The Drug Problem

Until about six years ago what I knew about America’s drug problem was what was reported in the news. I assumed drug abuse and addiction were isolated and only impacted a relatively small number of people. Then the real world came crashing in and we had to help our 19 year-old son enter a substance abuse program because of his struggles with opiates and other drugs. As a consequence I now know a great deal about the drug crisis facing our country, much more than I ever wanted to know, and I am certain that our current approach to solving that crisis does not work.

One response offered when this topic is broached is that an individual chooses to start taking drugs, and that is certainly true. However, a reliable national survey indicates that some children are abusing drugs by the age of 12, meaning they likely started even earlier. Our own son started smoking marijuana at 12, and we had absolutely no clue. When he was in his late teens we realized he was smoking weed, but we thought the use was rare and we had no idea he had turned to harder drugs until a few months prior to helping him find treatment (which, by the way, he asked for). And yes, I’m in tears as I write this because the pain parents go through in this situation is indescribable. I also hurt for the eight friends my son has lost to overdose. The ones I knew were great kids, just like our son.  I also weep for others who still struggle every second of every minute of every day; you can take me at my word when I say that a large majority hate their lives and want desperately to quit.

Anyway, are we really going to hold children responsible for the mistakes made at age 12 or earlier even though we know that continued use over time makes quitting ANY drug difficult? I don’t want to be held responsible for all the stupid stuff I did in my late teens (and maybe early twenties), much less for the things I did at 12.  And today I’m a coffee addict and have been for 40 years, and if I try to quit I know the consequences (Because I have tried. Dumb idea!). Apply that challenge 1,000 times over to drugs that are 1) very, very, very enticing and 2) much more addictive, and I’m amazed anyone ever wins the battle.

Here are some other relevant facts:

  • Deaths from drug overdose reached an all time high in 2015 (the latest year for which statistics are available), with about 50,000 deaths reported. The number of drug-related deaths more than doubled between 2002 and 2015.  The number of deaths from opioid overdose  rose 2.8 times during that period, with more than 30,000 deaths. And the number of heroin-related deaths reached about 13,000 in 2015, a number 6.2 times higher than in 2002.
  • As of 2014 it was estimated that our economy suffers about $700 billion each year because of tobacco ($295 billion), alcohol ($224 billion), and illegal drugs ($193 billion). These result from required medical care, lost productivity, and crime.
  • In 2013, the last year a nationwide survey of almost 25 million Americans was conducted, 9.4% of the population over 12 admitted to using illegal drugs during the last month. Almost 20 million had smoked marijuana in the last month, up more than 5 million from the 2007 survey (and remember that this drug is still illegal in most states).
  • About 54% of current drug users started use as teenagers. Most began with marijuana.
  • According to the 2013 survey 22.7 million Americans needed drug treatment but only 2.5 million received that treatment.

So our current approach just isn’t working. It perfectly describes the definition of insanity generally attributed to Einstein (though he likely borrowed it): “Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”. It is time to try something else.

A 2014 Pew poll found that 2/3 of Americans believed those arrested with illegal drugs should be offered treatment options rather than incarcerated, yet today 46% of federal prisoners (more than 82,000) are incarcerated for drug-related crimes. For comparison, the next highest number of federal prisoners was convicted on “weapons, explosives, or arson” charges, and they comprise only 16.8% of the federal prison population. On the state level, about 16% of prisoners are serving time for drug offenses (as of 2015). So punishment remains a major option when dealing with drug offenders.

Please understand that I am very “law and order” minded and I argue for severe punishment for violent offenders or others of whom we are afraid, but I’ll address that another time. If a drug offender is also charged with a related crime such as robbery, assault, or vehicular homicide, I want that offender off the streets. However, if the offender is only committing a crime of drug possession or minor dealing, I’d address it another way. On a personal note, by the way, I hope there is a special unpleasant cranny in the afterlife for heroin, meth, and illegal opioid sellers, and I’d punish them severely in this life as well because they are murderers.

I know this sounds counterintuitive, but according to my sources (I’ve gotten to know a lot of teenagers during the last few years), it is easier for those under age 21 to purchase illegal drugs than alcohol because drug dealers don’t care how old the buyer is whereas the convenience store doesn’t want to lose its selling license and bars don’t want to lose their pouring license. Of course we could crack down even more on selling alcohol to those who are under 21 (I would probably change that to 18 if I had my way, but that is for another discussion) by making liquor licenses expensive and making it almost impossible to regain a license lost for selling to underage customers.

I would also legalize marijuana (and I am NOT promoting its use), regulate the heck out of it to ensure growers were not mixing in addictive chemicals (as was done by tobacco companies), charge large sums  for selling licenses, and impose strict penalties for selling to minors. There is little doubt that continued use of the drug is harmful, that it is especially harmful to adolescents whose brains are still developing, and it is dangerous during pregnancy. So is consuming alcohol (yet I still enjoy the IPA). Adults should be able to make the choice whether to use it but children should not. I repeat what I stated earlier; kids have no trouble at all buying marijuana now even though it is illegal.

I would not legalize other drugs but I would decriminalize them, and I would always favor treatment options first. Many states have been experimenting with “drug court” options for non-violent possession and minor distribution cases in recent years, and they have been very successful. Recidivism rates are drastically reduced and crimes that often accompany drugs have been reduced as much as 45% over other sentencing options. Drug courts require those convicted to seek treatment, and the judge monitors success (the one convicted is subject to random urinalysis and other testing). I know kids who have turned their lives around because of drug court. It works much better than sending someone to prison at a cost of $30,000 per year where he or she learns about a lot of other cool crimes to commit upon release.

The bottom line is this: Treatment does not always work, but it does work for a good number of addicts.  The war on drugs is a failure by every significant measure, and both liberal and conservative media outlets have reached that conclusion.  Even the Law Enforcement Action Partners (LEAP), an organization created by law enforcement officers, argues for abandoning the unwinnable war.  Let’s try something new and use a portion of the war on drug money for treatment.

Oh, and our son who entered treatment at 19?  He has been clean and sober since May 13, 2011 and is now a drug counselor working with young people to help them overcome dependency. Treatment saved his life and is saving countless others. And the truth is I would not change a thing because the experience has strengthened me as a person and our relationship as a family. I’m just happy and fortunate that our son survived.

America’s New Drug Policy Landscape

Click to access p14_Summary.pdf

Drug Policy






6 thoughts on “The Drug Problem

  1. Great post, David. I would be interested to know how you feel the prison-industrial complex in the United States fits into the current state of legalization and addiction in our country.

    • Although my broad area of academic focus is American governmental institutions, my primary interest (and the focus of most recent research) is law and courts. I am very interested in the topic of prisons, confinement, and sentencing. I’m sure I’ll bore everyone with a post on that topic in the near future. Thanks for following my blog, Kristin.

  2. I’m very sorry that you and your family had to go through that ordeal. I had no idea. With that said, I agree with you on all points. I also believe that the modern “War on Drugs,” originally launched by the Nixon Administration in 1971, has done irreparable damage to both American society as a whole and to our Constitutional liberties, especially those outlined in the 4th and 5th Amendments (militarization of police forces/SWAT, “no knock” search warrants, asset forfeiture, etc.). I also believe that the War on Drugs has been a corrupting influence on the government agencies charged with carrying it out (such as the FBI, NSA, CIA, DEA, military SpecOps), with any number of scandals that have been exposed over the past 40 years diminishing respect and confidence in those organizations. The War on Drugs has also created several generations of destitute and largely unemployable people who cannot build decent lives for themselves because of prior criminal records and jail time for minor, non-violent drug use offenses, usually committed when they were very young. I see this everywhere.

    So yes, it’s well beyond time time to end the “War on Drugs” and to find better ways of controlling their proliferation and helping addicts get clean, all the while restoring the civil liberties that have been eroded over time through the government’s misguided efforts to get a handle on this enormous problem.

  3. Dr. Roebuck,

    Glad to hear that your son has gotten the right help and turned his difficulties around.

    Sorry for the wall of text. I didn’t intend to write this much.

    I have a group of friends that talk politics daily and about five months go, we got on the topic of drug legalization and decriminalization. I had planned on writing a blog about it myself but have avoided it thus far because the symptoms and causes of the drug problem are excruciatingly difficult to untangle. Drug addiction and the drug trade have so many variables, they’re difficult to accurately analyze.

    Getting raw data about drug-related activity is a nightmare. Each county keeps its own records; each state keeps its own records (and makes its own laws). Plea deals complicate things further. We have minimum and maximum sentences, depending on jurisdiction. Sentencing can vary between days and years for the same crime and no one serves a full sentence. At any given time, we have absolutely no idea how many people are incarcerated on drug charges in the United States.

    Which drug charges are we talking about anyway? With the data we have access to, it’s difficult to analyze. We often talk about people in prison who are “just there for drugs,” But of the 181,000 federal prisoners in 2015 whose most serious crimes were drug-related, 94,000 were convicted of trafficking and the rest were convicted on weapons charges, fraud and illegal immigration. Federal prisoners whose most serious crime was simply possession? Only 247.

    Then there’s organized crime, violence, gangs and…well, lots of other stuff that obfuscates any obvious course of action. Each path causes other problems to percolate to the surface.

    In the few real-world examples we have, decriminalization leads to fights over the drug trade to the country–Argentina, Netherlands, Portugal. Because people are unafraid to use drugs, it gives pushers a wide guaranteed market. This leads to resources being diverted to the task of thwarting organized crime outside the country as well as to addiction treatment. That plan of action has worked in some cases, but if the U.S. goes that route, it’s something we have to be prepared to embrace as a nation. America has a tendency to legislate through severe compromise or a la carte. That probably won’t work with decriminalization. It has too many moving parts and America is too prosperous of a target for cartels to abandon. We’ll likely face immediate pressure from external drug producers. As soon as we decide on a course, it needs to be comprehensive, funded, and ready to rock at the moment of rollout or we’ll just swap one set of problems for another.

    • You offer good feedback, Aaron. Lots to think about.

      I do know that most federal prisoners are there because they committed another crime, and as I said if this was a violent crime they should be punished. Of course if drugs were legalized or decriminalized the 94,000 convicted of trafficking would not be an issue because the trafficking would not be illegal. I think the period between the 18th and 21st Amendments applies, because only during that time was bootlegging, moonshining, rum running, etc. profitable. After prohibition was repealed and as states began to legalize alcohol the illegal alcohol trade dried up.

      There is no way to know whether the others held on weapons charges would have been committing a crime had drugs not been illegal. I assume most were arrested for drug crimes and the weapons charges were tacked on, thus compounding the crime.

      And most incarceration for possession would take place on the state, not federal, level. Trafficking is largely federal, possession crimes are mostly state. I do believe the state courts are gradually turning away from incarceration as the primary solution, but state legislatures need to rewrite the criminal codes and sentencing structure allowing judges greater latitude and also providing funding for treatment.

      I would be interested in your sources regarding decriminalization in other countries. I have not read anything related in a couple of years but the sources I do recall reading report reduced HIV rates and an initial drop in teens using drugs. Like I said, it has been a couple of years.

      Still, you offer food for thought.

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