7.6 Addressing the Drug Problem and Reducing Drug Use

Learning Objectives

  1. Explain the problems associated with arresting hundreds of thousands of people for drug possession.
  2. List any three specific measures that may help deal with the drug problem.

As you may have already noticed and will notice again, the other chapters in this book usually present a fairly optimistic assessment when they discuss prospects for addressing the social problem discussed in each chapter. They point to the experience of other nations that do a good job of addressing the social problem, they cite social science evidence that points to solutions for addressing the problem, and they generally say that the United States could address the problem if it had the wisdom to approach it appropriately and to spend sufficient sums of money.

This chapter will not end with an optimistic assessment for addressing the drug problem. The reason for this lack of optimism is that what’s past is prologue: People have enthusiastically used drugs since prehistoric times and show no signs of reducing their drug use. Many and perhaps most scholars think the legal war on drugs has had little, if any, impact on drug use (Walker, 2011), and many scholars recognize that this war brought with it the many disadvantages cited in the previous section. As Kleiman et al. (2011, p. xvi) observe, “Our current drug policies allow avoidable harm by their ineffectiveness and create needless suffering by their excesses.”

A growing number of people in the political world agree. In 2011, the Global Commission on Drug Policy issued a major report on the world’s antidrug efforts. The commission comprised nineteen members, including a former United Nations secretary general, a former US secretary of state, a former chair of the US Federal Reserve, and former presidents or prime ministers of Brazil, Colombia, Greece, Mexico, and Switzerland. The commission’s report called for a drastic rethinking of current drug policy: “The global war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world…Fundamental reforms in national and global drug control policies are urgently needed” (Global Commission on Drug Policy, 2011, p. 3). Decriminalization and even legalization of illegal drugs should be seriously considered, the report concluded.

Given this backdrop, many drug experts question whether our current drug policies make sense. They add that the best approach our society could take would be to expand the prevention, treatment, and harm reduction approaches discussed earlier; because drugs will always be with us, our society should do what it can to minimize the many harms that drugs cause. Thus drug education prevention and drug treatment programs should be expanded, sterile needles should be made available for drug addicts who inject their drugs, and drug courts should be used for a greater number of drug offenders.

Beyond these approaches, some experts say marijuana use should be decriminalized and that decriminalization of other drugs should be seriously considered. If marijuana were not only decriminalized but also legalized and taxed, it is estimated that this new tax revenue would amount to $8.7 billion annually and that about $8.7 billion annually would also be saved in reduced law enforcement costs, for a total of more than $17 billion in new funds that could be used for drug prevention, drug treatment, and other needs (Kristof, 2010). Many Americans agree with these experts: In a 2011 Gallup poll, 50 percent of the public favored legalizing marijuana, while 46 percent opposed legalizing it (Graves, 2011).

More generally, these experts say, it makes little sense to arrest more than 1.3 million people each year for drug possession and to put many of them in jail or prison. We do not arrest and imprison alcoholics and cigarette smokers; instead we try to offer them various kinds of help, and we should do the same for people who are addicted to other kinds of drugs. If arrest and imprisonment must continue, these measures should be reserved for sellers of large quantities of illegal drugs, not for the people who use the drugs or for those who sell only small quantities. When low-level drug dealers are imprisoned, they are simply replaced on the street by new dealers. Providing low-level dealers with alternative sentencing would reduce the number of imprisoned dealers over time by several hundred thousand annually without making illegal drugs more available.

In addition to all these measures, several other steps might well reduce certain kinds of drug use or at least reduce the harm that both drugs and our current drug policies cause (Kleiman et al., 2011). These steps include the following:

  1. Providing legally prescribed heroin and/or substitute opiates, including methadone, for heroin addicts. This provision has proven effective in several other nations.
  2. Encouraging primary care physicians and other health-care providers to screen more carefully for substance abuse.
  3. Basing drug sentencing less on the quantity of illegal drugs sold and more on the level of violence in which some drug sellers engage.
  4. Abandoning DARE. According to Kleiman et al. (2011, p. 201), “the continued dominance in school-based drug education of DARE—a program that has never been shown to actually reduce drug use—is a scandal.” They instead recommend school-based programs that help children develop self-control and prosocial behavior, as these programs have also been shown to reduce children’s subsequent drug use.
  5. Following the psychological principle of operant conditioning by providing drug addicts small cash payments for clean drug tests, as these rewards have been shown to be effective.
  6. Fully reintegrating former drug dealers and recovering drug addicts into society. They should have full access to public housing, educational loans, and other benefits, and they should be allowed to vote in states that now do not let them vote.
  7. Raising alcohol taxes. According to Kleiman et al. (2011), tripling the alcohol tax would especially reduce drinking by heavy drinkers and by minors, and it would reduce the number of homicides by 1,000 annually and the number of motor vehicle accidents by 2,000 annually. The new tax money could also help fund alcohol treatment and prevention programs. “In the entire field of drug-abuse control,” Kleiman et al. (2011, p. 204) write, “there is no bargain as attractive as a higher alcohol tax.”
  8. Prohibiting alcohol sales to anyone who has engaged in drunk driving or who has committed violence under the influence of alcohol. For this ban to work, everyone who wants to buy alcohol would have to show an ID, and those prohibited from buying alcohol would have that indicated on their ID. This ban would certainly be unpopular among the many drinkers who drink responsibly, but it would reduce the great harm that alcohol causes.
  9. Allowing marijuana users to grow their own cannabis or to buy it from small growers. This would reduce the sales of cannabis, and thus its profits, from the organized crime groups and the Mexican cartels that now provide much of the marijuana used in the United States.
  10. Raising the cigarette tax. Some states already have high cigarette taxes, but several states have low cigarette taxes. Raising the taxes in the low-tax states would reduce cigarette smoking in these states. The new tax revenue could be used to fund treatment programs that help reduce smoking.

Key Takeaways

  • Critics of the war on drugs say that people who use illegal drugs should be treated, not arrested, just as people who use alcohol and tobacco are treated, if they seek treatment, rather than arrested.
  • Specific measures that could help address the drug problem include providing legally prescribed heroin or substitute opiates for heroin addicts and raising the alcohol tax.

For Your Review

  1. Do you think that alcohol taxes should be raised? Why or why not?
  2. Do you favor decriminalization of marijuana? Explain your answer.


Global Commission on Drug Policy. (2011). War on drugs: Report of the Global Commission on Drug Policy. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil: Author.

Graves, L. (2011, October 18). Marijuana legalization receives 50 percent support in new poll. Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/2010/2017/support-for-marijuana-legalization-at-all-time-high_n_1016461.html?utm_source =DailyBrief&utm_campaign=1101811&utm_medium=email&utm_content=NewsEntry &utm_term=Daily%1016420Brief.

Kleiman, M. A. R., Caulkins, J. P., & Hawken, A. (2011). Drugs and drug policy: What everyone needs to know. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Kristof, N. D. (2010, October 28). End the war on pot. New York Times, p. A33.

Walker, S. (2011). Sense and nonsense about crime, drugs, and communities: A Policy guide (7th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.