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Feature: US Drug Policies Flawed and Failed, Experts Tell Congressional Committee

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.

World Record Marijuana Crop Gets Blown Up By Fighter Jets

What do you do if you find the world's largest marijuana stash? Call in the airforce!

The crack teams discovered 236.8 tons of cannabis buried in vast trenches in the desert. The drugs had a minimum street value of £225 million, and weighed more than 30 double-decker buses, officials said.

Lieutenant General Abdul Hadi Khalid, Afghanistan's deputy interior minister, said: "This is a new world record in the global war on drugs."

British fighter jets were called in from nearby Kandahar Airfield to smash open the underground stores. A Nato spokesman said the planes dropped three 1,000lb bombs on the trenches, before troops from the commando unit known as 333 doused the wreckage with petrol and set them alight. [scotsman.com]

There's something tragically ironic about using fighter jets to launch air strikes on a plant that's never killed anyone in the history of the world. Are you having fun yet, brave desert drug soldiers? Someone get these guys some volleyball nets before they nuke a poppy field.

News Release: Will SDSU Drug Bust Coverage Raise the Critical Questions?

Will SDSU's Drug Bust Reduce Drug Availability on Campus in the Future? Advocates Urge Media to Look Beyond the Surface, Ask Critical Questions About Raid's Long-Term Implications for Drug Trade (or Lack Thereof) In the wake of a major drug bust at San Diego State University, in which 96 people including 75 students were arrested on drug charges as part of "Operation Sudden Fall," advocates are asking media outlets to go beyond the surface to probe whether drug laws and enforcement actually reduce the availability of drugs. "Cocaine was banned in 1914, and marijuana in 1937," said David Borden, executive director of StoptheDrugWar.org, "and yet these drugs are so widely available almost a century later that college students can be hauled away 75 at a time for them. That is the very definition of policy failure." Borden, who is also executive editor of Drug War Chronicle, a major weekly online publication, continued: "Since 1980, when the drug war really started escalating under the Reagan administration, the average street price of cocaine has dropped by a factor of five, when adjusted for purity and inflation. (1) Given that the strategy was to increase drug prices, in order to then reduce the demand, that failure has to be called spectacular." Drug arrests in the US number close to 1.5 million per year, but to little evident effect as such data suggests. Ironically, San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis painted a compelling picture of the drug war's failure in her own quote given to the Los Angeles Times: "This operation shows how accessible and pervasive illegal drugs continue to be on our college campuses and how common it is for students to be selling to other students." "While SDSU's future drug sellers will probably avoid sending such explicit text messages as the accused in this case did, it's doubtful that they will avoid the campus for very long," Borden said. "In fact the replacements are undoubtedly already preparing to take up the slack. By September if not sooner, the only remaining evidence that 'Operation Sudden Fall' ever happened will be the court cases and the absence of certain people from the campus." "Instead of throwing away money and law enforcement time on a policy that doesn't work, ruining lives in the process, Congress should repeal drug prohibition and allow states to create sensible regulations to govern drugs' lawful distribution and use. At a minimum, the focus should be taken off enforcement," said Borden. — END — 1. Data from DEA STRIDE drug price collection program, adjusted for inflation using the Bureau of Labor Statistics' Consumer Price Index figures. Further information is available upon request.

Africa: Marijuana "Tries to Destroy Our Society," Nigerian Head Narc Says

Ahmadu Giade, head of Nigeria's National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA), used a ceremony where seized marijuana was burned last weekend to declare war on pot as part of his agency's effort to "provide a drug-free society for all." His comments came as 100,000 pounds of what Nigerians commonly refer to as Indian hemp went up in smoke. The ceremonial burning would "spite drug barons" and demonstrate the superiority of law enforcement over drug dealers, he said.

While the Lagos newspaper The Day, which reported on the event, described the drugs as "narcotics" and "hard drugs," it appears that it was really describing Nigerian-grown marijuana.

Head narc Giade suffered from the same terminological confusion. "The threat of narcotic drugs is palpable," he said. "It is difficult to ignore this peril staring at us in the face. Cannabis control constitutes the biggest drug challenge in Nigeria and Africa. This is because it grows effortlessly in the country. This drug has the propensity to destroy our society but we equally have the capacity to subdue it."

Well, not so far, anyway. According to the US State Department's 2007 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, "Sale and local consumption of marijuana is on the increase. The rise in marijuana use domestically in Nigeria is evinced by the increased quantities seized, the number and size of illicit plots discovered and destroyed, and numbers of arrests made."

Lamar Alexander Acknowledges the Futility of the Drug War

Sen. Lamar Alexander, Republican from Tennessee, obliquely acknowledged the futility of the drug war in comments made supporting a bill to combat illegal logging of which he is a cosponsor, on Tuesday of last week:
The Senator from Oregon [Ron Wyden (D)] made a point that is maybe the central point here when he compared our efforts to stop illegal logging to our efforts to stop the bringing of illegal drugs into the United States. We all know the tremendous amount of effort we go to, for example, to keep cocaine out of the United States. We send millions of dollars to Colombia and to other countries and we try to stop that. But the real problem we have is we are a big, rich country, and there is a big demand for cocaine here. So no matter what we do in the other countries, the cocaine still keeps coming in, and the same with other illegal drugs. Here we have a chance to make a much bigger difference than we can with illegal drugs. We still are creating the demand problem. This is a country that accounts for 25 percent of all the wealth in the world. It is a country that perhaps buys a huge volume of illegal timber from around the world. Well, we can stop that. This is not a drug addiction, this is a business practice, and it is a practice we can stop according to the laws of this country. When we stop it, we will make an enormous difference for our country and for the other countries.
So what is the next logical step in this line of reasoning? Visit the Thomas web site and find page S13967 in the Congressional Record to see it in print. Thanks to DPA's Grant Smith for the tip.
United States

The great and costly drug-war fraud

Victoria Times Colonist (Canada)

"Snow Fall" Atlantic Monthly article articulates the sheer futility of the supply-side drug war

There's an interesting article by Ken Dermota in the latest issue of Atlantic Monthly, "Snow Fall," a discussion of the failure of interdiction and source country efforts to drive up the US street price of cocaine. Dermota points out the two sides of prohibition's price dynamic:
[P]olicing has a big impact on cocaine prices: On the streets of Bogota, a gram of cocaine can be had for under $2. Recreational users in America, on the other hand, typically pay upward of $50 a gram... Yet over time, cocaine prices per pure gram in the United States have steadily fallen, from $600 in the early 1980s to less than $200 by the mid-1990s.
The government's stated purpose for engaging in supply-side drug enforcement measures is to drive up the price, in order to reduce use. Given that prices have fallen so dramatically, it is safe to say that the supply-side strategy of increase prices has not decreased use (because the price increases never happened). Prohibition itself drives up the price of drugs (with calamitous effects on the people who are addicted to the drugs, indeed driving many of them to commit crimes that affect the rest of us, but that's a separate issue), but supply-side enforcement appears to have failed completely by its own measures. The period of time Dermota cited is about a quarter century, by the way, enough time to conduct a pretty conclusive test, IMHO. Dermota explains why the seizures of illicit drugs that government officials like to hype so much may actually illustrate failure, not success:
In March, the US Coast Guard intercepted a freighter off Panama laden with 20 tons of cocaine, in the largest maritime bust ever. That was followed in April by Colombian authorities' seizure of a 15-ton cache most likely awaiting shipment to Mexico... Of course, the good news is soured by the fact that cocaine production remains robust enough to allow shipment in 20-ton batches.
Drug policy reformer Judge James P. Gray of Santa Ana County in California has made this point as well. He should know -- as a prosecutor prior to joining the Superior Court he was involved in a seizure of heroin that at the time set the quantity record. When he delivered the speech that the link above points to in 1994, that record had long been dwarfed. (I helped to organize that conference, by the way, at Harvard Law School with the Civil Liberties Union of Mass., early during my activist career when I was still a volunteer. Afterwards I guided Judge Gray, former NORML director Dick Cowan and actor Michael Moriarty to the bed-and-breakfast where we put them up.) Dermota may be a legalizer, though not an optimistic one, and he doesn't directly say he is:
Sea changes in policy, such as decriminalization or legalization of drugs, look politically untenable.
Unfortunately, the link above to the article only gets you the beginning, you need to be a subscriber to see the whole thing, or get a hold of a copy of the magazine. Anyway, there's at least one good drug reporter in the country. :) Besides DRCNet's Phil Smith, that is. :) Thanks to Steve Heath for the heads-up.
United States

Group claims prohibition, war on drugs is a failure

United States
The Daily Vidette (IL)

In Mexico, a brutal week in a year already full of bloodshed

Mexico City
The Dallas Morning News

Laws change way users get their drug of choice

United States
Tri-City Herald (WA)

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