The US Congress Joint Economic Committee yesterday held a historic
hearing on the economic costs of US drug policy. The hearing, titled
Illegal Drugs: Economic Impact, Societal Costs, Policy Responses, was
called at the request of Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA), who in his opening
remarks described the all-too-familiar failure of US drug policy to
accomplish the goals it has set for itself. It was the second hearing
related to incarceration that Webb has convened under the auspices of
Jim Webb at 2007 incarceration hearing (photo from sentencingproject.org)
"Our insatiable demand for drugs" drives the drug trade, Webb pointed
out. "We're spending enormous amounts of money to interdict drug
shipments, but supplies remain consistent. Some 86% of high schoolers
report easy access to marijuana. Cocaine prices have fallen by about
80% since the 1980s," the freshman senator continued. "Efforts to
curb illegal drug use have relied heavily on enforcement. The number
of people in custody on drug charges has increased 13-fold in the
past 25 years, yet the flow of drugs remains undiminished. Drug
convictions and collateral punishments are devastating our minority
communities," Webb said.
"Our current policy mix is not working the way we want it to," Webb
declared. "The ease with which drugs can be obtained, the price, the
number of people using drugs, the violence on the border all show
that. We need to rethink our responses to the health effects, the
economic impacts, the effect on crime. We need to rethink our
approach to the supply and demand of drugs."
Such sentiments coming from a sitting senator in the US in 2008 are
bold if not remarkable, and it's not the first time that Webb has
uttered such words:
In March of last year, he told George Stephanopoulos on the ABC News
program This Week: "One of the issues which never comes up in
campaigns but it's an issue that's tearing this country apart is this
whole notion of our criminal justice system, how many people are in
our criminal justice system more -- I think we have two million
people incarcerated in this country right now and that's an issue
that's going to take two or three years to try to get to the bottom
of and that's where I want to put my energy."
In his recently-released book, A Time to Fight, Webb wrote: "The time
has come to stop locking up people for mere possession and use of
marijuana," "It makes far more sense to take the money that would be
saved by such a policy and use it for enforcement of gang-related
activities" and "Either we are home to the most evil population on
earth, or we are locking up a lot of people who really don't need to
be in jail, for actions that other countries seem to handle in more
Still, drug reformers may be impatient with the level of rethinking
presented at the hearing. While witnesses including University of
Maryland criminologist Peter Reuter, author of "Drug War Heresies,"
and John Walsh, director of the Washington Office on Latin America
(WOLA) offered strong and familiar critiques of various aspects of US
drug policy, neither of the words "prohibition" or "legalization"
were ever uttered, nor were the words "tax and regulate," and radical
alternatives to current policy were barely touched upon. Instead, the
emphasis seemed to be on adjusting the "mix" of spending on law
enforcement versus treatment and prevention.
The other two witnesses at the hearing, Kings County (Brooklyn), New
York, Assistant District Attorney Anne Swern and community
coordinator Norma Fernandes of the same office, were there to talk up
the success of drug court-style programs in their community.
[The written testimony of all four witnesses is available at the
hearing web site linked above.]
"US drug policy is comprehensive, but unbalanced," said Reuter. "As
much as 75% of spending goes to enforcement, mainly to lock up
low-level drug dealers. Treatment is not very available. The US has a
larger drug problem than other Western countries, and the policy
measures to confront it have met with little success," he told the
Reuter said there were some indications policymakers and the
electorate are tiring of the drug war approach, citing California's
treatment-not-jail Proposition 36, but there was little indication
Congress was interested in serious analysis of programs and policies.
"Congress has been content to accept rhetoric instead of research,"
Reuter said, citing its lack of reaction to the Office of National
Drug Control Policy's refusal to release a now three-year-old report
on drug use levels during the Bush administration. "It's hardly a
secret that ONDCP has failed to publish that report, but Congress has
not bothered to do anything," he complained. "We need more emphasis
on the analytic base for policy."
But even with the paltry evidence available to work with, Reuter was
able to summarize a bottom line: "The US imprisons too many people
and provides too little treatment," he said. "We need more than
"US drug policies have been in place for some time without much
change except for intensification," said WOLA's Walsh, noting that
coca production levels are as high as they were 20 years ago. "Since
1981, we have spent about $800 billion on drug control, and $600
billion of that on supply reduction. We need a stiff dose of
historical reality as we contemplate what to do now," he told the
With the basic policies in place for so long, some conclusions can
now be drawn, Walsh said. "First, the balloon effect is real and
fully relevant today. We've seen it time and time again, not just
with crops, but also with drug smuggling routes. If we want to talk
about actually reducing illicit crops and we know eradication only
leads to renewed planting, we need to be looking for alternatives,"
"Second, there is continuing strong availability of illicit drugs and
a long-term trend toward falling prices," Walsh said, strongly
suggesting that interdiction was a failed policy. "The perennial goal
is to drive up prices, but prices have fallen sharply. There is
evidence of disruptions in the US cocaine market last year, but
whether that endures is an open question and quite doubtful given the
historical record," he said.
"Third, finding drugs coming across the border is like finding a
needle in a haystack, or more like finding lots of needles in lots of
different moving haystacks," he said. "Our legal commerce with Mexico
is so huge that to think we can seal the borders is delusional."
With respect to the anti-drug assistance package for Mexico currently
being debated in Congress, Walsh had a warning: "Even with US
assistance, any reduction in the flow of drugs from Mexico is
unlikely." Instead, Walsh said, lawmakers should adjust their
supply-control objectives and expectations to bring them in line with
Changes in drug producing countries will require sustained efforts to
increase alternative livelihoods. That in turn will require patience
and a turn away from "the quick fix mentality that hasn't fixed
anything," Walsh said.
"We can't expect sudden improvements; there is no silver bullet,"
Walsh concluded. "We need to switch to harm reduction approaches and
recognize drugs and drug use as perennial problems that can't be
eliminated, but can be managed better. We need to minimize not only
the harms associated with drug use, but also those related to
policies meant to control drugs."
"It is important to be able to discuss the realities of the
situation, it's not always a comfortable thing to talk about," Webb
said after the oral testimony. "This is very much a demand problem.
I've been skeptical bout drug eradication programs; they just don't
work when you're supplying such an enormous thirst on this end. We
have to find ways to address demand other than locking up more
people. We have created an incredible underground economic apparatus
and we have to think hard about how to address it."
"The way in which we focused attention on the supply side has been
very much mistaken," agreed Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-NY), who along
with Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) were the
only other solons attending the hearing. "All this focus on supply
hasn't really done anything of any value. The real issue is demand,
and prevention and dealing with people getting out of prison is the
way to deal with this."
Reuter suggested part of the solution was in increase in what he
called "coerced abstinence," or forced drug treatment. Citing the
work of UCLA drug policy researcher Mark Kleiman, Reuter said that
regimes of frequent testing with modest sanctions imposed immediately
and with certainty can result "in a real decline in drug taking and
That got a nod of agreement from prosecutor Swern. "How long you stay
in treatment is the best predictor of staying out of trouble or off
drugs," she said. Swern is running a program with deferring
sentencing, with some flexibility she said. "The beauty of our
program is it allows us to give people many chances. If they fail in
treatment and want to try again, we do that," she said.
As the hearing drew to an end, Webb had one last question: "Justice
Department statistics show that of all drug arrests in 2005, 42.6%
were for marijuana offenses. What about the energy expended arresting
people for marijuana?" he asked, implicitly begging for someone to
respond, "It's a waste of resources."
But no one connected directly with the floating softball. "The vast
majority of those arrests are for simple possession," said Reuter.
"In Maryland, essentially no one is sentenced to jail for marijuana
possession, although about a third spend time in jail pre-trial. It's
not as bad as it looks," he said sanguinely.
"There's violence around marijuana trafficking in Brooklyn,"
responded prosecutor Swern.
WOLA's Walsh came closest to a strong answer. "Your question goes to
setting priorities," he said. "We need to discriminate among types of
illicit drugs. Which do the most harm and deserve the most emphasis?
Also, given the sheer number of marijuana users, what kind of dent
can you make even with many more arrests?"
And so ended the first joint congressional hearing to challenge the
dogmas of the drug war. For reformers that attended, there were
generally thumbs up for Webb and the committee, mixed with a bit of
disappointment that the hearings only went so far.
"It was extraordinary," said Sanho Tree, director of the Drug Policy
Project at the DC-based Institute for Policy Studies. "They didn't
cover some of the things I hoped they would, but I have to give them
props for addressing the issue at all."
"Webb was looking for someone to say what he wanted to say with the
marijuana question, that perhaps we should deemphasize law
enforcement on that," said Doug McVay, policy analyst at Common Sense
for Drug Policy, who also attended the hearing. "I don't think our
witnesses quite caught what he was aiming for, an answer that
arresting all those people for marijuana takes away resources that
could be used to fight real crime."
Sen. Webb came in for special praise from Tree. "Perhaps because he's
a possible vice presidential candidate, he had to tone things down a
bit, but he is clearly not afraid to talk about over-incarceration,
and using the Joint Economic Committee instead of Judiciary or
Foreign Affairs is a brilliant use of that committee, because this
is, after all, a policy with enormous economic consequences," Tree
said. "Webb is clearly motivated by doing something about the high
levels of incarceration. He held a hearing on it last year, and got
the obvious answer that much of it is related to drug policy. Having
heard that kind of answer, most politicians would walk away fast, but
not Webb, so I have to give him credit."
Reversing the drug war juggernaut will not be easy. The Congressional
Joint Economic Committee hearing Thursday was perhaps a small step
toward that end, but it is a step in the right direction.
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