Don't Trust Your Gut: Drug Laws


    When dealing with issues of public policy, there are solutions that are right and solutions that will work.

    Solutions that are right are based upon our natural senses of justice and fairness.  Solutions that will work are not necessarily so. Experts build these solutions through careful experimentation and scientific examination of the problem at hand. The solutions they come up with are then not based on common sense nor are they guaranteed to appeal to our sense of justice. However, they are also incredibly effective.

    Drug regulation is a shining example of the conflict between the right solutions and effective solutions. Drug use and abuse is widely recognized as a destructive problem in the nations where it exists, which is to say: all of them. As a result, nearly every functional government runs some sort of effort to try and reduce drug use amongst its citizens.

    In the United States, our effort is widely referred to as the “War on Drugs.” The War on Drugs is so named because it is defined by a very hardline military and legal effort against both the drug business and drug users. The logic is simple, if you make the penalties for doing drugs harsh enough, not as many people will do them. In addition, the policy plays into our sense of a righteous government. If we don’t like something, we don’t tolerate it.

    However, it has been widely shown that the War on Drugs is all but a failure. Not only does the aggressive stance do very little to reduce usage but it has also put hundreds of thousands of people in prison. The problem here is that our prison system is geared more towards punishment rather than rehabilitation.  Thus, released prisoners rarely re-enter society more stable than they were when they left it.

    According to a study published in a 2012 issue of Addiction Science and Clinical Practice, inmates who serve time for drug related crimes have a fairly high incidence of drug use after release. The study determined that released inmates who return to economically and socially poor areas, are surrounded by drug culture, or suffer from stress or depression have high risks of relapsing into drug use. The Urban Institute reports that approximately 15 percent of convicted drug offenders are reincarcerated within one year of their release from prison.

    Furthermore, the percentage of Americans who use illegal drugs has been steadily rising over the past decade. Even as use of harder drugs such as cocaine and heroin has declined, surges in marijuana and psychotherapeutic use have more than made up the difference. These increases in drug use have brought a corresponding increase in incarceration rates. Nearly a fourth of all current inmates in the U.S. were convicted on drug charges and our prisons have become grossly overpopulated.

    The cost of these measures is not insignificant. The War on Drugs costs an estimated 20 to 25 billion dollars each year, according to the New York Times. This figure does not include the costs of incarceration nor does it include the cost of the manpower we lose when a person is jailed. Furthermore, with states passing conflicting drug laws, as Colorado just did, comes huge discrepancies between federal and state laws. These conflicts induce all sorts of legal fees and trial expenses as the judicial branch tries to grapple with the ensuing quagmire.

    So, to run down the status of the War on Drugs: expenses are huge and rising, confusion is rampant, rehabilitation is failing and drug use is increasing. This is not a successful program, especially when you compare it to the alternatives being used in other countries.

    The first step towards more effective drug reduction is decriminalization. Note that decriminalization is not the same as legalization. Decriminalized drugs are still illegal but you’ll receive punishments other than prison time for getting caught with them. This distinction means that drug use is treated as a medical issue before it becomes a criminal issue.

    It is my opinion that nearly all drugs should be decriminalized. The only exception is marijuana, but more on that later. We need to get away from the idea that most drug addicts are criminals who need to be punished for their actions. Rather, they need to be treated as potentially functional people who can contribute to society if given proper care.

    The second step is a reallocation of the money and resources that are currently committed to drug enforcement. Instead of busting down doors and arresting teenagers, drug enforcement should be far more passive. 20 billion dollars could pay for a lot of psychiatrists and rehab centers. We need to offer drug abusers adequate recourse to get them back into functional society. Now, all of this may sound fairly simple and perhaps even morally palatable. However, we need a way to force drug addicts to get help. Most people don’t like this next part.

    The best way to get drug addicts into the rehabilitation system is to lure them with a supply of drugs. A number of countries have begun running programs referred to as “heroin-assisted treatment” (HAT). A HAT program goes like this: heroin is made available at certain clinics. The drug is totally or almost completely free but you must have a doctor’s prescription to get it. When someone receives a prescription, the doctor reports them to the HAT infrastructure and all of their known information is logged into a government database. Drug enforcement and treatment officials now know all the important information about the addict, this includes physical data such as their places of work and residence but also any medical information that the doctor has on file. The program lurches into action once the user actually obtains the heroin. Because the addict is in the system, the professionals who need to help them have little to no trouble tracking them down. Furthermore, since the clinic has become the addict’s supplier, the addict can be extorted into beginning and then continuing rehabilitation under the threat of voiding their prescriptions. This program is not a cure all and should be accompanied by other, less extreme measures but one fact remains clear: the key to curing drug use is treatment and care, not incarceration.

    This system has been fully implemented in Switzerland and has been very successful. Not only did it reduce heroin use by about 18 percent in just 13 years, but it is also cheaper and possesses a number of side benefits. First, in the case of heroin, the clinics ensure the safety and sterility of needles and thus reduce the spread of blood-borne pathogens. Second, the clinics pull business away from criminal drug organizations. Finally, it actually helps the addicts. The end result isn’t just a reduction in drug use but also the effective rehabilitation of individuals. Those individuals are then available to contribute to society rather than eating through budgets whilst languishing in prison.

    Though there have been a few trials already, I would like to see an expansion of HAT programs in the United States. Even more, I’d like to see other addictive drugs added to the program. If this system works for heroin, why shouldn’t it work for cocaine and crystal meth? Similar to the issue of needles, meth would be a lot less dangerous if it was produced in safe, laboratory environments instead of barns and basements.  Some of you may be bothered by the principle of government sponsored drug production and delivery. My one request is that you consider the possibility that results are more important than principles.

    Don’t worry, I didn’t forget about marijuana. Considering that it is about as impairing as alcohol and much less likely to put you in the hospital, marijuana should really be completely legalized. Maybe we’d put age and usage restrictions on it, kind of like tobacco products. Otherwise, I see no reason for marijuana to be illegal so long as tobacco and alcohol are not. In addition, I’m allured by the  prospective oodles of money that our government could make from taxing marijuana sales and production. Perhaps we could funnel such income into our HAT programs.