Weighing The Harms
by P. B. Floyd
From Slingshot
Early Spring 1997, Berkeley, California

Current efforts at reforming drugs laws, including the medical "harm reduction" movement, stem from the recognition that the social harms from the War on Drugs have greatly exceeded the social harm from illegal drug use itself.

The direct harms from illegal drug use (not secondary harms caused by the War on Drugs) are primarily: health related problems from addiction, reduced productivity and increased absenteeism from workers on drugs, long term health consequences from drug use and the reduced ability of heavy illegal drug users to take on certain social tasks. Most of these harms are associated with the heavy use of or addiction to both "illegal" drugs and "legal" drugs. Advocates of radical drug law reform recognize that heavy or addictive illegal drug use can damage health They recognize that both "illegal" and "legal" drug use should be in moderation and should be balanced with other aspects of one's life Some particularly addictive, potent or dangerous drugs may be harmful under almost any circumstances. The pure health harm, to say nothing of the chance for moderation in drugs use, however, is almost always massively increased by drug prohibition.

Following are examples harm flowing from the War on Drugs. Rational drug reform needs to balance these harms with the individual health harms and social harms listed above for each individual drug, either legal or illegal. Drug/health/police policy must be based on a balancing process not misshapen by irrational historical distinctions between "illegal" and "legal" drugs and not based on myths that hold that any drug use, no matter how moderate, is abuse.

Incarceration Boom and Lives wasted in prison

America has seen an explosion in prison population since the 1980s, almost all of it fueled directly or indirectly by the failed War on Drugs. The total US prison population has tripled since 1980 and now stands at more than 1,550,000 people. In 1980, California's prisons held 23,511 inmates or 1 in 1006 residents. By 1994, about 125,000 were incarcerated, or 1 in 256. By the year 2000, the California Department of Corrections projects that 1 in 146 people in California will be in prison. Drug offenses were responsible for 25 percent of the US prison population in 1995, up from only 8 percent in 1980. About 220,000 drug prisoners were held in state prisons in 1995, up 1070 percent from 1980.

A recent Justice Department Bureau of Justice Statistics biennial study found that in 1994, about one-third of the 872,200 felony convictions in state Courts were for drug offenses, with another one-third property crimes. Many of the property crimes are committed by addicts attempting to pay high, illegal drug prices. Less that one-fifth of felony convictions during this period were for violent crimes.

African-Americans and Latinos have been particularly impacted by the War on drugs. At the end of 1994, 7 percent of black men were in prison. 91 percent of the increase in African Americans confined in federal prisons from 1990 to 1994 was due to increased incarceration for drug crimes.

There have been more than one million arrests per year since 1988 for drug violations Over 70 percent of the arrests have been for possession of drugs, not sale or manufacture.

Addicts can't get effective treatment

One of the principle health harms associated with drugs is physical addiction. Making drugs illegal has made it much harder for addicts to get treatment because the drug war has cut drug users off from society. Drug addicts have a medical problem for which they need support and help. Because their problem, drug use, is illegal, they are forced into hiding. When addicts have been permitted to come more into the open, treatment has increased.

For instance, when Frankfurt, Germany adopted a harm reduction strategy by reducing police pressure on users and making services available, a population of 1,000 addicts declined to about 150. San Francisco needle exchange workers in the 1980s produced far more referrals to drug treatment programs than any other source. Amsterdam, which permitted unofficial tolerance zones for drug users, saw a decline in heroin addicts from 9,000 in 1984 to 6,000 by 1990. By contrast, addiction in areas that practice prohibition continues to rise.

In the United States, treatment isn't always available to those who seek it. By contrast, the European experiments have always started with free treatment on demand.

The War on Drugs has taken billions of dollars that could have been spent on education or treatment and put it into law enforcement, making money scarce for treatment. For example, of the $16 billion spent annually by states on drug control, only 20 percent goes to education or treatment. Federal spending priorities are only slightly better.

A 1994 Rand Corporation study indicated that the relative cost of providing treatment, pursuing criminal enforcement or attempting drug interdiction at the border is grossly disproportionate. The cost of reducing cocaine use by 1 percent, according to the study, is $34 million using treatment. The same 1 percent reduction would cost $246 million through criminal enforcement or $366 million through interdiction. This assumes that you can reduce drug consumption at all through enforcement or interdiction, which don't generally target the end drug user, a big assumption considering the last 35 years of War on Drugs experience.

The current War's frustration of treatment for drug addicts is ironic and tragic for the many addicts who want to kick drugs and either get no assistance or are actively discouraged from seeking treatment.

Increased AIDS Cases

The War on Drugs has frustrated efforts to supply clean needles to IV drug users which could prevent the transmission of HIV between these drug users. Drug prohibitionists refuse to permit distribution of clean needles because HIV drug use is illegal and because it might indicate that drug use is tolerated. As a result, IV drug users have one of the highest incidents of HIV and AIDS. While many IV drug users kick their habits and get off drugs, AIDS is fatal. Drug prohibitionists make no attempt to balance the relative harms of supplying clean needles to IV drug users.

Several recent studies confirm that needle exchange saves lives and does not increase rates of IV drug addiction. Yet, because of the War on Drugs, clean needles are generally unavailable.

Civil Liberties Lost

Drug prohibitionists continually are pushing for Americans to surrender their privacy and civil liberties in order to snuff out of the drug trade. Urine testing, recently described, as a "rite of passage" for employees, is increasingly commonplace. In January, 1997, the FDA approved a home kit which parents can use to drug test their teenagers. Prior to the election, president Clinton proposed mandatory drug testing for all teenagers seeking a drivers license. The next clear step is drug testing for everyone seeking a drivers license. No attempt is made to balance the intrusion these drug tests pose against the supposed good for which they are intended.

In criminal and constitutional law, the attack on civil liberties are even more dramatic. While currently civil forfeiture laws, in which the government seizes property without affording the owner the benefit of a court appointed attorney or a "proof beyond a reasonable doubt" standard are limited to drug criminals, their extensive use in the Drug War opens up the real possibility that this tactic will be extended to other types of crimes.

Legal precedents from drug cases that limit criminal defendants rights to be free from illegal searches or other excesses of law enforcement are too numerous and complex to discuss fully here. Recent legal decisions amount to a repeal of many of the advances of the Warren Era Supreme Court. While some of these changes flow from conservative Courts appointed during the Reagan/Bush years, the Drug War and the dramatic enlargement in law enforcement power as part of the War has created its own legal atmosphere. The decreased protections that the innocent as well as the guilty have under Drug War legal precedents is never weighed against the drug harm sought to be addressed.

Increased street and organized crime

The high price of drugs made illegal under the War on Drugs fuels intense and violent conflict between gangs and individuals intent on controlling local drug markets. For instance, may earn $100,000 on US streets. Many killings are drug market related. United States homicide rates have increased from 4.8 per 100,000 citizens in the 1950s to 9.5 per 100,000 in the 1980s It is estimated that Americans annually spend $150 billion in the drug economy. Profits from this vast trade support the corrupt and violence drug lords and organized crime both here and abroad.

In addition, addicts are rarely able to support their habits through legal means because drugs are made artificially expensive through prohibition. Many property crimes are related to drug addiction.

Each of these problems is a result of the illegality of drugs, not directly a result of drug use Americans consistently list the fear of violent or residential crime as a pressing issue The War on Drugs, far from addressing this fear, actually increases violence. No attempt has been made to balance the harm from drug use and abuse against the harm caused by the high prices of drugs made illegal by the War on Drugs.

Waste of billions

Since 1980, the United States has spent $290 billion on Federal, state and local anti-drug efforts, more than the Federal government spent on medical research into cancer, heart disease or AlDS In addition, because drugs are illegal, they must be bought and imported at great cost The $150 billion that Americans annually spend purchasing illegal drugs impoverishes communities and individuals and fuels a large percentage of US property crimes. Much of this money goes out of the country although the United States is capable of producing its own drug supplies, which could provide significant legal US employment under a different drug policy.

Third world dictators supported

The War on Drugs provides a major cover for US military and CIA intervention around the world. Many repressive regimes are propped up by billions made from the illegal trade in drugs. See articles in this issue, about the history of the CIA involvement in drugs and US military intervention in Mexico under the cover of the War on Drugs. The ClA's introduction of crack cocaine to US inner cities was part of their efforts to aid the Nicaraguan Contras. The sheer size of the drug trade, bigger than the trade in oil, and the fact that none of it is open to any kind of public scrutiny practically ensures that it is a major tool for repression.

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