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40 Years of Drug War Hasn't Worked; "Time for a Change," Says 9-Year Veteran

The public understands how disastrous it's been -- now it's time for the politicians and law enforcement to change course.

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Since 1981, when HIV entered the bloodstream of America’s injecting drug users, epidemiologists’ projects to protect the lives of drug users have been stymied by drug warriors. In 1998, HHS Secretary Donna Shalala endorsed sterile syringe exchange as scientifically proven to prevent the spread of blood-borne disease among injecting drug users. But implementing this lifesaving approach was blocked by White House ONDCP director, General Barry McCaffrey.

In February 2005, Bush White House ONDCP director John Walters was found by the Washington Post to have completely misrepresented the scientific research supporting syringe exchange. The opposition of the White House directors of drug policy is due to the distorting effects of the language and values of war introduced by President Nixon. The emotional mobilization for war against drugs (and drug users) barred acceptance of scientific findings that sterile needle exchange protected drug users from HIV and hepatitis and other blood-borne disease. In a war on drugs, users weren’t supposed to be protected from disease and death, they were to be stopped from using drugs.

I recall a member of Congress in the late 1980s saying that America won’t have to worry about the heroin problem anymore since the addicts will all soon die from AIDS. This indifference to the lives and dignity of drug users has been a hallmark of the war on drugs. Indeed, between 1999 and 2007, over 48,000 persons died in the U.S. from AIDS due to transmission by infected needles. These deaths are in large part due to the absolutist ideology of the drug war that Nixon inspired.

Drug Use and Treatment

Nixon said his initiative “must be judged by the number of human beings who are brought out of the hell of addiction, and by the number of human beings who are dissuaded from entering that hell.”

Most school-based prevention efforts, such as D.A.R.E., have been proven to be ineffective. Yet hundreds of millions of dollars are spent on such efforts by federal, state and local governments and with private contributions. Not surprisingly, drug use has continued to grow, especially marijuana use. In 2009, there were 21.8 million users of illicit drugs.

Nevertheless, Nixon drove a dramatic expansion of federally funded drug treatment using methadone in many cities, and crime went down in time for the 1972 election. But over the long term, as the anti-drug effort conformed to the strident rhetoric of war that Nixon popularized, the supply of drug treatment has not kept pace with the demand. By 2008, an estimated 7,559,000 Americans needed drug treatment, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, but 6,351,000 did not receive any treatment. From 2002 to 2008, among youth aged 12 to 17, the number who received drug treatment declined from 142,000 to 111,000. Nixon’s goal to expand drug treatment to meet the need has never been met.

Federal Anti-Drug Costs

Nixon asked Congress for $159 million dollars for his initiatives, plus an unspecified amount to pay 325 additional agents for what became the DEA.

Over the past 40 years, the federal government has spent, cumulatively, roughly a half trillion dollars on the “war on drugs.” By FY 1975, federal anti-drug spending had climbed to $680 million. For the past 20 years, federal spending on drugs has exceeded $15 billion per year including the costs of imprisonment.

The costs are now so high, for a decade the “drug czars” seem to regularly conceal almost one-third of the anti-drug spending by excluding it from the formal anti-drug budget they report to Congress. ONDCP says that $14.8 billion was spent in FY 2009 to fight drugs. But another $6.9 billion was also spent in FY 2009 on anti-drug programs such as the incarceration of federal drug prisoners.

 
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