Drug Policy

What's the Opposite of a Drug-Free Society?

|

With the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration celebrating its 35th birthday this week, the publication of a new study estimating drug use rates across countries is well-timed. Of the 17 countries surveyed by the World Health Organization, China has the lowest rate of illegal drug use (cannabis and cocaine combined), followed by Japan, while the United States has the highest rate, followed closely by New Zealand. (Here is a comparison table.) "Globally," the researchers report, "drug use is not distributed evenly and is not simply related to drug policy, since countries with stringent user-level illegal drug policies did not have lower levels of use than countries with liberal ones." It may be that the United States has especially stringent drug policies partly because it has especially high levels of drug use. But it seems clear, after you look at drug use not only across countries but over time in the U.S., that the ebbs and flows have little to do with the intensity of drug law enforcement (which is not to say that prohibition itself has no impact).

As I mentioned yesterday, changes in drug use among teenagers since the DEA was established in the 1970s are not very impressive. I focused on drug use by high school seniors because it is a measure of success commonly used by drug warriors and because the government has comparable data for that group going back more than three decades. But whichever age group you look at, trends in drug use do not correspond very well with changes in drug control efforts. Overall, drug use in the U.S. peaked around 1979 and began to fall well before Ronald Reagan ramped up the war on drugs. As Republicans are fond of noting, drug use did rise during the Clinton administration, but it started to fall again before anything George W. Bush did differently could have had an impact. Although marijuana arrests have increased by more than 150 percent since 1990, marijuana use seems to be just as common today as it was then, if not more so. There is some uncertainty on that point, since the government changed the techniques used in its broadest drug use survey during this period. But in the Monitoring the Future Study, the rate for past-year marijuana use among high school seniors was 31.7 percent percent in 2007, compared to 32.5 percent in 1990. 

Getting back to the WHO study, it's striking that the lifetime marijuana use rate in the U.S. (42.4 percent) is more than twice as high as the rate in the Netherlands (19.8 percent), despite the latter country's famously (or notoriously, depending on your perspective) tolerant cannabis policies. The difference for lifetime cocaine use is even bigger: The U.S. rate (16.2 percent) is eight times the Dutch rate (1.9 percet). Do these results mean that draconian drug laws promote drug use, while a relatively laid-back approach discourages it? Not necessarily; that would be a hell of a "forbidden fruit" effect. But one thing that's clear is the point made by the WHO researchers: Drug use "is not simply related to drug policy." If tinkering with drug policy (within the context of prohibition) has an impact, it is hard to discern, and it's small compared to the influence of culture and economics.

NEXT: Nick Burns, P.I.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. What’s the Opposite of a Drug-Free Society?

    Expanding Medicare to cover drugs?

  2. I would like to give a rare (from me) thumbs up to JS’s post here.

    I think “drug policy” is being used to mean criminal laws, and in that sense I don’t see them having much of an impact on drug use, and more importantly, drug abuse.

    Now, drug policies in the sense of providing effective treatment options for those with abuse issues may be a different story.

  3. When delivered to the DEA, this study will be immediately placed in the circular file.

    Nobody likes to be told that they’ve been flogging the hog for 35 years.

  4. Expanding Medicare to cover drugs?

    Excellent. The opposite of prohibition, after all, is subsidization. Of course, in our topsy-turvy world, oftentimes a prohibition becomes a subsidy, of a sort.

  5. Massaging endless unreliable statistics means falling into the trap of Drug Warriors.

    Here’s the thing: If our First Amendment gave us the right to put whatever ideas we choose into our heads, surely the Second Amendment should have given us the right to put whatever substances we choose into our bodies.

    No matter who you are, where you live, or how you make your pay, you have the right to your mind and body. They are yours. Claim the damn things. (Or thing, to those who assume they are one and the same.)
    The right to your own mind and your own body is “inalienable.”

  6. If our First Amendment gave us the right to put whatever ideas we choose into our heads, surely the Second Amendment should have given us the right to put whatever substances we choose into our bodies.

    Some might argue the Fourth Amendment actually *does* already (the right to be secure in your person). But you are right; we shouldn’t simply depend on amendments to claim rights to self-possession and determination.

  7. Elemenope,
    Imagine if the First Amendment had been the Tenth and had been the high point of a crescendo.
    Unfortunately, our Founders were not dramatists. As a result, the First is the only one hanging on, and it by a thread. By the way, shouting fire in a crowded theater was pure bullshit.

    Isn’t it incredible to think how quite a few Founders scoffed at the need for a Bill of Rights? Now we see it’s the only thing we really do need.
    Or do we?
    Are we men or are we mice?
    Any wimmin here?

  8. I was coincidentally thinking about this earlier today while taking a racehorse-like piss (the mind tends to wander under those circumstances, particularly when there are no pornographic prints on the wall). I wasn’t coming up with any novel ideas (that’s something I reserve for extended sessions on the throne.) I’ve long known what others pointed out even longer ago.

    It’s insane to expect a bureau to put itself out of business by ending the problem it was set up to deal with. A drug-free society means a lot of out of work DEA agents, and a much smaller agency. OTOH, a sharp rise in visible problems associated with drugs brings heat on them, so they have incentives to promote the chronic (oh yeah) and minimize the acute.

    Public choice theory is the swiss-army knife of political analysis. It almost always has a tool that can be made to fit the situation, if you’re willing to work it.

  9. OTOH, I don’t quite understand this: If our First Amendment gave us the right to put whatever ideas we choose into our heads, surely the Second Amendment should have given us the right to put whatever substances we choose into our bodies, unless the substance in question is sweet hot lead. If that’s what you meant, points for oblique humour. Otherwise, I imagine you meant the 4th, though you could make some arguments under cover of equal protection.

    Given the trend toward slightly dodgy equal protection decisions, that might be a fruitful tack to take- after all, why should alcoholics get a pass in this regard?

    I don’t think that’s actually all that good an argument from the constitutional point of view (though I think it unanswerably strong from a legislative point of view), but I also don’t think the equal protection clause ought to say much about gay marriage, and a lot of courts seem to disagree with me. I do think there are better, and sufficient constitutional arguments to be made about drugs, but they have made no headway to date.

  10. “Drug Policy” just means an ever expanding tax payer funded police state complete with “non lethal” tasers, racial profiling, junk science, and jackbooted police administered beat-downs.

    Communist China is the least drug using society? Wow! That sounds like a place I sure want to live in! I’m sure the Tibetans can testify to that.

  11. I believe China has even stricter laws than the U.S.

  12. LOL, I gues the oppostie would be a society where everyone is totally stoned. Dude what a cool society that would be!

    JT
    http://www.Ultimate-Anonymity.com

  13. “LOL, I gues the oppostie would be a society where everyone is totally stoned. Dude what a cool society that would be!”

    A-fucking-men bro! A-fucking-men!

    I think the world would be a better place if alcohol were illegal and pot were legal in its place.

  14. BenL: “I think the world would be a better place if alcohol were illegal and pot were legal in its place.”

    Maybe so, but I think you miss the point, probably intentionally. The world would be a much better place if they were both legal, but if smashing someone’s face under the influence of either were strictly punished. More drunk people would go to jail than people who had smoked, of course, as drunk people are more likely to smash faces, to put it mildly.

  15. Totally.

    What GWBush needs to do is sit down with Osama and smoke a dube so they can mellow out instead of harsh my buzz with all their violence and bullshit…

  16. continued: Finally someone who gets it. I should add that if you could make them both drop acid and then shit in a bathtub together world peace would break out, and birds would spontaneously start carrying my train (I’m a Princess, goddammit). Good to know there’s a kindred spirit out there.

  17. Will someone PLEASE ban the Ultimate Anonymity dude?

    Somewhat related, (ok, totally unrelated), did the Hit and Run logo change recently? I missed the announcement, but I’d love to know who is responsible for the bit of Microsoft Paint artwork.

  18. Is it possible that chemically altering one’s mind is simply The American Way?

    And dpsc,

    That’s an interesting idea about the DEA.

  19. It’s not all that interesting really- it’s sort of obvious once you start looking at the world in a certain way. The DEA thing is a side-note.

    You do have to wonder though- how can you trust people who get rich trying to eradicate a problem? I mean, what would they do if they just came in and solved it in a year or two? Can you imagine that?

    It would be like a bunch of musicians releasing a number one album and then saying: Wow, I guess we did it, time to quit. The difference is that musicians do sometimes do that. Bureaucrats tend not to crack the top 100, a smart move on their part.

  20. I mean, what would they do if they just came in and solved it in a year or two? Can you imagine that?

    So you’ve seen The Frighteners, too? 😉

  21. Art: “So you’ve seen The Frighteners, too? ;)”

    Nope, I have no idea what you’re talking about. Meet me in the kiosk in central park on the 4th. Wear those chaps. We can discuss my conception of triadic superimposition. It’s unique and more than nine inches long.

  22. I believe China has even stricter laws than the U.S.

    And because of that I also believe that as a Chinese pot smoker I would not answer truthfully about my drug use ,so this numbers might be way off.

  23. Well, in “The Frighteners”, Michael J. Fox’s character has three ghosts working for him. When they haunt a place he (a genuine ‘ghost whisperer’) “exorcises” them. They move on, rinse, repeat. It’s a variation on Blondie’s scam in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and the DEA’s role in the War on Drugs, as you depict it, reminds me of that sort of hustle.

  24. Hmm- speaking of the Chinese there is a similar Jackie Chan movie. Three ghosts teach him Kung fu. It’s a profoundly bad movie. OTOH, TGTBATU is possibly the greatest movie.

  25. id have to agree with the good band/indifferent being one of the best films ever.

    dear idiots….it’s for you.

  26. Has anyone ever read the quote by Thomas Jefferson about the gov’t prescribing medicine. I’ve looked all over these intertubes but I haven’t been able to find it anywhere. I think went something like “Giving the government the power to prescribe medicine puts your body in the same peril state religion puts your soul in.” If any could help me out I would appreciate it.

  27. Travis,
    I honestly don’t think that in Thomas Jefferson’s day anyone was even suggesting that the government should have the power to decide what medicines people take, at least not using the modern justification of “public health”.
    Neu Mejican,
    “Now, drug policy in the sense of providing effective treatment options for those with abuse issues might be a different story”
    No. I have no interest in expanding the welfare state. In fact, if paying for the rehab of crack addicts is the alternative, I might just stay with our current drug policy.
    Leave it to one of our resident leftists to discredit the drug legalization argument.

  28. Well according to System of a Down

    All research on successful drug policy show
    That treatment should be increased Roooaaaaaarr
    And law enforcement decreased
    Roooaaaaaarrr
    While abolishing mandatory minimum sentences

    Just sayin’.

  29. I’m not so sure I would want to put any 2nd amendment-covered substances in my body. That would hurt, unless they were inserted rect…never mind, I get it, you were pushing for an 11th right in the BOR. It is too bad it does not exist in plain English, but perhaps the founders thought they had it covered with the tenth leaving most matters to local control. Pissing on the tenth and having a code of federal regulations that walks all over the whole document to the point Supreme Court justices may as well find “compelling state interest” to nullify portions at will because the whole thing is a fugging joke anyway….I think I was headed somewhere with this, but I’ll just quit and run over to Meijer to return the bent up fire pit I bought so I can start celebrating my freedom to do as I’m told. I’ll just do as always and smile and pretend its all cool, maybe wave some little flags.

  30. economist,

    No. I have no interest in expanding the welfare state. In fact, if paying for the rehab of crack addicts is the alternative, I might just stay with our current drug policy.
    Leave it to one of our resident leftists to discredit the drug legalization argument.

    There is nothing in my statement meant to imply you would be paying for anything. Providing options can mean getting rid of barriers to that treatment. Those barriers currently include the possibility of arrest, which keeps many an addict from admitting their use and seeking treatment.

  31. Is it possible that chemically altering one’s mind is simply The American Way?

    More like the human way. Our brains are being altered by chemicals every moment. The American Way is to arbitrarily decide which ones are okay to imbibe.

  32. “the right to put whatever substances we choose into our bodies, unless the substance in question is sweet hot lead.”

    dpsc,
    You don’t think we have the right to suicide?
    Give us a break here.

  33. Of course, in our topsy-turvy world, oftentimes a prohibition becomes a subsidy, of a sort.

    Oh, how true.

    I bet those billionaire drug kingpins in South America lift a nightly toast to the idiots in Washington that guarantee them 10,000% profit margins.

  34. There may not be a connection between drug enforcement and drug use, but there sure does seem to be evidence of a connection between drug enforcement and gangs (who woulda guessed?). Just a few gang facts:

    Between 1970 and 1995, the number of States reporting gang problems tripled; the number of cities increased 7 times; the number of counties increased 10 times; and the number of gang cities in the South Atlantic region increased 44 times.

    The number of cities reporting gang problems rose from 201 in the 1970’s to 1,487 in 1995, an increase of 640 percent.

    The last of the 50 States to report the emergence of gang problems was Vermont, which reported youth gangs in Rutland, Burlington, and Brattleboro in late 1994.

    Source: http://ojjdp.ncjrs.org/

  35. economist…

    To revisit:

    In fact, if paying for the rehab of crack addicts is the alternative, I might just stay with our current drug policy.

    This seems like a perfect as the enemy of the good kind of argument. Do you really think that even if the government payed 100% of all drug treatment costs that it would come close to the economic commitment of the WOD, which includes enforcement, investigation, incarceration, lost wages for those caught up in it, etc…?

    Really?
    I am stunned.

  36. On the really real, if you don’t have health insurance, you probably can’t afford a psychiatrist. Ergo, self-medicating. America is a very do-it-yourself society, Protestant work ethic and all.

  37. David Gallager: You don’t think we have the right to suicide?

    No, I didn’t mean to leave you with that impression. It’s only the thought that I could commit suicide at any time that keeps me from doing so. That and my wild new Hessian weave hair implants- better than the hair I was born with.

  38. Eyeballing I can see a correlation between cannabis use and development and it appears to be positive.

  39. “” If tinkering with drug policy (within the context of prohibition) has an impact, it is hard to discern, and it’s small compared to the influence of culture and economics.”

    “Culture and economics”, huh, then why haven’t we been better-informed about this ‘culture and economics’ angle?

    I don’t think drugs are very good for us. The Japanese and Dutch mentioned in the article seem to think they’re not good for them too. If the Drug War is so bad, then why haven’t we Americans focused on our doing something about our ‘culture and economics’ instead?

  40. I don’t think drugs are very good for us.

    Such a vague, broad statement. Clearly, sometimes drugs do people some good.

    If the Drug War is so bad, then why haven’t we Americans focused on our doing something about our ‘culture and economics’ instead?

    ???
    As far as I know, we have.

  41. Full disclosure: I am a recovering alcoholic (19+ years sober).

    I say let the free market decide. Legalize (take away the enormous profit margins for illegal sales…and eliminate the drug turf wars, the bribery, the property seizures, etc.) regulate (so people who must use know what they are ingesting…many fewer accidental OD’s), tax (like tobacco and alcohol, both of which are more harmful both on health and society than most banned drugs, excluding meth) and use the proceeds for treatment.

    The WOD arguably causes far more damage than the drugs themselves….e. g. marijuana is a common weed that for centuries was known as the “poor man’s booze” and was perfectly legal until about 1935, with no discernible adverse effect on society. (Side note: During the early part of WWII there was a real fear that supply lines to India might be cut and cause shortages of hemp…which is used for rope and thus an essential war resource. Thus the govt. planted square miles of hemp all over the country. Of course, hemp has other uses, as we all know. Wouldn’t you like to be downwind when some of that catches fire?)

    We all know how well Prohibition worked.

  42. Me:” If the Drug War is so bad, then why haven’t we Americans focused on our doing something about our ‘culture and economics’ instead?”

    Art POG:
    “???
    As far as I know, we have.”

    Well how about sharing, Art. What resources have we ‘seriously’ invested to change our “culture and economy”. I’m not asking for much, just a few lines more than Nancy Reagan saying “Don’t do drugs”.

  43. It’s time to remove all the politicians that promote prohibition.
    How many more lives have to be needlessly devastated or lost?
    Prohibited drugs are way easier for kids to get than regulated drugs!
    Prohibition never works it just causes crime and violence.
    The year alcohol prohibition was repealed violent crime fell by 65 percent.
    Guns have absolutely nothing to do with using drugs, they have to do with drug prohibition. Al Capone didn’t kill people because he was drunk, he killed people because they got between him and his illegal drug money.

    On March 22, 1972: The Richard Nixon-appointed, 13-member National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse recommended the decriminalization of marijuana, concluding, “[Marijuana’s] relative potential for harm to the vast majority of individual users and its actual impact on society does not justify a social policy designed to seek out and firmly punish those who use it.”

    The USA spends $69 billion a year on the drug war, builds 900 new prison beds and hires 150 more correction officers every two weeks, arrests someone on a drug charge every 17 seconds, jails more people than any nation and has killed over 100,000 citizens in the drug war.

    In 1914 when there were no prohibited drugs 1.3% of our population was addicted to drugs, today 1.3% of our population is still addicted to drugs but there’s way more crime and violence because of the huge profits prohibition generates. Drugs today are more potent, more readily available and often less expensive than they were in the early 70’s when Richard Nixon started the war on drugs. Every time you look at the news you see more and more drug busts involving bigger and bigger quantities of drugs, not less and less… doesn’t that call for change?

    There’s only been one drug success story in US history, tobacco, by far the most deadly and one of the most addictive drugs. Almost half the users quit because of regulation, accurate information and medical treatment. No one went to jail and no one got killed.

    Not one person in history has ever died from marijuana
    1997 annual American deaths caused by drugs:
    Tobacco …………………… 400,000
    Alcohol …………………… 100,000
    All Legal Drugs ………. 20,000
    All Illegal Drugs ……. 15,000
    Caffeine ………………………. 2,000
    Aspirin ……………………………. 500
    Marijuana …………………………. 0
    Source: United States Government,
    National Institute On Drug Abuse,
    Bureau Of Mortality Statistics.
    Marijuana And Hemp The Untold Story

    The right; to freedom of religion, free speech, a free press, to keep and bear arms, to be secure in your person, house, papers and effects against unreasonable search and seizure, to life, liberty and property, to be protected from having your property taken by the government without due process of law and without just compensation, to confront the witnesses against you, to be protected from excessive bail, excessive fines, cruel and unusual punishment, to vote and many others have been denied to millions of Americans in the name of the drug war.

    If you are called for jury duty and you don’t agree with the law the person is charged with, you have the right to vote not guilty, no matter what evidence is produced. Jurors implementing this right in all non-violent drug cases will shut down the ridiculous laws of prohibition. One juror in each case is all it takes. The bottom line is a juror has the right to judge not only the accused person but the LAW the person is accused of breaking. Don’t be intimidated stick to your position Vote Not Guilty in all non-violent drug cases.

    We hold these truths to be self-evident — that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness . . . that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it. (Excerpt from the US Declaration of Independence)

    Take Action, Join the email list, Watch the videos:
    Internet explorer: http://jsknow.angelfire.com/home
    Other browsers: http://jsknow.angelfire.com/index.html

  44. Well how about sharing, Art. What resources have we ‘seriously’ invested to change our “culture and economy”. I’m not asking for much, just a few lines more than Nancy Reagan saying “Don’t do drugs”.

    Oh, did you mean ‘t3h Federal Government’ by ‘we’? Oh, in that case, not much. But we’re dealing with systems too large to be easily manipulated, anyway.

  45. Perhaps the reason that the war against drugs has had so little effect on drug use is that it is prosecuted in a discriminatory fashion. By and large respectable white drug users and traders are not pursued with any great fervor while extreme efforts are made to users and low level dealers by army of occupation policing in poor colored communities. The real name of what is referred to as “the war on drugs” should be “the war on niggers”.

  46. My preferred drug policy = no drug policy

  47. And Carlyle Moulton is here to explain that the problem isn’t the government’s general futzing around in other people’s business but that the white man is out to get black people.

  48. Drug enforcement administration (dea), n pr the federal agency charged with monitoring use and n pl the drugs listed in the u s p or n f drugs, officinal n pl drugs that may be. Drug enforcement administration – wiki 24: the premier program: drug enforcement administration budget of the us government, fy 2004 of dollars) agency: department of justice program: drug enforcement administration. Drug enforcement administration – news – evri the drug enforcement outlet administration (dea) is a federal law enforcement agency under the united states department of justice, tasked with combating drug smuggling and use within the. New jersey state police – drug enforcement alexandria, va , march 24 alexandria, va , march 24 /prnewswire-usnewswire/ — u s drug enforcement abercrombie administration’s rules and procedures are seriously delaying and in. U s drug enforcement administration preventing nursing united states marshals service federal air marshal service drug enforcement administration customs and border protection environmental protection agency.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.