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Breaking Ranks

Opinion Editorial
July 21, 2006

By Mike Krause

House Bill 06-1145, signed into law in May, creates a State Methamphetamine Task Force in Colorado that has as part of its mission “to examine the prevention, intervention, and treatment of the abuse of methamphetamine.”
This would be a radical departure from the traditional drug war orthodoxy of trying to arrest and incarcerate away the drug issue. Unfortunately, Colorado’s continued obedience to federal drug-war priorities means that fresh thinking on methamphetamine will continue to take a backseat to the national obsession with marijuana prohibition.

For instance, the new task force is mandated to “Formulate and implement a response from the criminal justice sector regarding the methamphetamine problem.” Too bad that Colorado’s criminal justice sector is otherwise occupied with marijuana enforcement.

A 2005 study by the Washington DC-based Justice Policy Institute (JPI) found: “In 2003, Colorado arrested people for marijuana at a rate of 210 per 100,000. Current marijuana use (in the past 30 days) stood at a rate of 6,883 per 100,000 or an estimated 313,000 people. In that same year marijuana arrests comprised 58 percent of total drug arrests.” To put this in some perspective, consider that in 2003, adult arrests in Colorado for all violent crimes combined were 151 people per 100,000.

In the recent book, An Analytical Assessment of U.S. Drug Policy published by the conservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI), authors David Boyum and Peter Reuter note that “Plainly marijuana enforcement has a limited deterrent effect. Yet precisely because the drug is so widely and casually used, marijuana enforcement is particularly intrusive, nabbing many more non-problem users than cocaine or heroin [or methamphetamine] enforcement. Much marijuana enforcement is simply unjustifiable—it does little to prevent problem use, but imposes great cost on non-problem users.” It also imposes great cost on taxpayers.

In 2005, Harvard University Economist Jeffrey Miron conducted a state-by-state breakdown of the cost of marijuana prohibition and enforcement. The report, endorsed by Nobel Laureate Milton Friedman and over 500 other economists, found that in Colorado, for the year 2000, out of a combined state-wide police agency, judicial (courts and prosecutors) and corrections budget of $1,979,000,000.00, that $64 million was expended as a result of marijuana law enforcement.

Certain assumptions were used to arrive at these numbers. For instance, Miron wanted only “stand alone” marijuana arrests for police agency resource figures. The national average put “stand alone” arrests at between 33% and 85% of arrests, so according to Miron, “To err on the conservative side, the report assumes that 50% of possession arrests are due solely to marijuana possession rather than being incidental to some other crime.”

Even if one were to err drastically on the side of conservatism and halve Miron’s findings, it would not change the conclusion that tens of millions of Coloradoan’s tax dollars are being misspent annually on drug enforcement against a substance that in any rational assessment of priorities would be treated roughly the same as beer.

The AEI authors go on to outline the failure of the traditional drug-war strategy of “simply seizing drugs and arresting dealers” and instead advocate a strategy of “selective market disruption.” This strategy requires acceptance of the simple fact that government never has—and never will—eliminate entire illegal drug markets, but should instead try to “shape the character of markets by targeting their most damaging aspects.”

A 2006 study on methamphetamine by the Washington DC-based Sentencing Project found: “The proportion of Americans who use methamphetamine on a monthly basis has hovered in the range of 0.2-0.3% between 1999 and 2004.”

As for abuse, Colorado Department of Human Services statistics for 2004 show methamphetamine related emergency room visits trailed behind alcohol, cocaine, prescription drugs and opiates (such as heroin). In fact, alcohol related admissions beat out methamphetamine by a ratio of 4 to 1.

In other words, despite the “epidemic” hysteria surrounding the drug, methamphetamine is actually a relatively small drug market, which a highly focused and selective state-wide prevention and treatment strategy might actually be able to contain.

Colorado could free up millions of dollars for just such a strategy, and bring some much needed sanity to state drug policy, by simply withdrawing from the irrational and wasteful war on marijuana.

(This article is excerpted from a forthcoming Independence Institute paper)