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The World Health Organization Documents Failure of U.S. Drug Policies

WHO survey of 17 countries finds that we have the highest rates of marijuana and cocaine use.
 
 
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The United States has some of the world's most punitive drug policies and has led the cheering section for tough "war on drugs" policies worldwide, but a new international study suggests that those policies have been a crashing failure. A World Health Organization survey of 17 countries, conducted by some of the world's leading substance abuse researchers, found that we have the highest rates of marijuana and cocaine use.

The numbers are startling. In the United States, 42.4 percent admitted having used marijuana. The only other nation that came close was New Zealand, another bastion of get-tough policies, at 41.9 percent. No one else was even close. The results for cocaine use were similar, with the United States leading the world by a large margin.

This study is important because it's the first time a respected international group has surveyed drug use around the world, using the same questions and procedure everywhere. While many countries have their own drug use surveys, the questions and methodology vary, and comparisons between countries are difficult. This new study eliminates that problem.

Some of the most striking numbers are from the Netherlands, where adults are permitted to possess a small of marijuana and purchase it from regulated businesses. Some U.S. officials have claimed that these Dutch policies have created some sort of decadent cesspool of drug abuse, but the new study demolishes such assertions: In the Netherlands, only 19.8 percent have used marijuana, less than half the U.S. figure.

Even more striking is what the researchers found when they asked young adults when they had started using marijuana. Again, the United States led the world, with 20.2 percent trying marijuana by age 15. No other country was even close, and in the Netherlands, just 7 percent used marijuana by 15 -- roughly one-third of the U.S. figure.

The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy tried to dismiss the study, Bloomberg News reported:

Trying to find a link between drug use and drug enforcement doesn't make sense, said Tom Riley, spokesman for the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy in Washington. "The U.S. has high crime rates but we spend a lot on law enforcement and prison,'' Riley said yesterday in a telephone interview. "Should we spend less? We're just a different kind of country. We have higher drug use rates, a higher crime rate, many things that go with a highly free and mobile society."

Funny, ONDCP takes precisely the opposite line whenever a state considers liberalizing its marijuana laws. In a March press release, deputy Drug Czar Scott Burns railed against a New Hampshire proposal to decriminalize marijuana, saying such a move "sends the wrong message to New Hampshire's youth, students, parents, public health officials and the law enforcement community," and would lead to "more drugs, drug users and drug dealers on their streets and communities."

Back in 2002, denouncing a proposed marijuana law reform in Nevada, ONDCP distributed a list of talking points to prosecutors specifically slamming the "extremely dubious" Dutch system of regulated sales, saying, "Increased availability of marijuana leads to increased use of marijuana and other drugs."

In fact, ONCDP's latest excuse for the failure of U.S. drug policies -- that enforcement and penalties don't really have much effect on rates of use -- is probably just about right. But it also dynamites any justification for our current marijuana laws. The WHO researchers put it this way:

"The U.S., which has been driving much of the world's drug research and drug policy agenda, stands out with higher levels of use of alcohol, cocaine, and cannabis, despite punitive illegal drug policies. ... The Netherlands, with a less criminally punitive approach to cannabis use than the US, has experienced lower levels of use, particularly among younger adults. Clearly, by itself, a punitive policy towards possession and use accounts for limited variation in nation level rates of illegal drug use."

For this we arrest 830,000 Americans a year on marijuana charges?

Bruce Mirken is director of communications for the Marijuana Policy Project .

 
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