The Washington Post has a response to Misha Glenny’s insightful article on the failures of the war on drugs. Titled “The War Is Not Lost,” it’s a piece by former ONDCP spokesman Robert Weiner. It’s full of encouraging statistics that don’t map onto reality very well, as is so often the case in drug war rhetoric.
Weiner states the following:
Overall drug use in the United States has declined by roughly half in the past 25 years — from about 13 percent of the population in 1980 to just over 6 percent of the population in 2005. Cocaine use, including crack, is down 70 percent.
What’s the source of this claim? We don’t know. Weiner doesn’t say. And it would be nice to know, because the claim that overall drug use has declined by about half since 1982 strains credulity. As Pete at Drug WarRant points out, the 2004 National Survey on Drug Use and Health flatly contradicts Weiner’s claim: it actually shows that, since 1982, most categories of substance use (with the lone exception of alcohol) have increased, not decreased. That’s not the only relevant survey, of course. One might also look at the Monitoring the Future study of youth drug use, and one would realize that while Weiner’s claim is narrowly accurate as it pertains to youth use, it fails to acknowledge that drug use is actually higher among kids today than it was in 1992. So while we may be doing better than we were 25 years ago, we’re doing significantly worse than we were 15 years ago, suggesting that there’s little if any correlation between drug use trends and the preposterously damaging tactics of the drug war.
Additionally, any cheerful claims about falling drug use fail to acknowledge a serious issue that the ONDCP itself admits is “increasingly prevalent among teens and young adults”: the reality that young people are beginning to abuse prescription and over-the-counter drugs like dextromethorphan, precisely because they are trying to get high without the risk of facing a massive prison sentence.
Weiner also writes:
In Baltimore, for example, where the mayor once favored legalization, activist policies involving treatment and enforcement have contributed to a 42.5 percent drop in heroin-related emergency room admissions, according to the Department of Health and Human Services’ Drug Abuse Warning Network.
This Baltimore anecdote might make one forget that more than 1,000 people died in the Midwest during the summer of 2006 from overdoses related to heroin laced with fentanyl. They died because heroin supplies are completely unregulated in this country and can be contaminated with whatever chemicals the black market decides to put in them. They died because we have a drug regulation system that doesn’t actually regulate the most dangerous drugs, and simply uses the bumbling tools of arrest and imprisonment to handle complex health care issues.
Finally, the most critical statistic of all is missing from Weiner’s happy tale. It’s the statistic that shows American incarceration rocketing toward infinity, not just during the last 25 years but for 30 straight years. That’s not exclusively due to the war on drugs, but the war on drugs is a major contributing factor. No reasonable person can take a look at this graph and claim we have a system that works, which is why drug warriors like Weiner prefer not to mention it.