Still a war worth fighting
New anti-drug policy is right to focus on the public-health issue, but ...
So the “war” is over. We’re talking specifically about the long-running war on illegal drugs, first declared by President Richard Nixon in 1971.
In a talk this month announcing a fundamental shift in drug policy under the Obama administration, the nation’s new drug czar, Gil Kerlikowske, said that instead of an intense focus on incarceration and criminalization—he would prefer we drop the phrase “war on drugs”—illegal drug use will be treated more as a publichealth issue. That means a renewed emphasis on prevention, intervention and treatment.
“Calling it a war really limits your resources,” Kerlikowske said. “And, essentially, the greatest resource in a war is some type of force. Looking at this as both a publicsafety problem and a public-health problem seems to make a lot more sense.”
Heaven knows the criminal-justice system has become choked with drug-related cases—many that certainly raise the question of whether the punishment truly fits the crime.
At the same time, part of the policy must include continuing to take the fight to those who aren’t victims of the public-health crisis. When it comes to the perpetrators of the problem, the producers, the traffickers, the gangbangers, does anybody really have a problem with using all the law-enforcement resources available—“waging war” if you will—in an effort to save thousands of lives from the tragedy of addiction and all the social ills associated with it?
We know that four decades of this war haven’t exactly produced stunning results for the numerous programs and initiatives that all the administrations since Nixon have thrown at the problem—to the tune of about $1 trillion and counting.
“In the grand scheme, it has not been successful,” Kerlikowske told the Associated Press in talking about previous policy. “Forty years later, the concern about drugs and drug problems is, if anything, magnified, intensified.”
Statistics support that statement. We remain a nation hooked on drugs, even though consumption is gradually trending lower. Still, according to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, some 330 tons of cocaine, 110 tons of methamphetamine and 20 tons of heroin are sold in the U.S. annually, much of it smuggled in. Estimates of marijuana volume, both smuggled and domestic production, are in the thousands of tons. And about 15 million Americans are consumers of marijuana, according to a 2008 government report.
Meanwhile, a 2002 estimate of the overall economic cost of drug abuse was set at more than $180 billion. Does anybody think that in 2010 that total has done anything other than rise like smoke escaping from a crack pipe?
Given all those negative numbers, has the “war on drugs” been in vain? Of course not. Nobody knows where this nation might be in the struggle over drug abuse if not for the many “soldiers” who have been fighting in the trenches all these years—police, clergy, civic leaders, healthcare providers, to name just a few. The situation could be far worse.
While it’s probably correct to say by all quantitative measures that little progress has been made in actually loosening the hold drugs have on this nation, what about those who were saved? What about those who did hear the relentless anti-drug messages and chose to “just say no”?
The bottom line here is that as long as demand for drugs stays strong, there will always be the need for supply and people willing to take great risks to deliver the goods. Reduce the number of willful users and you chip away at the crisis. The Obama administration’s new policy targets this side of the equation, which we applaud.
It will always be a battle worth fighting.