As befitting current media habits, the big news in Cartagena, Colombia was the scandal involving the Secret Service, not the proposals and dialogue between western hemisphere leaders. As with most news stories, hype was substituted for content.
Actually, the most important news was the push forwarded by thoughtful leaders that the current “War on Drugs” is a failure. According to all accounts what’s been achieved since the commencement of this “war” some thirty years ago is the lowering prices of street drugs (reportedly the price for cocaine is currently half what it was in 1990); over 500,000 people are jailed in the US because of drug law infractions (40% of drug arrests are for simple marijuana possession); and, as news reports have shown, an incredible amount of violence on the US-Mexican border, as well as any number of other places we might turn our attention to. As a result the US is spending approx. $40 billion per year on this war. Nearly 80% of that is spent on law enforcement alone.
I would hedge a bet that not one reader feels any safer due to the policies followed by the last five US administrations; nor does anyone feel their children are any less prone to try (and possibly) become addicted to one street drug or another. Statistics demonstrate that 16% of US adults have tried cocaine.
We need to finally admit the obvious and end this war!
We would be well served by turning over the issue of drug addiction to the professionals and take it out of the hands of law enforcement. Drug addiction is a medical issue and not a criminal justice problem.
Countries that have exchanged treatment for punishment have lowered consumption and substantially reduced public health and safety issues that are linked to drug use. The Global Commission on Drug Policy reports that safe needle exchange programs in Britain and Germany have reduced the rate of HIV below 5% – in the US it’s above 15%, for those injecting drugs.
Perhaps people might think, “They get what they deserve” (I’m not willing to get into the moral argument). What we all know is that we all pay for it. We pay for law enforcement, incarceration, trips to emergency rooms, state care of children in foster care. And – sometimes missed – the loss of productivity by those trapped in their addictions (some estimate at $39 billion annually).
Everyday I’m in contact with folks who are struggling, not only with debilitating mental health issues, but also chronic addictions. Discussing when and why people begin using drugs is an obvious waste of time and energy. What we know is that drugs re-wire the brain. And to think that people can conquer their demons by just saying “no” is magical thinking (very informative link).
People who are addicted to drugs need access to harm-reduction facilities like Insite in Vancouver, Canada. They need intervention by highly skilled counselors and support from friends and family. They often need residential treatment.
In this time of scarce resources we should take the advice of other leaders in the Western Hemisphere and declare the war over and realize that drug addiction is a public health issue. Just think how far that $40 billion could go.