Pubdate: Tue, 26 Jun 2001
Source: United Press International (Wire)
Copyright: 2001 United Press International
Author: Stephanie K. Taylor


WASHINGTON, June 26 (UPI) -- The United States is losing the war on
drugs because of the shortcomings and failures of current U.S. drug
policy, says a recent report from a major think tank.

U.S. policy, which is focused on interdiction and incarceration, has
failed to reduce the availability of drugs, while forcing U.S.
anti-drug institutions to watch helplessly as street prices of illegal
substances mysteriously fell, said the report.

The report's author Peter Reuter -- a drug policy analyst with the
RAND Institute and the founder and former director of RAND's Drug
Policy Research Center -- said that this failure occurred despite a
more than threefold increase in allotted drug war spending, from $10
billion annually in the 1980s to $35 billion in the late 1990s.

The paper, "Supply-Side Drug Control," published in the Milken
Institute Review in May, said that three-quarters of that $35 billion
(of which $18 billion is spent by the federal government and the rest
spent by state and local governments), is spent on apprehending and
punishing drug dealers and users.

Most of the people who are incarcerated for drug-selling are from the
bottom-level of the distribution system, the report said.

The report acknowledges the success of the enforcement policy in
keeping the price of drugs high. It cites operations researcher
Jonathan Caulkins, who estimates that, if legal, cocaine might retail
for as little as $5 a gram. It currently retails for $100 a gram.

It currently costs $10,000 to ship a kilogram (2.2 pounds) of cocaine
from Bogota, Colombia, to Miami, but if cocaine were legal, Federal
Express would charge only a $100, Reuter said.

"The real question, though, is not whether interdiction raises the
price of illicit drugs, but whether it is possible through tougher
enforcement to make the drugs much more expensive and less accessible
than they are now," Reuter wrote. "And to date, smugglers'
adaptability has limited the success of interdiction surges."

So, although the drug problem is "gradually lessening," Reuter said
that this has been accomplished at great cost through many dimensions.

Reuter is not alone in his low appraisal of current U.S. drug policy.
Think tank scholars on both sides of the political spectrum
acknowledge the limitations of the current policy, and experts from
both the right and left say the U.S. needs to begin to look at the
drug problem as a public health problem and not a criminal problem.

Timothy Lynch, director of the Project on Criminal Justice at the
libertarian Cato Institute, says even government officials see
limitations of the current policy.

"Well, we've maintained for a long time that the government's efforts
have been quite ineffective," Lynch says. "And most government
officials who are candid will admit this."

Sanho Tree, director of the Drug Policy Project at the liberal
Institute for Policy Studies, agrees that the current
enforcement-based policy has been ineffective in curtailing the U.S.
drug problem.

"Perhaps there is some level of coercion that would work, but I
seriously doubt that we would want to live in that type of society,"
Tree said, citing the Iranian government as an example.

Lynch cites corruption within law enforcement units, drug
overdose-related deaths, and addicts' petty thefts to finance their
habits as a few of society's ills that have resulted from an
enforcement-based drug policy.

Law enforcement units not only turn a blind eye to illegal activity as
a result of bribery, but perform official duties such as arrests and
search and seizures to aid gangs in the current atmosphere of gang

Lynch's standard libertarian answer to these criminal justice and
public health challenges? The decriminalization of drugs.

"We have to have a whole new approach to the problem of drug abuse,"
Lynch says.  "Should somebody go to jail just for using drugs? No."

And some liberals can understand Lynch's reasoning.

"Prohibition doesn't mean that we control drugs, but that we have
given up the right to control drugs," Tree says.

Lynch says that in a legal regime the so-called black market violence
that results from gang rivalry would decrease, along with the number
of petty crimes addicts commit to finance their habits, and that drugs
would be much less expensive.

Lynch also thinks there would be significant improvements in public
health. The legalization of drugs would allow the government to
regulate the quality of drugs, reducing the number of overdose deaths
that result from impure products, Lynch says, and addicts would no
longer be forced to share needles that can transmit HIV.

However, Sally Satel, M.D., the W. H. Brady fellow at the conservative
American Enterprise Institute, warns of more addicts and the social
pathology that she believes would result with the decriminalization of
hard drugs.

Satel acknowledges legitimate concerns about the current drug policy.
However, based on her experience as a staff psychiatrist at the Oasis
Drug Treatment Clinic in Washington, she is more worried about the
massive trade-offs -- more users addicted to cheaper and
easier-to-obtain drugs--that she thinks would be brought by

"Maybe there are some aspects of the current system that we can save,"
Satel says.

Tree does not think decriminalization is necessarily the solution to
the current policy woes, although he does see the need to regulate
drugs. He believes there are a variety of policy options between
prohibition and legalization that should be tested.

"Top priority, however, should be universal treatment on request," he
says. "Insufficient funding sometimes forces clinics to turn away
addicts for several months," Tree says, and "they may or may not
return months later for help."

Treatment programs seem to very popular with think tank scholars, and
Satel also supports an increased focus on diverting addicts to
treatment. Although he does not think they are the sole solution,
Reuter writes that treatment programs have proven themselves effective
and are also desirable in terms of benefit to cost.

While most of them support treatment, think tanks analysts say that
the other leg of demand-based policy -- prevention programs -- are
currently unsuccessful. Reuter's report criticizes the DARE program --
which is ubiquitous in schools across the country -- and he is
doubtful about the effectiveness of any type of prevention program.

"There is no reason to believe that we know how to immunize kids
against drug abuse," he writes.

Tree would also like to see the DARE program abandoned. Although he
doesn't know exactly what type of program should replace it, he
believes the government should experiment with a variety of approaches.

Think tank scholars on all sides of the ideological debate seem to
realize the ineffectiveness of current U.S. drug policy, but most are
uncertain about what steps to take to fix the problem.

"I don't know what an ideal drug policy would like," Tree says: "but I
know what the contours of (such a) policy would look like. It would be
based on European models, but adapted to fit with the cultural
differences in the United States," he says.

Tree is dissatisfied with what he sees as a lack of flexibility to
explore new approaches to drug policy. "Our current policy doesn't
work, but we're not being allowed to experiment with what might," he
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