Drug War Update 2016: Same Shit, Different Day


I used to post a commentary at the end of the year updating the drug war (see this, for example).  Then I stopped doing it because it seemed that hardly anything changed.  I often felt that I could simply copy the one from the previous year and just change the date!  Maybe add a subtitle such as “same shit, different year.”


I don’t really feel like doing this again, but a couple of recent stories caught my eye. One was about the DEA refusing to reschedule marijuana from a category I schedule, which includes the “hard drugs” like cocaine and heroin.  This story is found in the Drug Policy Alliance dated August 11 of this year.  The article goes on to say that: “But in what is viewed as a victory for the marijuana reform movement, the DEA said that it was ending its monopoly on marijuana research.” The article goes on to say that for decades the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) was the only agency that supplied marijuana to scientists to study the effects of the drug. And NIDA has had “a long track record of obstructing medical marijuana research – by manufacturing intractable delays, providing poor quality research material, and not providing marijuana for multiple FDA-approved studies.” 


Finally, there’s some good news to report. But there is also some bad news, which means for all practical purposes it is “same shit, different year.”

The bad news comes from a report concerning Afghanistan. This past year “saw a 10 percent jump in opium cultivation” “because of bumper harvests, collapsing eradication efforts due to growing insecurity and declining international aid to combat drugs.”  This was according to the United Nations. The report noted that “Addiction levels have also risen sharply -- from almost nothing under the 1996-2001 Taliban regime -- giving rise to a new generation of addicts since the 2001 US-led invasion of Afghanistan.”

This should be no surprise because the U.S. has always had a policy focusing on the law enforcement rather than prevention.  In other words, focusing on the supply side rather than the demand side of the drug problem. Those who have been involved in drug research over the past several decades have consistently said that we should be focusing on the demand side.  

For example, the Drug Policy Alliance has stated very clearly that: “A prime example of the drug war’s backward logic is its distortion of the basic economic principle of supply and demand. The federal government funnels vast resources into criminal justice and interdiction policies intended to reduce the supply of drugs, while neglecting treatment and education strategies that could help reduce drug demand.”  Further, “Despite being the largest consumer of drugs in the world, the U.S. focuses hugely on supply reduction strategies in other countries while investing little in demand reduction strategies domestically.”

Back in 2001 the Rand Corporation wrote a report that basically came to the same conclusion about the failure of focusing on the supply side.  

Many other researchers have come to the same conclusion, such as economist Robert Stonebraker wrote that: “Despite the billions of dollars spent every year, illegal drugs still cascade over our borders.  If we seal off California, they flow through Texas; if we seal off the water, they come in by air. If we build fences along our borders, traffickers simply knock them down, tunnel under them or, in at least one case, build catapults to throw hundred-pound sacks of drugs over them.”

Shannon K. O'Neil, writing for the Council on Foreign Relations, says the same thing, noting that the supply-side approach “doesn’t seem to have changed the fundamental drug markets, at least not for the better. Cocaine and heroin prices have hit all-time lows, indicating greater availability, while purity has increased by more than half in recent years.” She notes that: “Treatment programs, particularly when focused on rehab for heavy drug users, are by far the most cost effective U.S. policy. For every million dollars spent, these programs reduce lifetime cocaine consumption by 100 grams.” Further, says O’Neil, “Investing in treatment also yields impressive returns in terms of public safety, as every dollar spent on substance abuse rehabilitation reduces the costs of associated crime by an estimated seven dollars.”

The United Nations has stated very clearly that the focus should be on the demand side.  In their “Declaration on the Guiding Principles of Drug Demand Reduction” they stated that they “Pledge a sustained political, social, health and educational commitment to investing in demand reduction programmes that will contribute towards reducing public health problems, improving individual health and well-being, promoting social and economic integration, reinforcing family systems and making communities safer.”

This declaration was adopted in 1988. Looks like we haven’t abided by this very simple principle, backed by many years of research.

At least the Obama Administration made an effort to focus on the demand side with their “2011 National Drug Control Strategy.”  

But has it worked?  The answer from the Drug Policy Alliance is a resounding “no”!  They note that: “The Obama administration says that drug use should be treated as a health issue instead of a criminal justice issue. Yet its budget and its drug policies have largely emphasized enforcement, prosecution and incarceration at home, and interdiction, eradication and military escalation abroad. Even what the government does spend on treatment and prevention is overstated, as many of its programs are wasteful and counterproductive.”  Further, in the latest budget (FY 2015), “about 55 percent is devoted to policies that attempt to reduce the supply of drugs, such as interdiction, eradication and domestic law enforcement. Less than 45 percent is devoted to treatment, education and prevention.”

In conclusion, I regret to say, once again, “same shit, different day.”