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Analyze This: Re-Modeling Drug Policy

Opinion Editorial
March 31, 2005

Author: Mike Krause

Among the conclusions of the new book, “An Analytical Assessment of U.S. Drug Policy, published by the free-market conservative think tank, American Enterprise Institute, is that “Long sentences for minor, non-violent drug offenders are perhaps the least defensible aspect of current drug policy.” While the book covers the entire scope of America’s war on drugs, several conclusions and recommendations relate to Colorado’s own unsustainable drug policies.

According to authors Peter Reuter of the Drug Policy Research Center at the RAND Corporation, and David Boyum, a past board member of the Federation of American Scientist’s Drug Policy Analysis Bulletin, “Most people locked up for drug offenses are street level offenders, apprehended and punished by local police and prosecutors and imprisoned in county jails and state prisons.”

Indeed, Colorado has, over several decades, quadrupled the percentage of drug offenders to 20 percent of Colorado’s prison population, at a cost of roughly $100 million per year.

The authors concede that many convicted of possession, were also involved in drug distribution in some way, but that “only one quarter of state drug inmates have a prior conviction for a violent crime, while nearly half have no prior non-drug conviction and were involved only in a minor role in their current offense.”

While a great deal of both property and violent crime is associated with drug dependent users, “these problems that accompany use, is at least partly the consequence of policies that marginalize users and make habits costly to support, and not simply an affect of the drugs themselves.”

The authors recommend “Sentencing and guidelines should be reformed to reduce total drug incarceration and to concentrate long sentences on those who engage in violence or recruit juveniles into the drug trade.”

Part of reducing total drug incarceration involves a change to street level enforcement, including crackdowns and sweeps, which produce large numbers of arrests, “Crackdowns are difficult to sustain, can intensify violent competition among dealers, and may result in the replacement of older dealers with younger, more violent ones.”
The authors instead recommend a strategy of “market disruption.” Rather than trying to eliminate entire drug markets, law enforcement tries to change the violent dynamic of drug markets by “disrupting street markets and moving them indoors, and disrupting ‘drug house’ markets and pressuring them to adapt to more discreet dealing strategies.”

As the authors explain, “Indoor markets, which are not publicly visible and are easily accessible only to established customers, are less disruptive of neighborhood functioning and less prone to violence.”

Instead of the numbers strategy of arresting dealers and seizing drugs, through which enforcement has tried — and ultimately failed — to raise retail drug prices, “retail drug enforcement should target individual dealers and organizations that engage in flagrant dealing, and the recruitment of juveniles.” As the authors conclude, “Arrests and seizures should not be operational goals, but rather tools employed, with restraint, in the service of public safety.”

This in turn, according to the authors, requires a rethinking of marijuana markets, which don’t create the level of violence and disruption of street dealing of harder drugs, “because so many transactions occur in the context of routine social relations.”
The authors continue “Plainly marijuana enforcement is simply unjustifiable-it does little to prevent problem use, but imposes great cost on non-problem users” and recommend eliminating, or at least shrinking the black market for marijuana by “allowing users to grow their own, an approach that has been adopted in numerous Australian jurisdictions.”

The authors then turn to “coerced treatment” for heavy users, claiming that about 3.5 million Americans, a relatively small number, have substantial problems with cocaine and/or heroin. These users not only account for most cocaine and heroin consumption, but, “they are probably responsible for an even larger share of the crime associated with drugs.” They then note that, at any given time, a good number of these hard core users are under supervision of the government in some way and conclude, “the criminal justice system should make greater use of its authority to compel treatment for drug involved offenders”.

The RAND Corporation study, Controlling Cocaine: Supply Versus Demand Programs, which the authors cite, claims each dollar spent on treatment reduces the cost of crime and lost productivity by $7.46. By contrast, domestic enforcement (arrest and incarceration) returns fifty-two cents.”

Focusing valuable resources on drug addicted users who commit other crimes makes more sense than simply pursuing drug users, since as the authors note, “Most who start using illicit drugs desist of their own volition, without treatment or incarceration, within five years of initiation.”

Colorado’s experiment in mass incarceration of drug offenders has failed to substantially influence either the price or availability of illicit drugs. The good conservatives at American Enterprise Institute have offered some solid alternatives. Will anybody listen?