Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search


America's misguided drug war

Attacking suppliers of drugs without addressing the demand guaranteesdrug sales will continue

By Mike Tidwell / March 8, 1999



No credible evidence exists showing that stringent enforcement of US narcotics laws actually reduces drug use in this country. Indeed, the opposite seems true: Law-enforcement efforts actually promote illicit drug use.

Skip to next paragraph

That's certainly my observation after 10 years working with homeless drug addicts in Washington, D.C. The endless police raids on crack houses, shooting galleries, and various open-air markets simply help push drugs block-by-block through the city, guaranteeing that every D.C. teenager will eventually have a full-blown market on his street corner.

The problem is simple: Attacking supply without addressing demand guarantees that drug markets and drug sales will not cease. They simply move to another spot momentarily untargeted by police raids. Then they move again.

This phenomenon exacerbates the epidemic, casting a wider net than would otherwise be cast, reeling into drugs youths who would otherwise stand a much better chance of staying drug-free.

It's important to be very clear on this point: Our law-enforcement efforts actually help peddle drugs. Society has become a pusher. It's hard to conclude otherwise.

Now comes news that we'll soon get more of the same. The Clinton administration's annual antinarcotics budget, unveiled earlier this month, calls for roughly $12 billion in spending for law enforcement, interdiction and other efforts to attack narcotics supply. That's a 30-percent increase since 1996 and nearly a doubling of such funding over the past decade. This means more money for more cops and other resources to help facilitate the spread of crack, heroin, and marijuana through the streets of America's cities.

Tragically, as in past years, funding to reduce drug demand constitutes barely a third of the proposed federal narcotics budget. This, while local spending for treatment in many US cities continues to drop. Washington's treatment system is in shambles. Between 1993 and 1998, the city's treatment budget fell from $31.3 million to $19.7 million - a 37-percent drop. Drug offenders - sentenced to treatment by judges - languish in prison for months for lack of a bed, and about 1,200 people are on the city's waiting list for methadone maintenance. Across the United States, treatment programs can accommodate only about 50 percent of hard-core users.

This, despite the fact that treatment is widely acknowledged to be much cheaper than narcotics enforcement and interdiction efforts. For example, for the cost of a single customs department drug surveillance plane - a reported $47 million - the District could treat all those on its waiting list and more.

But instead of treating drug addiction as a public health issue, we continue to criminalize it with endless street raids, sending hundreds of thousands of nonviolent drug offenders to prison. And incarceration is yet another way our policies actually promote drug use. Almost half of all inmates at D.C.'s Lorton prison are nonviolent drug offenders, many of them sentenced under draconian federal laws requiring a mandatory minimum of five years in jail for possessing as little as 5 grams of crack - the weight of two pennies.

Any offender who isn't chronically deviant and prone to long-term drug use before incarceration has his chances ratcheted up significantly during five years' exposure to the violence and dysfunctions of prison culture.

It's time to end what amounts to state sponsorship of drug use in our cities. Let's increase and improve treatment and drug education programs as a first step toward gradual decriminalization and possible legalization. Holland, to cite an example, has seen no significant increase in marijuana use since legalizing coffee-house consumption more than 20 years ago. Among young adolescents, drug use in Holland is actually lower than in the US.

Even with its risks and challenges, legalization seems to offer a better alternative to the mess we have now, where tax dollars and law-enforcement techniques police officers use actually encourage young people - however inadvertently - to use drugs and take that first fateful step toward addiction.

* Mike Tidwell is the author of 'In the Shadow of the White House: Drugs death and redemption on the streets of the nation's capital' (Prima Publishing, 1992). He lives in Takoma Park, Md.