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Time to Consider a Paradigm Shift in Our Anti-Drug Trafficking Laws

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
AP Photo/Patrick Sison

Let’s look at history briefly. For federal fiscal years 2013 -2019, over $190.4B has been spent at the federal level to interdict drug trafficking, in addition to what the states and local governments are spending. Indeed in 1972, former President Nixon launched a national “War on Drugs” and the launch of three offices -- the Special Action Office for Drug Abuse Prevention (SAODAP) to focus on prevention, treatment, and rehabilitation of drug abuse and the Office of Drug Abuse Law Enforcement (ODALE) to focus on the interdiction and trafficking of drugs, and an intelligence community special Office of National Narcotics Intelligence (ONNI).  The White House successor office is now the Office of National Drug Control Policy, while ODALE and ONNI, along with the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, were consolidated into a new Drug Enforcement Administration in the Department of Justice.

Over the years, federal enforcement and intelligence agencies and their courageous agents have engaged with other countries in significant international efforts to destroy the cartels’ drug operations at their source, to intercept their air, sea, and land transportation of these drugs to smuggle them into the United States for now at least three decades or more.  While seizure successes continue, so does the flow -- the international supply of opiate-based drugs – opioids and heroin, cocaine, and other concoctions that continue to be bought on the black market by millions of Americans – from their early teens through much of adulthood – the market’s “demand side.”  I cannot help but think of the carnival game “Whack-A-Mole” in this regard.

Today, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data, the tragedy of growing demand is sobering. More than 70,200 Americans died from drug overdoses in 2017, including illicit drugs and prescription opioids—a two-fold increase in a decade. Among these, the sharpest increase occurred among deaths related to fentanyl and fentanyl analogs (synthetic opioids) with nearly 30,000 overdose deaths. The “overdose death demand” trend is alarming. From 2002 to 2017 there was a 3.1-fold increase in the total number of overdose deaths from drugs and opioids.  For opioids alone from 2002-2017 there was a 4.1-fold increase in the total number of deaths.

So, we have a classic, but tragic, example of supply and demand.  We have criminalization statutes that also serve to foster this black market, much like the Prohibition Era during the 1920s did for organized crime and the bootleggers, by essentially guaranteeing profitable business for the cartels and their distributors.  Herein lies the conundrum.  The current policy paradigm is to have strong laws and sanctions for illegal trafficking in drugs in order to protect our citizens from the horrors of addiction and the attendant criminal conduct that tragically results from those addicted, who then lose their jobs and family, descend into poverty, and resort to crime to pay for their “habit.”  The second component of the current paradigm is to educate children and the public-at-large about the dangers of drug use and perils of addiction. And the third component is to get those afflicted with drug addiction into treatment and ongoing therapy.

Yes, we are doing all of this – but it is not working very well.  The question is, what can be done to change the dynamics of this highly profitable supply and demand black market and break, at least reduce, the tragic cycle of initial drug abuse, then addiction, and overdose death?

Start with reducing demand – and thereby destroy the street value economics of drug trafficking at the local level. History can be a teacher here.  

Education at all levels is at the core of creating a mindset among the young and older that the uncontrolled, chronic, or abuse of drugs can only result in long term harm and even death to the individual.   The reality of their mortality needs to be cultivated appropriately for children through teens and young adults. Changing the public consciousness at all ages has been the success of the campaign against cigarette smoking – most people don’t want to die and the continuing smokers now have to go outside to smoke or search for a “smoker's sanctuary.”  The paradigm of the stylishness and fashion of cigarette smoking has disappeared. 

Access to supervised and regulated maintenance (such has been done for many years with methadone maintenance), as a prelude to – when they are ready -- lengthy rehabilitative therapy is critical to the addicted individual being able to resolve his or her drug dependency and enter a lifetime of being “in recovery.”  Jail and prison are not the exclusive answers when violent crimes are not involved, particularly when the non-violent crimes result from poverty as a result of their addiction. Supervised and regulated treatment and rehabilitation is the better opportunity to restore them to productive lives and positive relationships. Certainly, this option is recognized in the federal First Step Act recently approved by the president. 

With regard to the cartels and their distributors, destroy the economics of their “supplier” business by such approaches as:

  • Making it more expensive to produce the drugs through expanding and intensifying the international enforcement focus upon continued destruction of the “sourcing operations” -- the cartel fields and laboratories;
  • Disrupt the local area distribution networks by imposing not only criminal penalties but buttressed with substantial civil monetary penalties on those distributing drugs, including using due process-based criminal and civil asset forfeiture to pay the penalties; and 
  • Reduce the street value of drugs by decriminalizing and not prosecuting drug users' unlawful purchase and use.
  • Move the drug users into supervised, regulated, and safe maintenance as an immediate and accessible alternative to street buying and a prelude to lengthy rehabilitative therapy. 

Food for thought so that we do not have to endure as much “Whack-A-Mole” in our strategies and operations to win this war against the drug cartels and their distributors and to care for those Americans who are either vulnerable to or afflicted by drug use.

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