DRCNet Reponse to the
Drug Enforcement Administration
Speaking Out Against Drug Legalization


We Have Made Significant Progress in Reducing Drug Use in this Country. Now Is Not the Time to Abandon Our Efforts.

DRCNet Comment:

No one has suggested that we should "abandon" our efforts to reduce the problems associated with drugs. What we have suggested is that we should make those efforts more cost-effective. Prison is not cost effective.

Even if we accepted this claim as true, there is no evidence that the progress in reducing drug use was at all due to the number of people put in prison. In fact, the evidence clearly shows that the number of people put in prison could not have had enough of an impact on the average white, middle-class drug user to make any difference at all in drug use. If there was any actual reduction in drug use (and not just in "reported" drug use) then it seems clear that it must have been due to other factors.

DEA Statement


Legalization advocates claim that the fight against drugs has not been won and is, in fact, unwinnable. They frequently state that people still take drugs, drugs are widely available, and that changing that is a lost cause. Legalization is the alternative.


It should be clear to anyone that the war on drugs has not been won. There is no credible evidence anywhere which would suggest that the war could be won by the current methods, and the DEA has presented no such evidence here. The alternative is to look for a better approach, whatever we might choose to call it.

The DEA's own statements show that illegal drugs are, indeed, widely available -- particularly to children. See, for example, Rise in Teen Drug Use, Teens & Drug Use, Marijuana, Trends in Adolescent Use, Marijuana - 12th Graders.

See all the governments own surveys on teen drug use in which teens state that the illegal drugs are easier to get than the legal ones.

The conference participants disagreed with the notion that we should wave the white flag of surrender because people still take drugs. The experts contended that there have been many positive developments over the past fifteen years in reducing drug use, and stated that the good news is often given short shrift. Our drug problem did not happen overnight, and it will take a number of years to eliminate. Legalization is not an alternative. As happened with Vietnam, there comes a point when must recognize that we never should have taken this course in the first place. It is not surrender to end the war on drugs, it is a recognition of what we should have recognized years ago.

 This is a common theme in all the 80 years since the passage of the Harrison Tax Act. See, for example, Great New Legislative Plan to Stamp Out Cocaine, NY Times, 1914. This continued through President Nixon's statements that "we have turned the corner on drugs", and then through the DEA's statements today. For a good example of how Government officials twist the numbers to suit their own purposes, see, The Movable Epidemic, from Agency of Fear.

The United States faces a number of challenges today which, like our drug problem, are not susceptible to easy solutions, including illegal immigration, declining education quality and public health problems. Should we just post signs on our borders that we've given up and invite a tide of immigrants in? Should we declare that our education system has been a failure and give children a permanent vacation from school? Should we throw up our hands in frustration about AIDS and stop searching for a cure? Of course not. Americans are a people committed to solving problems, not running from them. Why should our commitment to stopping drugs be any different from our approach to other national interests?


There is no doubt that there are many difficult problems. Of all the problems mentioned, the DEA does not propose to solve any of them by throwing people in prison.

The final question here asks for a commitment to "stopping drugs" which, the DEA itself admits, is clearly impossible.

The DEA fails to note that, with all these other problems we maintain an open and honest discussion of all the possible alternatives. The DEA does not want any discussion of the possible alternatives to our current drug policy. For example, they refused to support The Resolution for a Federal Commission on Drug Policy which called for an objective commission to study the problem.

Furthermore, ask proponents of legalization just what they are proposing be legalized. Just marijuana? Marijuana and heroin? All drugs? If the DEA was really interested in the answer to this question, they should read Major Studies of Drugs and Drug Policy, wherein official commissions of the governments of the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and other countries, have answered this question.

The more proper question is: For what drugs is it good public policy to throw massive numbers of people in prison? Answer: none

And for what age group? Will children be able to buy drugs? Can children buy drugs now?  Obviously, they can and do.  

This question has been answered many, many times. No one has suggested that children should be able to legally buy drugs under any system.

Will prescriptions be necessary? That depends upon the context. See the alternatives discussed in Major Studies of Drugs and Drug Policy.
And what will they tolerate as the price of legalization? A permanent underclass of drug users? We have that now. The current policies create and maintain such a class by force.
Will a 10% increase in the number of traffic fatalities be accepted? What about 50%? There is no evidence that there would be such an increase. About half of all traffic fatalities are now caused by alcohol, but the DEA does not propose that arresting all the people who drink beer or wine is a sensible solution.
Would they be relieved to know that their child care provider had been smoking legally-purchased marijuana? Child care providers may now legally consume alcohol -- when they are not caring for children. The same rules would be true of any other drug.
How many boarder babies are too many? The DEA has no evidence which would indicate that the number of "boarder" babies would increase.
Some facts which help to confirm the observations of the forum participants may be used in debates:


  • The 1994 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse demonstrates unequivocally that drug use declined significantly between 1979 and 1994.  
The same figures show it is going back up again, particularly among children. Those figures show large increases in the last year alone -- and the laws have not changed.

It must also be recognized that the data gathering methods of this survey are open to question. The survey is conducted by calling people at random on the telephone and asking if anyone in the household has committed a felony (used drugs) in the past few weeks or months. Instead of an accurate measure of the amount of drug use, it may just be a measure of the number of people who are stupid enough to answer such a question from a stranger on the phone.

Statistics on drug use are simply political tools. See, for example, The Movable Epidemic.

Even if political motives were discounted (they clearly cannot be discounted), these statistics have their own problems with accuracy. See, for example, Drug Use Measurement, GAO Report, 1993.

  • In 1994, an estimated 13 million Americans were current illicit drug users, meaning they had used an illicit drug in the month prior to the interview. The number of illicit drug users had been declining until recently since its peak in 1979 at 24 million.
These numbers are not at all certain. See above.

It should be noted that drug use has recently started to rise again. See, for example, Rise in Teen Drug Use, Teens & Drug Use, Marijuana, Trends in Adolescent Use, Marijuana - 12th Graders.

The laws have only gotten tougher, and arrests have steadily increased. If drug use is now rising, then the laws could not have been responsible for the earlier drop -- if it did, in fact, occur.

  • The number of current cocaine users remained at 1.4 million, a slight increase from the estimated 1.3 million users in 1993 and 1992. This is down from a peak of 5.3 million in 1985.
See the comments above on the accuracy of these statistics.


Does the DEA suggest that we throw all 1.3 million cocaine users in prison?

Since 1979, rates of current illicit drug use have dropped for 12-17 year olds, 18-25 year olds, and 26-34 year olds, but not for the age group 35 and older.

The latest figures show that drug use among these groups has risen dramatically again, and yet the laws are just as harsh as they always were. Obviously, harsh drug laws are not the major influence on rates of drug use.

  • Since 1979, rates of current illicit drug use have dropped for 12-17 year olds, 18-25 year olds, and 26-34 year olds, but not for the age group 35 and older.
And the most recent stats show that the rates of use in those categories are back up again. See the references cited above.
  • Teenage drug consumption, despite recent upturns, is down in the long term.
Assuming that the statistics are correct -- teenage drug use is down only marginally from its highest point, and is climbing rapidly again.
  • There is an obvious concern in the United States about the consumption of drugs by teenagers--the adults of tomorrow. Recent upturns demonstrate to us the clear need to continue doing what we've done for more than the past decade: combine law enforcement, education, and international efforts to address all aspects of the drug situation.
Here, the DEA argues that we need a combined effort to combat drugs. It is certainly true that an effective approach to drugs should combine efforts in a number of different areas. However, the current policy is simply massive prisons with little else. About two-thirds of the total drug budget is spent on law enforcement, not counting collateral expenditures for prison.
  • The Monitoring the Future Study, conducted annually by University of Michigan research scientists for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, has been tracking the drug consumption of American high school seniors since the 1970s. In the past few years, the study has been broadened to embrace drug use by 10th grade and 8th grade students as well.
  • According to the Monitoring the Future Study, 19% of the members of the Class of 1994 had consumed marijuana in the month before they were surveyed.
This alone shows that marijuana prohibition is not terribly effective.
  • When the first Monitoring the Future Study was published, 27.1% of the members of the Class of 1975 (eighth and 10th graders were not surveyed then) reported having used marijuana or hashish in the previous month. The figure for the Class of 1980 was 33.7% --which puts that 19% figure 14 years later into perspective.
Even if these numbers were correct, the figures show that, at current rates of increase, the rate of use of marijuana will be back at 1980 levels within the next year or so. Because the laws have only gotten tougher in that period of time, the laws could not be responsible for keeping rates of use down.





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