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As you may have already noticed and will notice again, the other chapters in this book usually present a fairly optimistic assessment when they discuss prospects for addressing the social problem discussed in each chapter. They point to the experience of other nations that do a good job of addressing the social problem, they cite social science evidence that points to solutions for addressing the problem, and they generally say that the United States could address the problem if it had the wisdom to approach it appropriately and to spend sufficient sums of money.
This chapter will not end with an optimistic assessment for addressing the drug problem. The reason for this lack of optimism is that what’s past is prologue: People have enthusiastically used drugs since prehistoric times and show no signs of reducing their drug use. Many and perhaps most scholars think the legal war on drugs has had little, if any, impact on drug use (Walker, 2011),Walker, S. (2011). Sense and nonsense about crime, drugs, and communities: A Policy guide (7th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth. and many scholars recognize that this war brought with it the many disadvantages cited in the previous section. As Kleiman et al. (2011, p. xvi)Kleiman, M. A. R., Caulkins, J. P., & Hawken, A. (2011). Drugs and drug policy: What everyone needs to know. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. observe, “Our current drug policies allow avoidable harm by their ineffectiveness and create needless suffering by their excesses.”
A growing number of people in the political world agree. In 2011, the Global Commission on Drug Policy issued a major report on the world’s antidrug efforts. The commission comprised nineteen members, including a former United Nations secretary general, a former US secretary of state, a former chair of the US Federal Reserve, and former presidents or prime ministers of Brazil, Colombia, Greece, Mexico, and Switzerland. The commission’s report called for a drastic rethinking of current drug policy: “The global war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world…Fundamental reforms in national and global drug control policies are urgently needed” (Global Commission on Drug Policy, 2011, p. 3).Global Commission on Drug Policy. (2011). War on drugs: Report of the Global Commission on Drug Policy. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil: Author. Decriminalization and even legalization of illegal drugs should be seriously considered, the report concluded.
Given this backdrop, many drug experts question whether our current drug policies make sense. They add that the best approach our society could take would be to expand the prevention, treatment, and harm reduction approaches discussed earlier; because drugs will always be with us, our society should do what it can to minimize the many harms that drugs cause. Thus drug education prevention and drug treatment programs should be expanded, sterile needles should be made available for drug addicts who inject their drugs, and drug courts should be used for a greater number of drug offenders.
Beyond these approaches, some experts say marijuana use should be decriminalized and that decriminalization of other drugs should be seriously considered. If marijuana were not only decriminalized but also legalized and taxed, it is estimated that this new tax revenue would amount to $8.7 billion annually and that about $8.7 billion annually would also be saved in reduced law enforcement costs, for a total of more than $17 billion in new funds that could be used for drug prevention, drug treatment, and other needs (Kristof, 2010).Kristof, N. D. (2010, October 28). End the war on pot. New York Times, p. A33. Many Americans agree with these experts: In a 2011 Gallup poll, 50 percent of the public favored legalizing marijuana, while 46 percent opposed legalizing it (Graves, 2011).Graves, L. (2011, October 18). Marijuana legalization receives 50 percent support in new poll. Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/2010/2017/support-for-marijuana-legalization-at-all-time-high_n_1016461.html?utm_source =DailyBrief&utm_campaign=1101811&utm_medium=email&utm_content=NewsEntry &utm_term=Daily%1016420Brief.
More generally, these experts say, it makes little sense to arrest more than 1.3 million people each year for drug possession and to put many of them in jail or prison. We do not arrest and imprison alcoholics and cigarette smokers; instead we try to offer them various kinds of help, and we should do the same for people who are addicted to other kinds of drugs. If arrest and imprisonment must continue, these measures should be reserved for sellers of large quantities of illegal drugs, not for the people who use the drugs or for those who sell only small quantities. When low-level drug dealers are imprisoned, they are simply replaced on the street by new dealers. Providing low-level dealers with alternative sentencing would reduce the number of imprisoned dealers over time by several hundred thousand annually without making illegal drugs more available.
In addition to all these measures, several other steps might well reduce certain kinds of drug use or at least reduce the harm that both drugs and our current drug policies cause (Kleiman et al., 2011).Kleiman, M. A. R., Caulkins, J. P., & Hawken, A. (2011). Drugs and drug policy: What everyone needs to know. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. These steps include the following: