Don Quixote is Alive and Well
by Brian C. Bennett

The use of intoxicating substances is something the United States has been trying to stamp out since the turn of the 20th century. In keeping with tradition, the latest National Drug Control Strategy from the President's Office of National Drug Control Policy has set some goals for the next five years to reduce the use of illegal drugs in America.

There are very few things which one encounters in life that are guaranteed to fail more miserably than continuing the "fight against illegal drugs." According to the new strategy, there are hopeful signs that drug use can be eliminated in our lifetimes. In keeping with this upbeat attitude, the strategy calls for reducing illegal drug use in America by 10 percent over the next two years and by 25 percent over the next five years. Personally, I want to know what they are smoking.

Supposedly, using the same techniques that have repeatedly failed to impact drug use in our society will somehow finally work to help meet these goals. Reality, on the other hand, indicates most assuredly that America "lost" the drugwar as long ago as 1992, and it is well past time for us to consider a different approach. Let's do a review of what happened from 1990 to 2000.

The tactics of drugwar have remained unchanged for decades: try to stop the drugs at their source, try to prevent people from using drugs in the first place, and make it socially and criminally unbearable for those who choose to use the wrong intoxicants. The latter has been attempted through a combination of "education," "rehabilitation" and punishment.

The total federal money allocated for fighting drugs increased 89 percent from 1990 to 2000. That money bought us a 45 percent increase in the total number of arrests for drug law violations, and a 300 percent increase in the quantity of drugs seized. Surely that will do the trick, right? I mean if we seize the supply and arrest the users then surely drug use will decline. That's what they keep telling us, yet it continues to be completely ineffective.

The two most popular surveys of drug use in America are the Monitoring the Future study, which measures drug use among high school and college students, and the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse (now called the NSDUH or National Survey on Drug Use and Health), which measures drug use among those aged 12 and older. While both surveys offer a glimpse of what drugs are being used by whom, the NHSDA also provides estimates of first time drug use.

According to the NHSDA, first time use of every drug has increased during the 1990's. Every drug showed increases in the number of first time users, which ranged from a low of a 31 percent increase in first time use of cocaine, to a whopping 150 percent increase in the number of first time hallucinogen users.

Meanwhile, the MTF study shows across the board increases in past month and past year use of illegal drugs among high school seniors, with the exception of a 6 percent decline in past year cocaine use. Heroin use among high school seniors increased a staggering 250 percent for past month use and 200 percent for past year use.

Marijuana remains the most popular illegal drug and the focus of most anti-drug activity. During the 1990's seizures of marijuana increased a mind-bending 417 percent, while arrests for marijuana law violations increased 125 percent. You'd think having seizures and arresting people would cause them to stop using marijuana. You'd be wrong. Marijuana use among those 12 and older was a flat line during the 1990's, while the numbers of first time users increased yearly, finishing 68 percent higher in 2000 than 1990. Among high school seniors, past month marijuana use is up 54 percent and past year use is up 35 percent.

More spending, more seizures, more arrests. More drug users, more drug use. How long must we continue proving that we simply can never stop people from doing things to themselves? How do we even have legitimacy in attempting to do so?

What we're doing isn't working. Doing more of it isn't going to work either. It is a sign of intelligence to learn from experience. The message is clear: as a nation, we have lost our mind.

Written May 28, 2003

truth: the Anti-drugwar More Opinion Pieces Analysis & Commentary