If we measured our drug policies’ effectiveness by the number of users and dealers arrested each year, they would be considered unmitigated successes. In each year since 1989, more people have been sent to prison for drug offenses than for violent crimes.

This is due in large part to America’s commitment to fighting the “War on Drugs.” First instituted by President Richard Nixon in 1972 and then radically escalated by President Ronald Reagan in the early 1980s, these policies aim at curbing the use and supply of illegal drugs in this country.

The net effect of these policies has been an explosion in the incarceration rate in this country. In the year 2000 alone, the number of individuals incarcerated for drug offenses, 458,131, was almost as large as the entire U.S. prisoner population of 1980 – 474,368.

The price of these incarcerations, combined with general enforcement costs, comes with a hefty price tag of over $30 billion per year.

With so much money and manpower being devoted to this single aim, one could suppose that we must be making huge strides toward curbing drug use.

Unfortunately, high enforcement costs don’t necessarily translate into effective policy. For evidence of this, simply look at the price of cocaine and heroin in this country. Over the past 20 years, the street prices of these two drugs has seen a dramatic fall. On average, the price of cocaine has fallen from roughly $400 dollars per gram in 1980 to nearly $200 today. Heroin has seen a substantial drop from nearly $3,500 per gram in 1980 to around $2,000 today. These dramatic drops in price, combined with a relatively stable level of drug use over the past 15 years, are strong indication that our policies to control the supply of drugs within this country have been entirely unsuccessful.

Although our policies don’t seem to have much of an effect on the supply of drugs in this country, perhaps incarceration serves as an effective deterrent to drug use. This argument seems compelling at first glance, but it simply doesn’t square with reality.

It is often the case with the “harder” drugs that users become seriously addicted after prolonged use. At this point, the penalties become essentially meaningless to the user because their desire for the drug trumps the fear of incarceration.

The very nature of addiction itself prevents harsh penalties from having much of a deterrent effect on the intended targets. Many experts in the field argue that the ideal way to break the cycle at this point is through a process of rehabilitation. But in its infinite wisdom, the state has instead decided to keep the addicted incarcerated with other drug offenders. This situation does nothing to change the climate out of which drug use springs, and it only perpetuates a cycle of poverty and incarceration.

Drugs are serious business. They destroy families, friendships and individuals’ potential. It goes without saying that serious steps need to be taken to reduce the prevalence of drug use within our society.

But when the solution is more destructive than the problem itself, a period of re-examination is clearly needed.

Perhaps it is time for policymakers to realize that our foolish war on drugs simply cannot be won with our current tactics.

Miller can be reached at emiller@campustimes.org.

Skwiersky can be reached at cskwiersky@campustimes.org.

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