers should adjust their supply-control objectives and expectations to bring them in line with that reality.
Changes in drug producing countries will require sustained efforts to increase alternative livelihoods. That in turn will require patience and a turn away from "the quick fix mentality that hasn't fixed anything," Walsh said.
"We can't expect sudden improvements; there is no silver bullet," Walsh concluded. "We need to switch to harm reduction approaches and recognize drugs and drug use as perennial problems that can't be eliminated, but can be managed better. We need to minimize not only the harms associated with drug use, but also those related to policies meant to control drugs."
"It is important to be able to discuss the realities of the situation, it's not always a comfortable thing to talk about," Webb said after the oral testimony. "This is very much a demand problem. I've been skeptical bout drug eradication programs; they just don't work when you're supplying such an enormous thirst on this end. We have to find ways to address demand other than locking up more people. We have created an incredible underground economic apparatus and we have to think hard about how to address it."
"The way in which we focused attention on the supply side has been very much mistaken," agreed Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-NY), who along with Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) were the only other solons attending the hearing. "All this focus on supply hasn't really done anything of any value. The real issue is demand, and prevention and dealing with people getting out of prison is the way to deal with this."
Reuter suggested part of the solution was in increase in what he called "coerced abstinence," or forced drug treatment. Citing the work of UCLA drug policy researcher Mark Kleiman, Reuter said that regimes of frequent testing with modest sanctions imposed immediately and with certainty can result "in a real decline in drug taking and criminal activity."
That got a nod of agreement from prosecutor Swern. "How long you stay in treatment is the best predictor of staying out of trouble or off drugs," she said. Swern is running a program with deferring sentencing, with some flexibility she said. "The beauty of our program is it allows us to give people many chances. If they fail in treatment and want to try again, we do that," she said.
As the hearing drew to an end, Webb had one last question: "Justice Department statistics show that of all drug arrests in 2005, 42.6% were for marijuana offenses. What about the energy expended arresting people for marijuana?" he asked, implicitly begging for someone to respond, "It's a waste of resources."
But no one connected directly with the floating softball. "The vast majority of those arrests are for simple possession," said Reuter. "In Maryland, essentially no one is sentenced to jail for marijuana possession, although about a third spend time in jail pre-trial. It's not as bad as it looks," he said sanguinely.
"There's violence around marijuana trafficking in Brooklyn," responded prosecutor Swern.
WOLA's Walsh came closest to a strong answer. "Your question goes to setting priorities," he said. "We need to discriminate among types of illicit drugs. Which do the most harm and deserve the most emphasis? Also, given the sheer number of marijuana users, what kind of dent can you make even with many more arrests?"
And so ended the first joint congressional hearing to challenge the dogmas of the drug war. For reformers that attended, there were generally thumbs up for Webb and the committee, mixed with a bit of disappointment that the hearings only went so far.
"It was extraordinary," said Sanho Tree, director of the Drug Policy Project at the DC-based Institute for Policy Studies. "They didn't cover some of the things I hoped they would, but I have to give them props for addressing the issue at all."
"Webb was looking for someone to say what he wanted to say with the marijuana question, that perhaps we should deemphasize law enforcement on that," said Doug McVay, policy analyst at Common Sense for Drug Policy, who also attended the hearing. "I don't think our witnesses quite caught what he was aiming for, an answer that arresting all those people for marijuana takes away resources that could be used to fight real crime."
Sen. Webb came in for special praise from Tree. "Perhaps because he's a possible vice presidential candidate, he had to tone things down a bit, but he is clearly not afraid to talk about over-incarceration, and using the Joint Economic Committee instead of Judiciary or Foreign Affairs is a brilliant use of that committee, because this is, after all, a policy with enormous economic consequences," Tree said. "Webb is clearly motivated by doing something about the high levels of incarceration. He held a hearing on it last year, and got the obvious answer that much of it is related to drug policy. Having heard that kind of answer, most politicians would walk away fast, but not Webb, so I have to give him credit."
Reversing the drug war juggernaut will not be easy. The Congressional Joint Economic Committee hearing Thursday was perhaps a small step toward that end, but it is a step in the right direction.