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RAND's Peter Reuter: Time to End the Drug "War"


March 1993

A quiet de-escalation of the drug war in the first month of the Clinton Administration may portend a change of emphasis from the unrealistic goal of a drug-free America to the more realistic goal of reducing drug-related harm, RAND Drug Policy Research Center co-director Peter Reuter suggested in a commentary (Peter Reuter, "Truce in Needle Park: Time to End the Drug War," Washington Post, 2/28/93, C1).

While basic criminal prohibitions on drug use and sale should be maintained, according to Reuter, harm reduction should be emphasized, with criminal law relegated to a marginal role in dealing with drug offenders. The administration should focus on minimizing the negative health consequences of drug use, he said.

Tougher penalties have done little to reduce the most harmful forms of drug misuse, said Reuter, and may be exacerbating some drug-related harms. Police harassment of street sellers, for example, may increase incentives for sellers to use violence to hold market share. Variability in heroin purity, caused by occasional large seizures, may cause more overdose deaths. Tough marijuana enforcement has raised both the price and potency of marijuana, while anti-paraphernalia laws have made it more difficult for marijuana smokers to use water pipes, the least harmful way of smoking the drug.

Reuter noted that federal drug control spending soared from $1.5 billion in 1980 to about $13 billion in 1992, with two-thirds spent on stepped up law enforcement. In 1990, state and local governments spent another $18 billion on drug control, with about 80 percent of the total for law enforcement. Overall the total national expenditure in 1990 was $28 billion, with about $21 billion for law enforcement, according to Reuter.

Coupled with these expenditures were huge increases in imprisonment for drug offenses. Federal prisons saw an increase from 2,300 imprisoned for drug offenses in 1980 to 13,000 in 1990, with average time served jumping from an average of 20 months to 66 months. State drug prisoners rose from 11,500 in 1981 to 90,000 in 1989, with several hundred thousand more imprisoned for weeks or months in municipal jails. African Americans make up about 40 percent of all drug offenders, compared to less than a quarter a decade ago. A study of those imprisoned found that most were street-level dealers or minor participants in much larger enterprises. With mandatory minimums, drug offenders are forcing the early release of more dangerous, violent offenders not subject to mandatory drug sentence minimums.

Despite these increasingly harsh sanctions, drugs were as available in 1992 as a decade before. Cocaine is cheaper on an inflation-adjusted basis than ever, and only marijuana is more expensive. Heroin is making a major comeback.

While it may entail some political risks for Clinton to openly embrace a harm-reduction policy, the punitive apparatus may "collapse of its own weight," Reuter noted. With billions spent for enforcement, prisons averaging 150 percent of capacity, judges and police diverted from pursuing violent offenders as they focus on drug offenders, there is hope that a more sensible policy will emerge.