The war on drugs has been a failure largely because we have not clearly identified the enemy. We spend billions of dollars trying to eliminate the flow of drugs into our country. This strategy has proven to be an abject failure. Drugs continue to pour into the U.S. because of simple microeconomics: supply and demand. We focus most of our resources trying to eradicate the supply of drugs, but it will never make a difference as long as the demand is high.
High demand when the supply is insufficient, no matter what the cause, only drives prices higher. This results in more untaxed dollars going into the coffers of organized crime and less into the legitimate economy. Furthermore, it emboldens some users to commit even more crime to secure drugs. Fully 80 percent of our incarcerated population, (2.3 million in 2019 or 0.7 percent of the U.S. population) are imprisoned secondary to drug- and alcohol-related crimes. This does not include those being supervised on parole or probation. The direct and indirect annual costs of incarceration are estimated to be as high as $1.2 trillion.
Perhaps, the biggest tragedy is that little or nothing is being done to address the causative factors underlying this mass incarceration, or to prepare those incarcerated for release back into society by helping them address and overcome their alcoholism and/or substance abuse. Continuing the war on drugs and not addressing the demand side of the equation is expensive, foolhardy, costs lives, and ruins families.
I have been employed in treatment community for over 25 years and have worked with thousands of alcoholics and addicts in all phases of recovery. I was instrumental in creating and implementing the first treatment program for substance abuse within the Santa Barbara County Jail. We lowered recidivism in our program from the national five-year average of 75 percent for drug offenders to 37 percent over two years in those that completed the Sheriff’s Treatment Program.
Countless families call me trying to find help for a family member or a friend struggling with alcoholism and/or drug addiction. There are limited recovery resources available for the well insured and detox and rehab facilities for the uninsured are virtually nonexistent. Additionally, there are multiple barriers or gatekeepers which must be passed before the uninsured can access what is available. The problem is getting people into treatment when they are willing to go. Resource must be available very rapidly before the abuser drinks or uses again or changes his/her mind completely. This notion of a rapid or semi-rapid response to instant demand is severely hampered by the numerous hoops one must jump through before accessing detox and treatment resources.
Portugal has demonstrated how a society embracing a different paradigm in the, “War on Drugs” can benefit the whole county. Portugal treats addiction and substance abuse as a public health issue and help those suffering medically, psychologically and socially to recover. This saves money and lives and helps heal individuals, families and society.
In 2001, nearly two decades into Pereira’s accidental specialization in addiction, Portugal became the first country to decriminalize the possession and consumption of all illicit substances. Rather than being arrested, those caught with a personal supply might be given a warning, a small fine, or told to appear before a local commission — a doctor, a lawyer, and a social worker — about treatment, harm reduction, and the support services that were available to them. Portugal’s remarkable recovery, and the fact that it has held steady through several changes in government — including conservative leaders who would have preferred to return to the U.S.-style war on drugs — could not have happened without an enormous cultural shift, and a change in how the country viewed drugs, addiction — and itself. In many ways, the law was merely a reflection of transformations that were already happening in clinics, in pharmacies and around kitchen tables across the country. The official policy of decriminalization made it far easier for a broad range of services (health, psychiatry, employment, housing, etc.) that had been struggling to pool their resources and expertise, to work together more effectively to serve their communities.
Make treatment available, not only in prison and jails, but to persons that have few or no resources and wish to change their lives. We can continue to spend trillions of dollars on attempting to eradicate drugs and get the same results we have gotten for the last fifty years or we can try a different approach such as Portugal. We need to address the demand side of the equation and the psycho-social issues that drive rampant alcoholism and substance abuse. I am not a Pollyanna, I understand that not everyone wishes to or has the capacity to change, but imagine how society would benefit if we could help even half those currently suffering from alcoholism and/or substance abuse, by readily providing the resources for them to recover.
David Vartabedian is the author of “Twelve Steps Without God.”