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June 27, 2006 - Boston Globe (MA)

OpEd: The Wrong Way To Fight The War On Drugs

By Jim Bildner and Madeline Drexler

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

THIRTY-FIVE YEARS ago this month, President Richard Nixon launched the modern-day war on drugs, calling illicit substances "America's public enemy number one." Today -- after endless confiscations and arrests, stacks of scientific reports, and hundreds of billions of dollars in government funding -- Americans are left with one conclusion: The war on drugs has failed.

It has failed for many reasons. Our leaders refuse to accept the facts on the ground. Their strategies are shaped more by punitive ideology than by pragmatism and compassion. And too many Americans still believe that drug addiction is someone else's problem.

As a result, our government's wrongheaded policies have gone unchecked -- with countless lives lost, families wrecked, and victims more cruelly marginalized than in other developed nations.

Fact: In the three decades since Nixon declared substance abuse a "national emergency," the United States has focused on curbing supply and demand for illegal drugs. Currently, nearly half a million people in this country are behind bars for drug crimes (mostly trafficking).

Yet the domestic drug market remains free-flowing. Classic economic theory states that when supply goes down, the price of a commodity goes up and its purity declines. With hard street drugs, the inverse has occurred. They're dramatically cheaper and purer than they were 25 years ago -- suggesting greater supply and easy access. Adjusted for inflation, cocaine prices have dropped by more than half since 1980. A bag of heroin goes for little more than a gallon of gas or a six-pack of water.

Virtually every campaign to eradicate or interdict illicit drugs abroad has enhanced either the ingenuity or ruthlessness of growers and smugglers. Experts call this "squeezing the balloon." Wipe out coca crops in Bolivia or Peru, and cultivation starts up in Colombia. Raid US methamphetamine labs, and Mexican operations quickly fill the gap. A bottomless global supply feeds a steady home-grown demand.

Fact: Despite strong consensus among researchers that drug treatment should be the centerpiece of policy, our government shortchanges this cost-effective approach. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 3 million Americans suffer serious drug problems, and 17,000 die annually from their addiction. Treatment has been proven to reduce drug use, improve patients' health and job prospects, and cut the risk of overdose, crime, and HIV infection.

In the United States, however, most sufferers receive no medical or psychological help at all. Barely a quarter of the Bush administration's substance abuse spending goes toward rehabilitation. By contrast, Nixon devoted more than half of his anti-drug budget to helping those at the mercy of their habit. Enforcement, he insisted, had to be paired with innovative approaches to saving patients. In today's political climate, such ideas would be considered progressive.

How can we begin a national dialogue on this charged and complicated issue? "The problem is not that the United States has failed to do the impossible," write the University of Maryland's Peter Reuter and the University of Chicago's Harold Pollack, two respected observers of the drug wars, "but that it has failed to do things that could readily be done."

True, we must target high-level dealers with swift and certain punishment. But tough enforcement alone won't work. Spending priorities must be turned upside down.

Doing what "could readily be done" means shifting investment toward treatment and harm reduction; easing regulations on opiate maintenance therapies like methadone; and imposing strict standards on private treatment facilities, which have flourished in a regulatory limbo.

It also means figuring out which programs discourage drug use and which are cynical quick fixes, and supporting the research that will help us tell the difference. Prevention, not punishment, is the core of enlightened public health.

After 35 years, the war on drugs -- a failure by any measure -- should be phased out, so that the real fight can begin.

Jim Bildner, whose son died last year of a heroin overdose, is chairman of the Literary Ventures Fund. Madeline Drexler, a Boston-based science journalist, has a visiting appointment at the Harvard School of Public Health.

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