How Will the Economic Crisis Impact Drug Use?

I know a lot about drugs and the drug war, both personally and professionally. Drugs have had, at alternating times, a positive and a detrimental impact on my life. I have laughed, relaxed and found inspiration while intoxicated. I have also struggled, fought and become despondent because of my addiction to drugs (think cigarettes).

I have spent the last eight years working at the Drug Policy Alliance, an organization working to reform drug laws. With the economic crisis in the United States dominating the news, I find myself wondering what the impact will be on people's drug use and our country's drug policies. Here are some of my reflections on these uncertain and stressful times and how my fellow Americans' drug use may be affected.

People Use Drugs for Joy and Pain, in Good Times and Bad

The New York Times Style Section had a story on September 21st about the bars on Wall Street being packed during the crazy ups and downs of the last couple of weeks. One man was quoted as saying that he and his friends came to drink when something great happened or when something terrible happened. Basically, people drink to celebrate the good and drown out the bad. People are losing their homes, their jobs and their life-savings. I have to believe that the fear and anxiety being felt by so many will lead to increased use of alcohol and other drugs to calm fears or numb pain.

We Will Likely Continue or Increase Some Drug Use and Give up Others

With people struggling to pay the bills, most of us will have to make some sacrifices and cut back on some of our expenses. For many of us, our drugs will not be one of the items cut from our lives. There have been stories about alcohol and cigarette sales holding strong, even in bad times. Many of us will still have our vodka sodas or wine, but we will drink them at home instead of paying triple the price for a drink at the local bar.

While some people feel dependent on their drugs, others who use drugs more recreationally may curb some of their drug use. I have been to spots in New York where people are out on the town and using cocaine. Some people may hold off on dropping 50 bucks for a drug they could take or leave. Some people who only smoke cigarettes socially ("only when I drink"), may stop paying nine bucks for a pack of smokes. For others, cigarettes would be purchased at any cost.

Getting Your Drugs from the Pharmacy or the Street

Despite a $40 billion-a-year "war on drugs" and political speeches about a "drug-free society," our society is swimming in drugs: cigarettes, sugar, alcohol, marijuana, Prozac, Ritalin, Viagra, steroids and caffeine. The vast majority of Americans use drugs on a regular basis. Some people get their sleeping pills or uppers at a pharmacy. Others get them on the street. If more and more people lose jobs and/or health insurance we may see a shift from pharmacy drugs to illicit drugs. Alcohol or marijuana may be a cheaper sleeping aid or anti-anxiety drugs than their prescribed competitors.

Will the Budget Crisis Lead to Smarter and More Cost-Effective Drug Policy?

There are reasons for hope and concern when it comes to our elected officials advocating for cost-effective and money-saving drug policy strategies during the budget crisis. The fear is that treatment and prevention programs will continue to be cut as states look for ways to balance their budgets. On the flip side, states can save millions of dollars by implementing and funding treatment instead of incarceration for nonviolent drug offenders. "Tough on Crime" rhetoric is cheap, but paying $40,000 per person to lock someone in a cage is not. It could be a win-win solution for states to offer treatment instead of jail for those struggling with addiction. This policy would save money and lives. Hopefully the economic savings will get our leaders to do what they already should have been doing, treat substance abuse as a public health issue instead of criminal justice one.

Bottom Line: Drugs Aren't Going Anywhere

The drug war has been waged over the last 30 years, during good economic times and bad. Currently we have 500,000 people behind bars on drug charges. Despite decades of war, incarceration rates and billions of dollars spent, drugs are as plentiful as ever and easily accessible. We have to accept that drugs have been around for thousands of years and will be here for thousands more. We need to educate people about the possible harm from drug use, offer compassion and treatment to people who have problems, and leave in peace the people who are causing harm to no one.


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