Drug Legalization, Criminalization, and Harm Reduction (Excerpts)


Thank you for inviting me to testify before you on the successes andfailures of our current policy of drug prohibition, and on possiblealternatives.

Ours is a federal republic. The federal government has only the powersgranted to it in the Constitution. And the United States has a tradition ofindividual liberty, vigorous civil society, and limited government: justbecause a problem is identified does not mean that the government ought toundertake to solve it, and just because a problem occurs in more than onestate does not mean that it is a proper subject for federal policy.

Perhaps no area more clearly demonstrates the bad consequences of notfollowing such rules than drug prohibition. The long federal experiment inprohibition of marijuana, cocaine, heroin, and other drugs has given usunprecedented crime and corruption combined with a manifest failure to stopthe use of drugs or reduce their availability to children.

In the 1920s Congress experimented with the prohibition of alcohol. OnFebruary 20, 1933, a new Congress acknowledged the failure of alcoholProhibition and sent the Twenty‐​First Amendment to the states. Congressrecognized that Prohibition had failed to stop drinking and had increasedprison populations and violent crime. By the end of 1933, nationalProhibition was history, though in accordance with our federal system manystates continued to outlaw or severely restrict the sale of liquor.

Today Congress confronts a similarly failed prohibition policy. Futileefforts to enforce prohibition have been pursued even more vigorously in the1980s and 1990s than they were in the 1920s. Total federal expenditures forthe first 10 years of Prohibition amounted to $88 million–about $733million in 1993 dollars. Drug enforcement cost about $22 billion in theReagan years and another $45 billion in the four years of the Bushadministration. The federal government spent $16 billion on drug controlprograms in FY 1998 and has approved a budget of $17.9 billion for FY 1999.(See Figure 1.) The Office of National Drug Control Policy reported in April1999 that state and local governments spent an additional $15.9 billion inFY 1991, an increase of 13 percent over 1990, and there is every reason tobelieve that state and local expenditures have risen throughout the 1990s.

Those mind‐​boggling amounts have had some effect. Total drug arrests are nowmore than 1.5 million a year. There are about 400,000 drug offenders injails and prison now, and over 80 percent of the increase in the federalprison population from 1985 to 1995 was due to drug convictions. Drugoffenders constituted 59.6 percent of all federal prisoners in 1996, up from52.6 percent in 1990. (See figure 2.) (Those in federal prison for violentoffenses fell from 18 percent to 12.4 percent of the total, while propertyoffenders fell from 14 percent to 8.4 percent.)

Yet as was the case during Prohibition, all the arrests and incarcerationshaven’t stopped the use and abuse of drugs, or the drug trade, or the crimeassociated with black‐​market transactions. Cocaine and heroin supplies areup; the more our Customs agents interdict, the more smugglers import. In aletter to the Wall Street Journal published on November 12, 1996, JanetCrist of the White House Office of National Drug Policy claimed somesuccess:

Other important results [of the Pentagon’s anti‐​drug efforts] include the arrest of virtually the entire Cali drug cartel leadership, the disruption of the Andean air bridge, and the hemispheric drug interdiction effort that has captured about a third of the cocaine produced in South America each year.

“However,” she continued, “there has been no direct effect on either theprice or the availability of cocaine on our streets.”

That is hardly a sign of a successful policy. And of course, while crimerates have fallen in the past few years, today’s crime rates look good onlyby the standards of the recent past; they remain much higher than the levelsof the 1950s.

As for discouraging young people from using drugs, the massive federaleffort has largely been a dud. Despite the soaring expenditures on antidrugefforts, about half the students in the United States in 1995 tried anillegal drug before they graduated from high school. According to the 1997National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, 54.1 percent of high school seniorsreported some use of an illegal drug at least once during their lifetime,although it should be noted that only 6.4 percent reported use in the monthbefore the survey was conducted. Every year from 1975 to 1995, at least 82percent of high school seniors have said they find marijuana “fairly easy“or “very easy” to obtain. During that same period, according to federalstatistics of dubious reliability, teenage marijuana use fell dramaticallyand then rose significantly, suggesting that cultural factors have moreeffect than “the war on drugs.”

The manifest failure of drug prohibition explains why more and morepeople–from Baltimore mayor Kurt Schmoke to Nobel laureate Milton Friedman,conservative columnist William F. Buckley Jr., and former secretary of stateGeorge Shultz–have argued that drug prohibition actually causes more crimeand other harms than it prevents.

Intellectual history teaches us that people have a strong incentive tomaintain their faith in old paradigms even as the facts become increasinglydifficult to explain within that paradigm. But when a paradigm hasmanifestly failed, we need to think creatively and develop a new paradigm.The paradigm of prohibition has failed. I urge members of Congress and allAmericans to have the courage to let go of the old paradigm, to thinkoutside the box, and to develop a new model for dealing with the very realrisks of drug and alcohol abuse. If the 106th Congress will subject thefederal drug laws to that kind of new thinking, it will recognize that thedrug war is not the answer to problems associated with drug use.

Full text of testimony before the House Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, Drug Policy, and Human Resources.