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When drugs threaten or destroy the people you love

Posted: February 23, 2016 10:29 a.m.
Updated: February 23, 2016 10:29 a.m.
Lois M. Collins/

Most folks think the "war on drugs" has been an abysmal wreck. Families continue to reel from overdose deaths and effects of ongoing addiction. The solution might require a fresh look — perhaps by economists?

The so-called War on Drugs — and how to make it work or try something different — is making headlines as international leaders prepare to gather for a special United Nations-hosted conference in April.

Huffington Post described the upcoming agenda of the General Assembly Special Session on Drugs as "the most significant high-level international drug policy event in almost two decades" as "a global movement has emerged calling for an end to the failed prohibitionist policies of the past. From April 18 to 21, people from all over the world will be descending upon New York City to demand change."

The consensus appears to be that the war is not working. For example, in the United States, drug overdose deaths related to heroin increased by 600 percent between 2001 and 2014, according to data from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, which said in 2011 that "4.2 million Americans aged 12 or older (or 1.6 percent) had used heroin at least once in their lives. It is estimated that about 23 percent of individuals who use heroin become dependent on it."

And that's just heroin.

NIDA said that overall, in 2014, illicit drug abuse cost the United States $193 billion overall, including lost work productivity, health costs and crime related to drug use. Direct health care costs alone totaled more than $11 billion.

Cathy Fennelly knows personally the cost of drugs: Her son died of a heroin overdose in 2008 despite her efforts over the course of several years. She told her story to NPR: "No matter how many detoxes I put him in, no matter how many mental facilities; I emptied out my 401(k), I sold my jewelry," she said. "This will never get easier. Never."

Her family's journey included unsuccessful treatment programs, support groups designed to help family members and even one she recently started, a "boxing support group called Let It Out in Massachusetts for parents grieving for children who died from accidental drug overdoses," wrote NPR's Kristin Gourlay.

Part of the journey also included stigma — judgment of not only her son, but of their entire family because he was an addict. Another mother whose son overdosed, Denise Cullen, told Gourlay that "no one brings casseroles when a child dies a stigmatized death. People keep their distance because they don't know what to say."

A recent Newsweek article made the case that the international appetite for illegal drugs is not just making the drug cartels rich, it's fueling terrorism. "Likewise ISIS- and Al-Qaeda-linked groups in Africa prosper by trafficking drugs across the Sahara and by offering 'protection' to smugglers who have long been trading illicit goods throughout the continent. Although Westerners tend to think of these groups as driven by ideology, new recruits may be more attracted by opportunities to make money."

That article, which first appeared in The Conversation, made the point that while drugs were typically bound for Europe and America, they're now becoming popular in Africa and other places, as well.

As Vox pointed out, the White House is backing up its push to change the way America battles its drug problem by increasing the amount of money that would go into demand reduction, calling it a public health crisis, thus reducing some of the punitive approach that simply charges and incarcerates those who use drugs illicitly.

Such decisions still depend, though, largely on what the international gathering in New York decides to do. An article on Alternet.com, critical of current drug policy, said that "the UN shapes international drug policy. National drug laws must adhere to three UN treaties on drugs that prohibit the production and supply of certain drugs, and criminalize people who use them. … These treaties represent an outdated framework from a bygone time. There is ample evidence of the overwhelming failure of drug prohibition, and the human costs associated with it."

The article notes that while thousands of lives have been lost or destroyed, "neither drug use nor supply has diminished."

Tom Wainwright, an editor for the Economist, suggested in the Wall Street Journal (paywall) an interesting solution: What would happen if economists took the lead in the war on drugs?

"This failure has a simple reason: Governments continue to treat the drug problem as a battle to be fought, not a market to be tamed. The cartels that run the narcotics business are monstrous, but they face the same dilemmas as ordinary firms — and have the same weaknesses," he wrote.

For example, economists would have recognized years ago that government policies focusing on the supply chain were flawed and would have shifted the emphasis on demand for drugs, which would also be cheaper to implement, Wainwright explained.

"A dollar spent on drug education in U.S. schools cuts cocaine consumption by twice as much as spending that dollar on reducing supply in South America; spending it on treatment for addicts reduces it by 10 times as much," he wrote. "Where demand cannot be dampened, it can be redirected toward a legal source, as a few U.S. states have done with marijuana — a development that has inflicted bigger losses on the cartels than any supply disruption policy."

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