Forget the Propaganda -- Here's the Drug War Data That Really Matters

The New York Timesrecently ran a piece discrediting the government's drug war propaganda by digging into Washington's numbers game.  Rather than concentrate on meaningless data like how many poppy fields are in Mexico,  Washington should focus on the numbers evidencing just how badly the drug war has failed.

From the NYT:

If there is one number that embodies the seemingly intractable challenge imposed by the illegal drug trade on the relationship between the United States and Mexico, it is $177.26. That is the retail price, according to Drug Enforcement Administration data, of one gram of pure cocaine from your typical local pusher. That is 74 percent cheaper than it was 30 years ago.

This number contains pretty much all you need to evaluate the Mexican and American governments’ “war” to eradicate illegal drugs from the streets of the United States. They would do well to heed its message. What it says is that the struggle on which they have spent billions of dollars and lost tens of thousands of lives over the last four decades has failed.

Similarly, king pins arrested or pounds of drugs confiscated are insignificant developments in the drug war when they fail to meet their goal-- to decrease illicit drug use in the United States:

Prices match supply with demand. If the supply of an illicit drug were to fall, say because the Drug Enforcement Administration stopped it from reaching the nation’s shores, we should expect its price to go up.

That is not what happened with cocaine. Despite billions spent on measures from spraying coca fields high in the Andes to jailing local dealers in Miami or Washington, a gram of cocaine cost about 16 percent less last year than it did in 2001. The drop is similar for heroin and methamphetamine. The only drug that has not experienced a significant fall in price is marijuana.

And it’s not as if we’ve lost our taste for the stuff, either. About 40 percent of high school seniors admit to having taken some illegal drug in the last year — up from 30 percent two decades ago, according to theMonitoring the Future survey, financed by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

While cocaine is getting cheaper, the drug war is still insanely expensive:

But the government has spent $20 billion to $25 billion a year on counternarcotics efforts over the last decade. That is a pretty high price tag for political cover, to stop drugs from becoming a prominent issue on voters’ radar screen. It becomes unacceptably high if you add in the real costs of the drug wars. That includes more than 55,000 Mexicans and tens of thousands of Central Americans killed by drug-fueled violence since Mexico’s departing president, Felipe Calderón, declared war six years ago against the traffickers ferrying drugs across the border.

And the domestic costs are enormous, too. Almost one in five inmates in state prisons and half of those in federal prisons are serving time for drug offenses. In 2010, 1.64 million people were arrested for drug violations. Four out of five arrests were for possession. Nearly half were for possession of often-tiny amounts of marijuana.

As the New York Times notes, the use of hard drugs has remained stable over the past twenty years. Statistics tell us not only what we're up against, but how desperately we need reform:

A war on drugs whose objective is to eradicate the drug market — to stop drugs from arriving in the United States and stop Americans from swallowing, smoking, inhaling or injecting them — is a war that cannot be won. What we care about is the harm that drugs, drug trafficking and drug policy do to individuals, society and even national security. Reducing this harm is a goal worth fighting for.

That's exactly world leaders (and now the New York Times)  are calling for decriminalization (if not full-blown legalization) of drugs --  to replace a failed criminal justice approach with a public health strategy that will give us real results. 

AlterNet / By Kristen Gwynne

Posted at July 5, 2012, 7:22am

Sign Up!
Get AlterNet's Daily Newsletter in Your Inbox
+ sign up for additional lists
Select additional lists by selecting the checkboxes below before clicking Subscribe:
Election 2018