Tomorrow, U.S. Senator Jim Webb (D-Va.) will convene a hearing of the Joint Economic Committee (JEC) entitled, "Illegal Drugs: Economic Impact, Societal Costs, Policy Responses." According to the committee’s media advisory, “The panel will discuss the illegal drug economy in the United States, assess the costs of U.S. policy responses to combating drug use, and address the need for policy reforms.”
Considering the government’s scandalous waste of resources on destructive and inefficient drug policies — and the economic troubles spreading across the country — it’s thrilling to see Congress making the connection. Here are a few topics that we would love to see discussed at the hearing:
Despite the proven efficacy of drug treatment, according to the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services’ Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, there are over 20 million Americans in need of substance abuse treatment that are currently not receiving services. This is despite the fact that, since 1980, our nation’s annual drug war spending has skyrocketed from just under $2 billion to over $50 billion. While the treatment gap has marched steadily upward, the number of drug offenders in prisons and jails has increased by a whopping 1100 percent since 1980 — nearly a half-million (493,800) persons are in state or federal prison or local jail for a drug offense, compared to an estimated 41,100 in 1980. Drug arrestshave tripled in the last 25 years, totaling a record 1.89 million arrests in 2006. Despite this massive escalation in arrests, drug use has remained relatively constant. Drug-related health problems, on the other hand, have risen dramatically. According to a little-noticed January report from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), drug overdoses killed more than 33,000 people in 2005, the last year for which data are available. Overdose deaths have more than tripled since 1990, and increased over 60% between 1999 and 2005. It has become all too clear that our over-reliance on arrest and imprisonment have had little or no effect on drug use and a counter-productive effect on drug-related health problems.Yet, while health-based approaches to drug abuse are demonstrably more effective than criminal justice-based approaches, U.S. policy is stuck in the same excessively punitive “tough-on-crime” approach that got us into this mess in the first place.
The costs of the Drug War and mass incarceration are crippling both our communities and our public coffers. State and local agencies carry the brunt of enforcing, prosecuting, and incarcerating drug offenders, yet it is also state and local budgets that are being squeezed tightest by the current economic downturn. Still, there are a lot of opportunities to take steps in the right direction today — a step away from a criminal justice approach and toward a health-based approach, and a step away from blind prohibition and punishment and toward insightful regulation and treatment. Let’s hope tomorrow’s hearing is a pivotal step in the right direction.