Pulling back the curtain on US drug demand

In the wake of the Summit of the Americas meetings earlier this month, it is time to get to the heart of the problem of illegal drugs and related violence.

We must pull back the curtains on the false debate between legalizing drugs and current drug policy. The real answer lies in our ability to aggressively reduce the U.S. demand for illegal drugs.

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Illegal-drug use in the United States has created a major domestic public-health problem while fueling violence in drug-producing and transit countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. Just across the U.S. border in Mexico, more than 50,000 people have been killed in drug-related violence over the past five years. 

Latin-American leaders are rightly outraged that their citizens continue to suffer because of America’s drug habits.

At the Summit, President Obama acknowledged this and accepted the United States’s share of responsibility for drug violence. But, legalization will not solve this problem. More drug addiction is not the answer. 

Our solutions should focus specifically on what the United States can do to eliminate the constant demand for illegal drugs.

We must prioritize federal drug prevention programs for youth and ensure that all Americans struggling with addiction have access to drug-treatment programs. More specifically, Congress can work with the president to move forward on three concrete strategies to reduce U.S. drug use. 

First, we should once again make anti-drug campaigns a priority. In the early 1980s, former first lady Nancy Reagan coined the now-famous slogan “Just say no” as part of her national anti-drug campaign. 

Although her strategy was criticized, she was able to use the White House as a national platform to address these issues. 

Next, Congress should refund the Office of National Drug Control Policy’s youth media campaign — the only national media campaign dedicated to reducing youth drug use. Funding for this program was eliminated last year in spite of the fact that 85 percent of teens are aware of the advertising campaign. 

This campaign should be provided with the funding it deserves and expanded to make the connection between U.S. drug use and violence in Mexico. 

Finally, we can invest in probation programs that allow for random drug testing for probationers and swift sanctions when those tests are positive. There is no better way to reduce criminal recidivism. 

For example, the Hawaii Opportunity Probation with Enforcement (HOPE) program allows for random drug testing for probationers and swift sanctions when their drug tests come back “dirty.” For one year, HOPE probationers were compared to a control group, and among other impressive results, only 13 percent of HOPE probationers used drugs compared to 46 percent in the control group. This is precisely the kind of program that should be replicated.

If improving public health and reducing violence are not reason enough to reduce illegal drug use in the United States, there is one final reason: It makes fiscal sense. 

Compared to the high costs associated with the rehabilitation of drug addicts in the healthcare and criminal justice systems, drug prevention is cost-effective. 

According to the National Drug Intelligence Center, drug abuse and addiction cost the United States $193 billion in preventable healthcare, law enforcement, crime and other expenses each year.

According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, in 2010 about 22.6 million — or 9 percent — of Americans age 12 and older were current illegal drug users. 

This is the largest proportion in the past decade. Marijuana, cocaine and prescription drugs are the most frequently abused drugs. 

Without action, those numbers will surely climb. 

We can’t let the conversation end here. Rather than debate legalization and divide ourselves politically, let’s get to work on the heart of the problem.


Feinstein is chairman of the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control.