House Subcommittee Hearings on Drug Legalization:
Statement to House Subcommittee by the Drug Policy Foundation
Scott Ehlers, Senior Policy Analyst
Chairman Mica, Rep. Mink, and other Distinguished Members of the Subcommittee:
My name is Scott Ehlers and I am the Senior Policy Analyst for the Drug Policy Foundation in Washington, D.C.
Thank you for inviting me to testify about our nation's drug policies and the growing movement to bring about drug policy reform. I am proud to say that the Drug Policy Foundation has been on the forefront of these efforts since the organization's inception in 1986.
I am sorry to say that over the last two decades, the drug-war strain on the criminal justice system has gone up significantly, from 580,900 drug arrests in 1980 to nearly 1.6 million in 1997, the highest level in our nation's history. The number of drug offenders in state and federal prisons has skyrocketed from 12,475 in 1980 to 281,419 in 1997, a 2,155% increase.
Increased arrests, prisons do not reduce drug availability
Has the U.S. attempt to incarcerate its way out of the drug problem made drugs less available or increased their price on the street? Not at all. According to the DEA, since 1981, cocaine and heroin prices are at historically low levels today, and purity is very high. There has been little change in the amount of cocaine, heroin, and marijuana available for consumption today compared with 10 years ago.
Disturbingly, the high number of drug arrests and prisoners has not reduced young people's access to illegal drugs. The Monitoring the Future Survey found that 87% of high school seniors said it was "easy" or "fairly easy" to get marijuana in 1975. Twenty-four years and millions of arrests later, 90.4% of seniors said the drug was easily obtained in 1998. Similarly, the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse found that it is much easier for high school students to buy marijuana than beer. Clearly, our nation's current drug strategy is not achieving its intended goal of increasing the price of drugs and reducing people'sespecially youth'saccess to them.
How many people will we have to throw in prison before we declare victory in the war on drugs? How many of the 77 million Americans who have used illegal drugs should be rounded up and sent to jail? How many schools are we willing to neglect in order to expand our prison system? How many lives and billions of dollars are we going to waste before we realize, "There has to be a better way?"
Drug-free or simply un-free?
What is that better way? First, we must recognize that a drug-free society has never existed in human history, and that the current attempts to create a drug-free society will simply result in an un-free society. Will we eliminate personal privacy, cut off foreign trade, institute population-wide random drug testing, wiretap all the phones, create an army of police and informants, monitor all financial transactions, and build a prison system big enough to hold every drug user before we recognize the folly of our ways? Unfortunately, this is the path on which we are currently traveling.
Minimize the harms associated with drug use and drug policy
If a drug-free society cannot be created, then what can be done? We can minimize the harms associated with drug use and our drug policies. Unfortunately, the drug war itself creates excessive amounts of harm including: the curtailment of civil liberties through heavy-handed police tactics; the ever-expanding role of the military in domestic law enforcement; large-scale imprisonment and disenfranchisement of the citizenry, particularly minorities; a growing disrespect for the law and police by youth and minorities because they are being targeted for drug arrests; the rapid spread of HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis; and expanding global interventionism and militarism to fight the war on drugs.
Rather than continue down this road of self-destruction, the Drug Policy Foundation and its allies would like to offer another way to deal with drug-related problems. I urge the members of the subcommittee to study the attached documents for a detailed examination of the reforms we are suggesting. Included is a summary of the FY 2000 Appropriations Recommendations (Attachment 1) and legislative agenda (Attachment 2) of the National Coalition for Effective Drug Policies, which is made up of criminal justice, public health, civil rights, women, and youth interest groups, and for which I currently serve as coordinator. I have also included a summary of the Effective National Drug Control Strategy, published by the Network of Reform Groups in consultation with the National Coalition. (Attachment 3) After examining these documents, I think you will see that our suggested reforms have a broad base of support, including in Congress, where numerous pieces of legislation that would implement some of the reforms we are advocating have been introduced.
DPF's drug policy vision is based on the following principles and reforms:
1) Drug use and addiction should be treated as public health issues, not criminal justice problems.
Treatment-on-request should be made available, as required by the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988. Private insurance companies should provide coverage for substance abuse treatment. Methadone maintenance should be more widely available, including through private physicians. Other maintenance therapies should be explored, including the use of buprenorphine, as Sen. Orrin Hatch is seeking in S. 324, and heroin maintenance, based on the successful programs in England and Switzerland. Drug prevention efforts should be expanded, and they should be accompanied by honest, rational dialogue, not scare tactics.
Finally, if drug use and addiction were treated as a health problem, you would have health care workers reaching out to drug users, rather than the police actively seeking out and arresting people for possessing personal quantities of drugs. With the threat of criminal sanctions gone, many more people with substance abuse problems would seek medical assistance rather than hiding out of fear of arrest and imprisonment.
2) Prevention should be expanded to include activities that address the root causes of drug use and abuse.
Poverty, joblessness, hopelessness, mental illness, lack of after-school activities for youth - these are reasons many individuals turn to drugs for comfort, self-medication, and recreation. To address these root causes of drug use and abuse, community development should be promoted, job training programs should be available, the mentally ill should receive adequate medication, and youth should have more recreation and learning opportunities after school, when much drug use and crime occurs.
3) Drug policies should be based on science and research, not ideology.
The evidence for reform already exists. Research and experience has shown that treatment is more cost-effective at reducing the demand for drugs than prison. The Institute of Medicine found marijuana to be an effective medicine. Seven government-funded studies have found syringe exchange to reduce the spread of HIV and not increase drug use.
Treatment should be provided as an alternative to prison, medical marijuana patients should not be arrested, and syringes should be available through pharmacies or syringe exchange should be funded by the government.
4) Drug policies should be based on a respect for the Constitution, civil liberties, and property rights.
The drug war has gutted the Fourth Amendment's protection against unreasonable searches and seizures; has allowed the government to effectively steal private property under the civil asset forfeiture laws; results in racial profiling on the highways and in airports; infringes upon financial privacy, as seen in the recently defeated Know Your Customer regulations; and is used as a justification to turn the nation's schools into virtual prisons with lockdown searches, random drug testing, and video surveillance.
We recommend that the civil asset forfeiture laws be reformed, as Rep. Hyde advocates in H.R. 1658, racial profiling should be investigated, as Rep. Conyers' H.R. 1443 would do, and financial privacy should be restored, as in Rep. Ron Paul's H.R. 518.
5) Federal drug policy should respect democracy and states' rights.
The federal government should stop threatening states that have passed initiatives supporting medical marijuana and other drug policy reforms. In the District of Columbia, the federal government effectively outlawed citizens from voting on a medical marijuana initiative and operating a syringe exchange program with its own funds. If democracy is to remain intact and government innovation is to take place, states' rights must be respected. Drug policy innovations should not be treated differently from other policy innovations.
6) Mandatory minimums should be repealed, drug-related sentences reduced, and alternatives to incarceration implemented.
Three Supreme Court Justices, numerous federal judges, and recently, noted criminologist John DiIulio have called for the repeal of mandatory minimums because they impose unduly harsh sentences on minor drug offenders, and result in wasteful spending for incarceration without adding to public safety. Mandatory minimums should be repealed, as advocated by Rep. Waters in H.R. 1681, and the Sentencing Guidelines should be allowed to do the job of determining the appropriate sentence for individual offenders. Additionally, drug-related sentences should be reduced so that the punishment fits the crime, and alternatives to incarceration should be implemented to reduce costs to the taxpayers and promote rehabilitation of drug offenders.
7) The regulation and control of currently illicit drugs must be included as one of the drug policy options that is considered.
If I were to define "legalization," it would be the regulation and control of the use and sale of currently illicit drugs. Would the government, doctors, pharmacies or special drug stores dispense the drugs? Would all currently illicit drugs be sold in the regulated market, or would some be deemed to be unacceptably dangerous and remain illegal? Would there be restrictions on the quantity of drugs sold to buyers? Would drugs be legalized over one year, five years, or twenty years? All of these questions would have to be answered by the American public and federal, state, and local governments. One thing we do know right now is that it would remain illegal for minors to use and buy drugs, for adults to give or sell drugs to minors, and for anyone to drive or endanger others while under the influence of drugs.
Why must regulation be considered? Because prohibition and the resulting black market enriches criminals and terrorists around the world, results in gang warfare over the control of drug markets, encourages the recruitment of youth to sell drugs, provides youth with easier access to drugs, corrupts government officials, destabilizes governments, and undermines the rule of law. Drugs that are distributed in the black market are more potent than those available in a regulated market, and they are of unknown potency and quality, resulting in increased overdoses and deaths.
If the debate about our nation's drug policies is to be honest, open, and fully informed, then the problems created by drug prohibition must be recognized. We must also acknowledge the potential benefits of regulating the drug market, including eliminating drug trade-related violence, eliminating the recruitment of youth into the drug trade, reduced access to drugs by children, reduced drug enforcement costs, availability of less potent drugs of known quality, and the use of significant tax revenues from drug sales for prevention and treatment efforts.
There are a wide variety of drug policy innovations that would save tax dollars, save lives, protect children, and improve public safety, but politicians must first realize that police and prisons are not the solution for all our social problems. As a free society, we should be searching for ways to reduce the number of police and prisoners, not increase them. As a free society we should also embrace an honest and open discussion about drug policy options. Unless we seriously consider all of the options, not just the status quo, we will not be able to determine what is the best policy for our country.
Thank you for giving me this opportunity to discuss these very important issues with today. I hope this hearing will serve as the beginning of a more open debate on drug policy in Congress and the rest of the country.