Drug Policy Reform

Written by Ted Jackson 

Over the last couple of years, the editors of the New York Times have been running a series called War Without Borders, an outstanding War on Drugs exposé that is part of a flood of news coverage as Mexico becomes The New Columbia, with over 50,000 dead south of the border in the last five years. It was no accident that the NY Times editors chose Ohio – America’s heartland in a “if it can happen here it can happen anywhere” message – as the setting for its lead series article, which described an average family’s descent into heroin addiction hell that resulted in the eldest son being found dead in the bathroom with a needle in his arm. The article, with its descriptions of easy and cheap heroin availability in a suburban setting, was a brilliant journalistic depiction of a failed 35-year War on Drugs  policy that has put emphasis on cutting drug supply – the policy of interdiction – over an emphasis on addiction treatment and a policy of demand management.

Failed Policies

A simple comparison of spending suffices to show how strong the imbalance in emphasis has been on punishment and supply disruption versus the treatment and public health problem approach: The federal government gives away just $2.5bln a year for direct treatment grants, while many tens of billions are spent annually across countless agencies and the military in a fruitless and endlessly failing attempt to keep drugs off the streets. In this era of declining living standards and gaping government budgets, society can no longer afford the failed policies of interdiction and punishment. The nation’s leading addiction think tank, CASA – against a backdrop of events like California forced to release legions of mostly drug-related prisoners because it can’t pay for prisons anymore – has released much needed up-to-date cost-to-society addiction numbers that put the financial issue in stark relief: the cost of addiction to all levels of government across the nation has now reached a half trillion dollars per year! Just two percent of that is spent on treatment, with the rest spent on either backing, or cleaning up the wreckage of, the failed policies of punishment and interdiction.

A New Dawn?

It is in the midst this new reality, and with a fresh administration in Washington, that advocates for policy reform like CASA -which has just merged with addictions Internet powerhouse JoinTogether – and other groups are hoping that a new dawn may be arising when it comes to addictions policy in this nation. “What we are advocating for, essentially, is that the principal thrust of government policy be to treat the drug problem, and addiction in general, as a public health issue,” says Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of The Drug Policy Alliance, a $9M a year non-profit drug reform advocacy group that is arguably the world’s leading voice for policy change. The primary driver behind efforts like California’s Prop 36, which mandated treatment instead of jail while pouring $120 million a year into state treatment industry cofers, the Drug Policy Alliance hasn’t always been successful. This has been especially true when the alliance has been confronted by powerful entrenched Drug War interests, as was the case when DPA tried to duplicate its Prop 36 outcome in Ohio in 


Prison Industrial Complex

These interests, prison guards, DAs, police, etc,  are cynically more interested in preserving their jobs and power than in accepting the obvious reality of failure. And they now have become known as the Prison Industrial Complex in a play on President Eisenhower’s famous Military Industrial Complex. One such very powerful Drug Warrior was Ohio Governor Taft – of the presidential lineage – who in 2002 made defeat of the Drug Policy Alliance-backed reform efforts a key centerpiece of his administration.

Divide and Conquer

In a cautionary tale about how power politics can be used against the public funds needy treatment industry, making treatment centers take stances that are fundamentally not in their interests, Nadlemann says Taft used his power to divide and conquer the proponents of reform. “Initially Ohio treatment centers were enthusiastic partners with us in our Prop 36 style reform proposals for the state,” he says. “Then Taft got to them, using subtle threats about funding cuts to scare them off.”

Drug Dealers and Drug Warriers Are Allies

Although Drug Warriors like Taft would howl in protest at this, it is a basic truth that the interests of the Prison Industrial Complex, and those of the drug dealers they purport to fight and hate, are fundamentally the same. This is due to the fact that drug dealers, and the other side of the war coin, Drug Warriors, both need for the status quo to be maintained in order to ensure mutual survival. The drug dealers because drug prohibition makes common agricultural products like pot, which should trade around the price of corn, instead trade at the price of gold. And the Drug Warriers because they are society’s appointed, and very well paid, addiction punishers. Thus, as drug reform groups like Drug Policy Alliance become increasingly successful amid growing public revulsion against hugely expensive failed policies, the battle is likely to get very ugly indeed. Hundreds of billions will be up for grabs and strong, entrenched corrupt interests will be threatened at the basic livelihood level. And, like it or not, it is a battle the treatment industry will find itself right in the middle of, choosing sides.

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