The Changing Face of America’s Drug Policy

The Changing Face of America's Drug Policy
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The War on Drugs, which officially began over 50 years ago, involved suppression of the production of drugs, criminalization of drug use, and increased punishment for distribution and possession. Drug policy was based on the belief that strong law enforcement would lead to diminishing rates of production and distribution.

By the time the 1980s rolled around, most Americans fully supported of the government’s tough on crime approach. At that time, the majority of citizens saw crack cocaine and heroin – mostly inner city problems – as the cause of increased gun deaths and violent crime. Public fear resulted in drastic changes in public policy.

Decades later, it’s clear that hardline attempts to control the production and supply of drugs failed to curb the nation’s drug problem. Instead, the War on Drugs backfired. It created conditions for the growth of a thriving drug trafficking industry, widespread corruption. It increased, rather than decreased, drug-related violence and bloodshed.

Funding for harm-reduction techniques such as methadone therapy and needle exchange programs have been woefully underfunded. The nation’s resources are mainly directed not towards treatment, but incarceration.

According to The Sentencing Project, a tendency towards more punitive measures began during the 1980s. In 1982, the number of Americans incarcerated for drug-related offenses numbered 40,900, skyrocketing to more than 450,000 by 2016. Most incarcerations are not for violent crimes or trafficking, but for personal possession.

The Institute for Policy Studies points out that Americans spend between 40 and 50 billion dollars every year on matters concerning illegal drugs. As a result, drug enforcement and drug trafficking have become lucrative industries in the U.S. and beyond.

The social costs of drug use in America, including lost productivity, criminal justice costs, and healthcare, exceed $193 billion per year, according to the White House Office of Drug Policy (ONDCP).

The Opioid Epidemic

The War on Drugs has done nothing to curtail the use of drugs in the United States. In fact, the opposite is true. The CDC (Center for Disease Control) notes that more than 67,000 people died from drug overdoses in 2018. Two out of three of those deaths involved an opioid. On average, opioid overdoses claim the lives of 130 Americans every day.

According to an article in The New York Times, drug overdoses are the leading cause of death for adults under 55. The overdose rate is so high that life expectancy in the U.S. has fallen by nearly four months, the first significant drop since World War II.

Addiction does not discriminate. It’s no longer considered strictly a problem restricted to economically disadvantaged inner cities. People now realize addiction impacts everyone. The rising rate of opioid addiction has affected city dwellers and has decimated rural areas and small towns.

Changes in Drug Policy: Slow but Sure

It may seem that where drugs are concerned, there is little good news to report. However, there are signs that we’re beginning to understand the science of addiction. There’s also hope that drug policy is moving towards an approach based not on punitive measures, but on science, human rights, and compassion.

As a nation, we’re beginning to accept the idea that addiction isn’t a character flaw or a moral failing. Punishment does not help people struggling with addiction. Insteaed, we’re beginning to understand it as a chronic disease that changes the brain in very real ways.

The American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) defines addiction like this: “Addiction is a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory, and related circuitry. Dysfunction in these circuits leads to characteristic biological, psychological, social, and spiritual manifestations.”

ASAM also says, “Addiction is characterized by an inability to consistently abstain, impairment in behavioral control, cravings, diminished recognition of significant problems, and a dysfunctional emotional response.”

Addiction, which often begins in adolescence, can be fatal. However, like diabetes, high blood pressure, asthma and other chronic diseases, addiction is treatable. The earlier treatment begins, the more successful it is likely to be.

Working collaboratively with the Coalition to Stop Opioid Overdose (CSOO) and other partners, ASAM focuses on enacting policy changes that support prevention, treatment, remission, and recovery.

New Ideas

The failure of the War on Drugs and the overwhelming problem of opioid addiction has spurred the exploration of new ideas and alternative drug policies. There’s no doubt that drug policy, and public attitudes about drug problems in America, will continue to shift.

The Institute for Behavior and Health (IBH) says that punitive measures alone don’t work, and that supply reduction alone makes drugs more difficult to attain, more expensive, and less tolerated by society. The problem with a solely punitive approach, says IBH, is a tendency to neglect the importance of demand reduction and a failure to focus on prevention, treatment, research, and education.

Further, IBH supports a more multi-pronged approach to new and improved drug policy. The law enforcement aspect of drug policy would remain in place, of course. But a new and improved drug policy can put the criminal justice system to good use. For instance, many people are in treatment only because legal problems prompted them to seek help and make necessary changes.

Other organizations advocate the decriminalization of all drugs. Under one scenario, possession and use of drugs would remain illegal, but criminal penalties would be eliminated. Instead, violations would be considered misdemeanors, much like driving over the speed limit or failure to wear a seatbelt.

Some people think adults should determine what governs their own wellbeing. In other words, they believe drugs belong in the same category as alcohol and tobacco. Both carry health risks and the potential for addiction. However, drinking alcohol  and smoking cigarettes are not crimes punishable by prison time.

Decriminalization and Regulation

Proponents predict the benefits of decriminalization would include a reduction of people arrested and incarcerated. This would allow individuals to avoid the lifelong burden of a criminal record. Further, they believe it would alleviate racial disparities in the current justice system and create a climate in which addicts are more incentivized to seek treatment, experience improved treatment outcomes. Decriminalization would also improve relationships between law enforcement and communities they serve.

There’s some support for the idea of a regulated drug market in which the supply and purchase of drugs would be legal in certain circumstances. Such a program may involve drugs by prescription only, or a government-run program. It’s also been suggested that drugs, like marijuana in legal states, should be provided by private operators licensed by state or federal government.

No one knows exactly where these new ideas in drug control policy will lead. Which programs prove effective over time and which programs lead to the overall goal – a healthier, safer, society with fewer people suffering from the ill-effects of drug addiction – remain to be seen.

In the meantime, we’re in the process of re-assessing our entire approach to the drug problem in the U.S. This is a step in the right direction. Clearly, neither the policy concept initiated in the early 70s – The War on Drugs – nor the tough on crime approach – added in the early 1980s – has been entirely effective. We’re on the cusp of changing public attitudes toward addiction, treatment, and enforcement, which should – if we stay the course and follow the evidence – usher in a new era of healing and justice and rectify decades of policy that ultimately exacerbated our nation’s drug problem.

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