The Harmful Stupidity of US Drug Policy, Part II: Domestic Impact
This series is not an argument in favor of drug legalization, drug use, or substance abuse. Nor is it meant to include policy recommendations. Rather, this series is an exploration of how the War on Drugs exemplifies the destructive impact that public policy failures can have on society at all levels, from global affairs to individual lives. Previously, I had written about the foreign policy implications of our involvement in the War on Drugs, specifically in Central and South America. There is much, much more to be said on that subject but for now I’m moving on to the domestic, social implications of our drug policies.
In harm reduction policy “macro-harm” refers to total harm done to both users and society from drug use and the associated behaviors, while “micro-harm” refers to harm per use or per dose. The idea is that reducing micro-harm can reduce macro-harm; but this is not necessarily the case, primarily because enforcement has chosen to reduce use through interdiction and incarceration, each of which cause their own macro-harm to users and to society. If you’ve ever watched an episode of The Wire, you know what I’m talking about. Our institutions – police, education, government – following the standard and accepted policy practices, fail to achieve both micro- and macro-harm reduction and the cycle keeps on spinning with only the players changing. As with most illicit markets, strong incentives drive the supply. Prohibition and enforcement increase market prices and the addictive properties of the product ensure repeat customers who will pay high costs to get their fix. Interdiction does little to disrupt the supply, as production, distribution, and sales are quickly reestablished through replacement. The potential profits are so high that the threat of incarceration by enforcement or even death from market rivals are not prohibitive – particularly for those whose background and socioeconomic status leave them few other options for making nearly as much money.
In 2006, 53% of federal prison inmates were drug offenders while drug law violators comprised 19.6% of all adults serving time in state prisons. 27.9% of drug offenders in state prisons are serving time for possession; 69.4% are serving time for trafficking offenses; and 2.7% are in for “other.” 5.3% of drug offenders in federal prisons are serving time for possession; 91.4% are serving time for trafficking offenses; and 3.3% are in for “other.” When distributors, sellers, and users enter the prison system, they are not removed from the cycle – the market adapts and lives are only further destroyed. Individuals who have limited criminal histories and may have been incarcerated for minor possession offenses become part of a system in which they have limited options: forced to join a prison gang, participate in yet more severe forms of criminal behavior, left with the stigma of having been convicted of a felony and the resulting challenges in finding a good job once they are released.
An individuals’ choice to become involved with the criminal drug trade – whether production, trafficking, distribution, selling, or use – is a matter of personal responsibility. However, policy and legislative failures also determine these individuals’ paths. Limited access to education, negative modeled behaviors, depressed economic environments, little institutional support or protection; these issues can lead children and adolescents to feel trapped in a cycle that seems inevitable. These young people become involved in the criminal drug world at an early age. Racist mandatory minimums (crack vs. powder cocaine), manipulation and plea deals by ambitious prosecutors, ‘three strikes’ sentencing guidelines all ensure that few will escape that world.
Yet the rate of illicit narcotic abuse continues to rise. Trends in specific substance use ebb and flow; but from the Crack Problem to the Meth Problem, the same failed policies persist with no positive results. Attempts to control supply have failed. Many drug policy experts and researchers have begun to recommend mandatory treatment as part of a shift in focus on controlling demand. In my next post in this series, I’ll explore the successes and failures in experimental efforts to reduce introduction and recidivism.