Even with Blinders On, Two New Studies Can See the Rotting Carcass of our Drug Policy
Are We Losing the War on Drugs?
An Analytic Assessment of U.S. Drug Policy
By David Boyum and Peter Reuter
American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research
(Released March 25, 2005)
How Goes the “War on Drugs”?
An Assessment of U.S. Drug Problems and Policy
By Jonathan P. Caulkins, Peter H. Reuter, Martin Y. Iguchi and James Chiesa
RAND Drug Policy Research Center, funded by The Ford Foundation
(Posted March 21, 2005)
Two major scholarly research sites, two almost identical critiques of the drug war (note that one of the authors worked on both).
In both cases, the studies are grossly flawed in that they operate under the assumption, for the purposes of the study, that prohibition can be the only model. Therefore they almost completely ignore:
- Side-effects of prohibition itself such as prohibition-fueled violence
- The impact of other potential models, such as legalizationa and regulation, on their recommendations. (Imagine a doctor recommending a course of treatment for obesity, and being able to recommend surgery or drugs, but not exercise or dieting. Such a limited diagnosis would be quackery.)
Despite the fact that the flawed studies depend upon a continuation of some mix of prohibition and treatment, both were extremely harsh in their evaluation of current drug policy.
These are not radical think tanks. They’re solid, well-respected, and often called upon to testify in Congress. These devastating attacks on the current administration’s policies could be quite powerful. Both had very nasty things to say about the reliance on incarceration, and both criticized the emphasis toward marijuana prohibition.
Before I give you highlights from the studies, there’s one point that I found particularly interesting. I’d often wondered why the administration is so obsessed with marijuana, yet I hadn’t thought it through. It’s really quite simple. After getting failing grades in the past because of an inability to show results in the drug war, the government set a goal of reducing drug use by 10%.
How do you do that? Work on treating hard-core drug addicts that cause the most trouble? No, they’re too small a number and take too long to affect. However, the largest number of actual drug users are casual marijuana users — it’s easy for them to quit, so that becomes a great target for reaching stupid goals like a reduction of 10% in drug users. So the administration has consciously and intentionally crafted a policy that specifically goes after casual marijuana users who are not a problem, while neglecting drug addicts who have a problem.
It also affects other aspects of their policy:
- Harm Reduction? No, that’s good for long-term health, but doesn’t give them immediate reduction of numbers. Better to go for abstinence only policy for potential short-term numbers gain even if it’s worse in the long-run (and if an addict dies, that helps the numbers too).
- Reality-based education? No, that’s better for long-term, but abstinence-only education gives them short-term numbers gain.
- Medical marijuana? No, those people still count as drug users under federal statistics.
So, as both studies note, the very numbers-based approach to goals encourages drug policy that is completely backward and counter-productive.
So, what do Rand and AEI have to say about patterns of drug use?
The course of drug use plays out differently in different people. Most people who try any drug, even heroin, use it only experimentally or continue use moderately and without ill effect.
The problem (among others) with drug use is not that it will inevitably lead to addiction but that it can lead to addiction. Some fraction of people who begin using any drug move on to heavy use of that drug, with all the ill consequences specific to that drug that heavy use entails.
How big a fraction of experimenters or casual users become heavy users? It has been estimated that 23 percent of those who try heroin, 17 percent of those who try cocaine, and 9 percent of those who try marijuana become clinically dependent on the drug (the rates for tobacco and
alcohol are 32 percent and 15 percent, respectively). [Clinical dependence rates are from Anthony, Warner, and Kessler, "Comparative Epidemiology of Dependence on Tobacco,
Alcohol, Controlled Substances, and Inhalants."]
Marijuana has the lowest rate of dependency of everything listed (and even then it’s a very mild dependency.
Most Americans who try
drugs use them only a few times. If there is a typical continuing user, it is
an occasional marijuana smoker who will cease to use drugs at some point
during his twenties. …
Desistance. Most who start using illicit drugs desist of their own volition,
without treatment or coercion, within five years of initiation.
Marijuana dependence is more prevalent than dependence on either
cocaine or heroin. A few million Americans smoke marijuana daily, indeed,
several times each day. There is little research, however, about these users,
and only a very small fraction of them seeks treatment. It seems that
although most of them would like to quit and have been unable to do so,
their dependence does not produce great damage to themselves or others.
Some Critiques of federal drug policy
AEI on approaches:
American drug policy, rather than focusing
on reducing demand among chronic abusers, has emphasized efforts
to limit the supply of drugs through vigorous law enforcement. Yet
despite the incarceration of hundreds of thousands of drug dealers and
steadfast attempts to stop overseas cultivation and trafficking, drugs have
become substantially cheaper, casting doubt on the effectiveness of this
Enforcement, which dominates both the budget and rhetoric of
American drug policy, is not the only approach to drug control that has
proved disappointing; as we will explain, there is little evidence justifying
existing programs to prevent childhood and adolescent drug use. Drug
Abuse Resistance Education (DARE), the only widely adopted prevention
program, has been repeatedly demonstrated to be ineffective. By contrast,
treatment programs, despite high dropout rates and difficulty in retaining
good staff, have shown both effectiveness, as measured by reductions in
crime and illness associated with their clients, and cost-effectiveness. But
treatment programs, particularly those focused on criminally active heavy
users, receive only modest funds. On the whole, then, there is now less reason
than ever to believe that current policies are an efficient and effective
response to the problem of illicit drugs.
Now check out what they have to say about marijuana and treatment (you know, the Drug Czar’s pet statistics):
Curiously, although marijuana is a much smaller contributor to
crime than heroin or crack, 58 percent of treatment admissions where
the primary drug of abuse was marijuana were criminal justice system
referrals. By comparison, only 13 percent of heroin treatment admissions
and 26 percent of crack admissions were criminal justice system referrals.
The likely explanation for the higher marijuana figure is the large
number of young individuals who enter treatment programs as part of a
plea bargain or pretrial negotiations. The unfortunate irony is that many
of these individuals do not have serious drug problems; at the same time,
arrestees who abuse cocaine and heroin are less likely to be referred to
treatment. When arrested, cocaine and heroin abusers often have long
and serious criminal histories that make them ineligible for drug courts,
which are the source of a growing share of treatment referrals. …
The second problem is that over half of those classified as being in need
of treatment are users only of marijuana. There is no question that frequent
marijuana use generates dependence in many users, and that dependence
creates substantial problems. But there is a dearth of evidence showing that
treatment for marijuana dependence is effective. Meanwhile, the gap is
deflated by the admission to treatment of numerous marijuana arrestees
who do not have a serious drug problem but rather are attempting to deal
with their current legal problem by entering treatment instead of being
processed in court.
Rand attacks the tendency of the federal government to want to overrule the states (although they’re way too weak in their recommendation).
Some state policies conflict with the federal approach. Not surprisingly, as it has in other
domains in which it has claimed primacy, the federal government has sought to bring states
into line with federal policy, through means ranging from jawboning to executive orders and
litigation. We wonder whether both federal and state policy might benefit from a more flexible
federal response. While continuing to challenge egregious departures from national policy, the
federal government might seek to learn from state variations that do not seriously undermine
the intent of the federal strategy.
Marijuana Enforcment [A Call for Decriminalization]
Marijuana Enforcement. Marijuana is by far the most widely used illicit
drug. It’s also the most readily available and cheapest–a marijuana habit
costs much less to support than a cocaine or heroin habit. Plainly, marijuana
enforcement has a limited deterrent effect. Yet precisely because the
drug is so widely and casually used, marijuana enforcement is particularly
intrusive, nabbing many more non-problem users than cocaine or heroin
enforcement. Much marijuana enforcement is simply unjustifiable–
it does little to prevent problem use, but imposes great costs on non-
We believe that the case for imposing criminal sanctions for possession
of small amounts of marijuana is weak. At least a dozen states have
decriminalized marijuana possession to some degree, and analysis of
their experience suggests very modest effects on marijuana use, though
recent research by Rosalie Pacula and colleagues has thrown doubt on the
strength of the findings and suggested that decriminalization may
increase by 2-3 percentage points the probability that an adolescent uses
marijuana (Pacula, Chriqui, and King 2003; Hall and Pacula 2003). (Note
that “decriminalization,” as the term is customarily used in discussions of
drug policy, implies the retention of civil penalties. Marijuana possession
is still against the law in all states where it is decriminalized.) The arrest
of 700,000 users each year should require a careful justification, given the
minor harms of most marijuana use. Criminal convictions, even without
serious penal sanctions, can cause great harm, as when an immigrant is
deported solely on that basis. The much higher arrest rates for black as
opposed to white users in recent years increases the urgency of the case
There is also a reasonable argument for shrinking the black market for
marijuana by allowing users to grow their own, an approach that has been
adopted in a number of Australian jurisdictions. (For more details, see
MacCoun and Reuter 2001, 356-64.) Moreover, like many other observers,
we believe that although there is no empirical evidence one way or the other,
drug prevention programs aimed at adolescents might be more effective following
decriminalization. These programs could make a clearer distinction
between marijuana and other drugs in terms of their dangers and thus
increase the credibility of their messages about more dangerous substances.
Both studies talked quite a bit about the economics of the drug war, with some interesting discussions. Here’s an interesting chart that was used in the discussion of the economic impact of eradication. Check out the profitable increases through the system. [AEI]
Now imagine that eradication efforts end up doubling the cost at the first stage, so the price goes up by $300. Now if that’s passed on and you add $300 to the final price of $150,000 — not much of a problem, is it?
AEI criticizes the over-use of jail in drug policy — particularly what it calls
Retail Enforcement. Most people locked up for drug offenses are streetlevel
offenders, apprehended and punished by local police and prosecutors
and imprisoned in county jails or state prisons. Punishment of drug users
and sellers has increased greatly since 1981, when concern about cocaine
became prominent. Arrests have more than doubled, rising from 581,000
in 1980 to nearly 1,600,000 in 2000 (from 5.5 percent to 11 percent of
total arrests). But a much greater increase has occurred in the extent of
imprisonment and other penalties. The number of commitments to state
and federal prison, for example, has risen approximately tenfold.
Sentencing. Given limited prison capacity, it makes sense to give priority
to housing the most active and violent offenders. Current sentencing policies
fail to do this. Recent work by Sevigny and Caulkins (2004) shows that
the vast majority of those incarcerated for drug offenses say that they were
involved in distribution of some sort, even if convicted only of a possession
offense. Nonetheless, only one-quarter of state drug inmates have a prior
conviction for a violent crime, while nearly half have no prior nondrug conviction
and were involved only in a minor role in their current offense. Long
sentences for minor, nonviolent drug offenders are perhaps the least defensible
aspect of current drug policy. Such sentences are wasteful of scarce
prison space, have especially disparate racial impacts, and are particularly
traumatic for the families of the incarcerated.
Sentencing laws and guidelines should be reformed to reduce total drug
incarceration and to concentrate long sentences on those who engage in violence
or recruit juveniles into the drug trade. Sentencing reform is especially
important at the federal level, where prison terms are often determined more
by the weight of the drugs involved than the conduct of the offender.
Drugs and Crime
Here you start to really see the flaws in the studies
Drugs can lead to crime through a variety of mechanisms (U.S.
Department of Justice, National Institute of Justice 2003). Intoxication and
addiction can induce violent behavior or otherwise lead to crime by weakening
judgment and self-control. Users commit crimes to obtain drug
money, in part because their habits reduce opportunities for legitimate
work. Drug markets–and particularly open drug markets–contribute to
homicides and other violent crime, partly as a result of competition among
dealers, but also because of gun acquisition related to dealing (Cork 1999).
Drug selling also involves hurried transactions without documents to back
up uncertain memories and has no civil justice system to peacefully resolve
the resulting disputes among a population with weak self-control. Lastly,
involvement in drug use and drug selling can change people’s lifestyles and
social ties in various ways that make criminal activity more likely. …
Crime and criminal justice
are the central elements of the costs of illicit drugs in contemporary
American society, so reducing them must be an important goal of drug policy.
While the fact that prohibition is the cause of much of the evils is evident in their statements, the AEI study is constrained from really acknowledging that crucial bit of information.
Rand really seems confused in this area:
Drug control policy cannot, however, be evaluated solely on the basis of whether it has
achieved its stated aims. It has had side effects, both good and bad.
Though it has not always been a formally stated aim, reduction of the crime associated with
drug use and sales would be regarded by many people as an important (and expected) “bonus.”
Drug control may indeed have been partly responsible for the decline in crime rates in general
that the nation experienced during the 1990s. If the additional resources devoted to enforcement
have decreased consumption, as the cost-effectiveness studies suggest, then crime by persons under
the influence should have gone down. Moreover, greater emphasis on incarceration may have
kept persons off the street who may otherwise have committed crimes other than drug offenses,
either because of their expensive drug habits or because of their other characteristics.1
On the negative side, it has been argued that the drug war has imposed “collateral damage”
in several realms, for example,
- erosion of civil liberties
- erosion of police integrity
- exacerbation of drug-related harms such as the spread of HIV infection
- generation of consequences beyond the criminal justice system; such sanctions have negative
effects on families and communities.
Where’s the connection between prohibition and criminal activity?
The Rand study ignores its own limitations — the inability to consider sane alternatives to prohibition. AEI at least acknowledges it:
Our approach to assessing the effectiveness of policy is chiefly economic:
We consider, above all, identifiable costs and benefits. As such, we do
not discuss the morality of drug use or its prohibition, issues that many
Americans regard as decisive, since these are questions of values that cannot
Nor do we explore the merits and demerits of legalizing drugs, even
though legalization is perhaps the most prominent and hotly debated
topic in drug policy. Our analysis takes current policy as its starting point,
and the idea of repealing the nation’s drug laws has no serious support
within either the Democratic or Republican party. Moreover, because legalization is untested, any prediction of its effects would be highly
speculative. MacCoun and Reuter (2001) provide a systematic account of
the available data and develop projections of the consequences of various
forms of legalization of cocaine, heroin, and marijuana, emphasizing their
uncertainty. For the purposes of this book, we think it is more productive
to concentrate on policy alternatives that are politically imaginable, and
for which it is possible to reach more confident conclusions about likely
Sad. Here’s an important study that correctly identifies serious deficiencies in drug policy, yet is unable (or unwilling) to actually consider the alternatives.
The ironic thing is that the AEI study recognized that it is unreasonable to too high a burden on any recommendations for change. Check out their conclusion:
We have offered a series of suggestions for reducing the damage that drug
use and drug control inflict upon American society… For none of them can we offer strong
empirical evidence of substantial effectiveness.
However, we think that placing the burden of proof on those who argue
for such policy changes favors a status quo that demonstrably harms some
groups substantially and has little moral or empirical foundation. Tough
enforcement, the centerpiece of American drug policy in terms of rhetoric,
budget, and substance, has little to show by way of success. If, instead of
putting 450,000 drug sellers and users into local jails and state and federal
prisons, the nation were to lock up only 225,000, a great many people
(both inmates and their families) would suffer less. It is surely reasonable to
ask that those who would maintain the status quo offer some basis for
believing the additional expense and suffering are justified.
[Note: There's lots more in these studies -- this was just a partial overview.]