I know we’ve gotten a bit excited about the excellent hearing conducted by Representative Kucinich this week.
Some have wondered what it will mean.
One powerful hearing like that one will not mean the end of the ONDCP, or the DEA, or the drug war, or even this Drug Czar. It won’t even mean a significant change in this year’s drug policy budget. This subcommittee doesn’t have that power (or imagine what Mark Souder would have done with the subcommittee he chaired).
But it still is a sea change. As Kaptinemo noted in comments, it’s a long way from when Congressional hearings were about whether we can arrest drug policy reformers…
Suggesting the depth of hostility toward the notion of legal drugs, Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga., asked whether anti-racketeering laws could be used to prosecute people conspiring to legalize drugs.
Oh yeah. That happened.
Mostly this is big because it opens the discussion on the Hill. Staffers have been getting regular visits from LEAP and COP lobbyists, softening them up. Now, the Drug Czar looks weak and vulnerable — not someone to line up behind. That makes some kind of reform much more possible.
So what reform might Congress enact? Particularly when it comes to the reauthorization of the ONDCP?
Here, in my mind, is the most important part of Ethan Nadelmann’s testimony before the committee:
When it comes to performance measures, ONDCP historically has pointed to increases or decreases in the total number of Americans who admit to using an illegal drug within the last year as the most important criteria for judging the success or failure of U.S. drug policy. The agency sets two- and five-year goals based on annual surveys of drug use. It is not evident yet what performance measures ONDCP will lay out in its forthcoming Strategy, but when speaking before the 53rd UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs last month Director Kerlikowske said, â€œ[t]he U.S. Strategy will emphasize and focus on our commitment to reduce U.S. drug consumption.â€
Drug use rates tell us surprisingly little, however, about our nationâ€™s progress toward reducing the actual harms associated with drugs. If the number of Americans using illegal drugs decreases, but overdose fatalities, new HIV/AIDS infections, racial disparities and addiction increases, the Drug Policy Alliance would consider that failure. In contrast, if the number of Americans using illegal drugs increases, but overdose fatalities, new HIV/AIDS infections, racial disparities and addiction declines, the Drug Policy Alliance would consider that success. Key performance measurements should focus on the death, disease, crime and suffering associated with both drugs and our drug policies, not drug use per se.
Simply stated, ups and downs in how many people say they used marijuana or other drugs last year are far less important than ups and downs in drug overdose fatalities, or new HIV and hepatitis C infections, or expenditures on incarceration of non-violent drug offenders.
If this subcommittee advances only one drug-related reform it should be to require ONDCP to set objectives for reducing the harms associated with both drugs and the war on drugs. ONDCP shouldnâ€™t just set short- and long-term goals for reducing drug use; it should set specific goals for reducing fatal overdoses, the spread of HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C, racial disparities, the number of nonviolent offenders behind bars, and other negative consequences of both drug use and drug control policies.
This is almost exactly what I would tell Congress if I had the opportunity.
You see, as much as we might want to tell Congress that they have no right to be involved in drug consumption, or that they simply shouldn’t be involved, any such attempt would be ignored at best. More likely, we’d be seen as kooks. These are the folks who feel like they should meddle in every aspect of our lives, and as wrong as that is, they’re not going to have their sense of paternalistic right changed overnight.
If, however, we can convince them that the metrics they use must be changed to actually do any good (and we’ve demonstrated that past), then that could seem to be a mere positive technical correction â€” not anything ridiculously “radical” like legalization.
One of the biggest problem with federal drug policy has been the emphasis on “use” rather than “harm.” That’s why the feds spend so much time on marijuana. Since it’s the most used illicit drug with a lot of casual use (and easy to quit), it’s a much more attractive target for getting quick numbers.
The other thing is that when “use” is the only metric, there’s no reason to track, or even acknowledge, the vast harms from prohibition.
Converting the ONDCP’s mission to a “harm” metric would force a complete restructuring of data collection related to the drug war and open up an entirely new dialog at a governmental level about the relative harms of drugs and prohibition.
We would suddenly see the Drug Czar’s office heavily promoting needle exchange (and maybe even heroin maintenance programs) in a desperate attempt to generate some numbers that show reduced harm. And the harms of prohibition, while certainly understated by the government, would have to be at least acknowledged.
This would be a huge step forward for the country as it would take us out of the automatic prohibition mindset that comes from the meaningless directive to “reduce use.”