We’re fighting a war that is inflicting even greater casualties than the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and, incredibly, costing even more money. We’re losing the War on Drugs, and we’ve been in retreat for three decades.
That statement may come as a surprise to John Walters, Director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, who spent last week trumpeting the Bush administration’s anti-drug policies. He claims these policies have led to a decline in drug abuse and improvements in our physical and mental health.
While Walters focused on a marginal decline in drug use, he made no mention of the shocking rise in drug overdoses. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this week reported unintentional drug overdoses nearly doubled over the course of five years, rising from 11,155 in 1999 to 19,838 in 2004. Fatal drug overdoses in teenagers and young adults soared 113 percent.
More than 22 million Americans were classified with substance abuse or dependence problems in 2005, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Nearly 8,000 people are trying drugs for the first time every day — that’s about 3 million a year. The majority of new users are younger than 18, and more than half of them are female.
Obviously, John Walters and I are not looking at the same statistics. There is simply no excuse for permitting the destruction of so many young lives.
How can anyone rationalize the fact that the United States, with only 4 percent of the world’s population, consumes two-thirds of the world’s illegal drugs?
Former President Richard Nixon first declared a modern-day war on the use of illicit substances, calling drugs “public enemy number one” and pushing through the Controlled Substances Act of 1970. Since then the government has waged a futile, three-decades-long war of attrition.
Illicit drug use costs the United States almost $200 billion a year, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Include alcohol and tobacco-related costs along with health care, criminal justice and lost productivity and the figure exceeds $500 billion annually.
Even with new rehabilitation centers and clinics, less than 20 percent of drug and alcohol abusers receive the treatment they need and the cycle of drug-related crime continues unabated.
It’s estimated about half of the more than two million inmates in our nation’s prisons meet the clinical criteria for drug or alcohol dependence, and yet fewer than one-fifth of these offenders receive any kind of treatment. Studies show successful treatment cuts drug abuse in half, reduces criminal activity by as much 80 percent and reduces arrests by up to 64 percent.
As NIDA reports, “Treatment not only lowers recidivism rates, it is also cost-effective. It is estimated that for every dollar spent on addiction treatment programs, there is a $4 to $7 reduction in the cost of drug-related crimes. With some outpatient programs, total savings can exceed costs by a ratio of 12:1.”
In the midst of the global war on terror along with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, we have forgotten about the brutal effects of narcotics trafficking on millions of American lives. We must end the abuse of drugs and alcohol, and provide successful treatment for Americans whose addictions are destroying their own lives and wounding our families and society.
Whatever course we follow in prosecuting other wars, we must commit ourselves as members of this great society to only one option in the War on Drugs — victory.