Recovering from Drugs and the Drug War: A Viable Public Health Alternative
31 Pages Posted: 20 Dec 2002
Date Written: October 28, 2002
For three decades our War on Drugs has characterized illicit drug use as a law enforcement problem, to be addressed primarily through interdiction and criminal punishment. This policy has multiplied the number of imprisoned Americans, but our drug problem remains as entrenched as ever, and both voters and policy experts appear ready to embrace an alternative public health approach. Such an approach recognizes that a substantial number of Americans will continue to use drugs for the foreseeable future, and seeks to minimize the risks these people face from their drug habits. This requires programs and funding for treatment, education, and job opportunities. It also requires strategies that promote less frequent use, or safer, less abusive use, or a shift in consumption from hard to soft drugs - as opposed to the current all-or-nothing policies that have proven to exacerbate the risks of drug use.
This article presents and advocates one legal reform at the state level that would significantly move our drug policy towards the public health approach, and a method for enacting it that has already proven achievable. The proposed law can be summarized by the phrase "drug profits for drug treatment." This law would reorient drug policy in two important ways. First, it would substitute treatment for incarceration of lesser drug offenders. As the article demonstrates, substantial recent research indicates that treatment is a far more effective method of addressing drug dependence than punishment. Second, it would finance treatment by redirecting assets seized and forfeited from drug offenders into a Treatment Trust Fund, and repeal laws that currently channel these assets into the police forces that seized them. The latter laws have made law enforcement agencies dependent on drug enforcement to maintain their budgets. Redirecting these forfeited assets not only helps fund treatment, but frees law enforcement and drug policy officials from a financial conflict of interest that has distorted their priorities. The article concludes that this reform is politically viable, based on the success reformers have already achieved by utilizing state laws authorizing voters to legislate via the ballot box. Over the past six years voters in many states have approved numerous drug reform ballot initiatives, including some designed to enhance drug treatment and to curtail forfeiture abuse.
Keywords: Drugs, drug war, public health, harm reduction, forfeiture, treatment, illicit drugs, drug abuse, police, drug enforcement
JEL Classification: 118, 139, H51, K32, K42
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation