Senator Webb’s hearing on Economic Impact of U.S. Drug Policy

All the prepared documents from today’s hearing are available here
“bullet” Senator Webb set the tone with his opening:

The central role of drug policy in filling our nation‰s prisons makes clear that our approach to curbing illegal drug use is broken. […]
It is painful to note that as people gather today to celebrate the end of slavery, Human Rights Watch reports that while ‹ostensibly color-blind, the U.S. drug war has been and continues to be waged overwhelmingly against black Americans.Š […]
Our current combination of enforcement, diversion, interdiction, treatment, and prevention is not working the way we need it to. And, despite overwhelming facts š the ease with which drugs can be obtained, the price of drugs, the number of people in prison, the violence at the border š there has been little effort to take a comprehensive look at the relationship between the many interlocking pieces of drug policy.

“bullet” Anne Swern, an Assistant DA in Brooklyn, presented alternative options to the Rockefeller Drug Laws, including Drug Treatment Alternative-to-Prison (DTAP) and a re-entry program for former inmates.
“bullet” Norma Fernandes is a former drug abuser from Brooklyn who talked about her personal success with an alternative to prison program. She now works with the re-entry program.
“bullet” Peter Reuter gave a very credible presentation for the most part, focusing on the lack of the right kind of solid information that exists to shape policy, and the fact that policy is being shaped with no interest in the actual facts.
He still has the extremely annoying and intellectually dishonest tendency of so many of his colleagues to refer to many prohibition problems as “drug problems” and also the unhelpful tendency to refer to periods of drug usage in society as “epidemics.” Here are a couple of examples of his “drug problem” mis-usage.

America‰s Drug Problem: Drugs have been part of the landscape of U.S. social problems for at least forty years, from the time of the heroin epidemic of the late 1960s. The principal costs have been the high crime rates and the neighborhood consequences of that, particularly in low income minority, urban communities; the incarceration of large numbers of young males, particularly in those same neighborhoods; and HIV associated with injecting drug use, primarily heroin.


The most conspicuous consequence of drug use in the U.S. has been the crime associated both with its marketing and with the need to obtain money to purchase the substances, which are very expensive.

Why are these drug problems and not the conspicuous consequences of drug prohibition?
It’s pure nonsense on Reuter’s part and discredits the fine research he does elsewhere.
Where Reuter shines is his critique of enforcement and prevention policy strategies employed by the U.S. And he really goes after the ONDCP as incompetent. He also criticizes the U.N. for bowing to U.S. pressure against the use of harm reduction techniques.
He also takes on Congress:

Congress has not pressed any Administration to justify its policy choices in a systematic fashion but has been content to accept the standard rhetoric and argue about details.

An excellent critique.
But again, Reuter avoids talking about the policy change that would really make a difference, merely because he doesn’t feel it has political power (and he doesn’t want to lose his academic cred by bringing up something… radical)

The next ten years of U.S. drug policy is likely to be very similar to the recent past. Even if the extent of drug dependence and related harms continues to moderate, there is little effective pressure for relaxation of the intense enforcement of the last two decades. Drug treatment may receive more support than in the past but that, of itself, will make only a moderate difference. Major legal change is extremely unlikely.

The closest he gets to reality?

I hope that Congress will undertake a more systematic approach to drug policy in the future and examine more than marginal changes.

Come on, Peter. Say it.
“bullet” I’ve been a bit of a fan of John Walsh with WOLA (Washington Office on Latin America). His presentation U.S. Drug Policy: At What Cost? Moving Beyond the Self-Defeating Supply-Control Fixation He is certainly better able to (and more willing to) provide us with the truth of Plan Colombia and our other efforts in Latin America than our drug czar, and he comes out swinging:

The first, and perhaps the most obvious lesson of recent drug control history is that there is essentially no such thing as unalloyed drug policy success on the supply side. This is because the so-called ‹balloon effectŠ is as relevant as ever. Simply put, increased pressure on the drug trade at a given time and location tends to displace activities elsewhere, much as squeezing a balloon in one place forces it to expand in others.[…]
The importance of bearing in mind the balloon effect is that, while [negative drug war] consequences may well be unintended, at this point they can no longer be considered unforeseeable. Why belabor a point that seems as obvious as it is important? The answer is that, unfortunately, high-ranking U.S. drug policy officials have appeared to be in denial about the balloon effect, engaging in wishful thinking rather than a realistic assessment of outcomes. For example, in touting the intensified pace of fumigation in Colombia in 2003, ONDCP Director John Walters declared that, for ‹those who have been religious like believers in the balloon effect, the balloon is not growing, the balloon is not moving, the balloon is shrinking, and it‰s shrinking at historic levels. It‰s maybe time to get another God.Š
But the air has not gone out of the balloon effect, as subsequent U.S. estimates on coca
growing and cocaine production have made clear.

And Walsh, like holding a child’s hand (our drug czar), leads his presentation through a series of lessons about economic reality. First the balloon effect, then Lesson 2: Mature Markets, Robust Availability

A second lesson to draw from the emphasis on supply control over the past few decades is that the targeted illicit drugs, including cocaine, have nevertheless remained quite available in the United States.

Lesson 3: Needle in a Haystack

A third lesson arising from the long U.S. experience with aggressive supply-control policies is that stemming illicit drug smuggling for sustained periods of time is unlikely to occur in a country and region that prizes international commerce and facilitates an enormous flow of legal goods across national borders.

And he ends strongly:

Rather than continue the search for the silver bullet, policy makers would do well to recognize that illicit drugs pose a perennial problem that cannot be eliminated, but can be managed significantly better than we have done thus far. This entails adopting a harm reduction approach that, broadly speaking, seeks to minimize the harms associated with illicit drug production, distribution and use, but also to minimize the harms generated by policies meant to control illicit drugs.

On the right track (though still, as with Peter, would have liked to hear him say it).
There’s also a video of the hearing at the website, and some additional charts.
A good hearing — I hope Webb continues to push on this.

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