Harsh enforcement has failed

drug policy by mmcrae01

This Foreign Policy article provides a concise snapshot of the failure of the “harsh enforcement” approach to drug policy:

As a domestic policy, a harsh enforcement approach has done little to control drug use, but has done a lot to lock up a growing portion of the U.S. population. Cocaine and opiate prices are about half their 1990 levels in in America today. And 16 percent of American adults have tried cocaine — that’s about four times higher than any other surveyed country in a list that includes Mexico, Colombia, Nigeria, France, and Germany. And while criminalization has a limited impact on price and use, it has a significant impact on crime rates. Forty percent of drug arrests in the United States are for the simple possession of marijuana. Nearly half a million people are behind bars in the United States for a drug offense — that’s more than ten times the figure in 1980.

It’s easy to write with certainty when you are vague. It’s also easier when you are only addressing a narrow set of values:

Conversely, the Global Commission on Drug Policy report compiled evidence suggesting that approaches based on treatment rather than punishment were far more effective in reducing consumption, HIV prevalence, and crime rates among users. For example, Britain and Germany, both of which long ago adopted harm reduction strategies for people injecting drugs — programs that include needle exchange programs and medication — see HIV prevalence among people who inject drugs below 5 percent. The United States and Portugal, by contrast, where such strategies were introduced later or only partially, see HIV prevalence among a similar community at above 15 percent.

“Reduced consumption” is a good thing, I suppose. But, is that a good indicator of the welfare of addicts? I’m not so sure.

Based on my knowledge of the UK system, would I rather be a heroin addict in the US or the UK? Easy call—the US recovery model or UK harm reduction model—recovery.

The US’s incarceration rates for drug offenses are terrible, indecent and stupid. However, I’m not certain that a system that believes addicts can’t recover, offers only methadone even though patients express a preference for abstinent recovery is better even if it does reduce crime and disease. Does this show more restraint in the exercise of social control? Not clear to me.

The sands are shifting in both the UK and the US. It’d be nice if we could stop having these either/or discussions and consider entertaining a both/and conversation.

4 thoughts on “Harsh enforcement has failed

  1. I agree with you about a “both” approach rather than the polarised one that drives me bananas. I think things are getting better in the UK with regard to choices and cultural change, but I don’t think anyone would argue that we have a way to go yet.

    Personally I think that if practitioners just started to ask the question: “what next?” to those whose intervention consists mainly of a prescription, then it affords the opportunity for change.

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