Special Section
New Thinking About Crime and Punishment

Is the war on drugs succeeding?

Drug use is down over the last 25 years, but a half million Americans are in prison for drug offenses. How should success be measured?

America is either winning the war on drugs or losing it badly, depending on whom you ask.

The fact that the answers vary so widely raises the question, How should success or failure be measured? As part of its focus on crime and punishment, the Bulletin put that query to several HLS alumni who figure prominently in the national debate over drug policy, across the political spectrum.

For Ethan Nadelmann '84, head of the Drug Policy Alliance, a New York City-based policy and lobbying group dedicated to a less punitive approach to drug policy, the answer lies in the social and economic costs of a strategy that he believes has put too many in jail or prison and done little to reduce the availability of drugs. Of the approximately 2 million people behind bars in the U.S., he notes, about 500,000 are there for drug-law violations--more than the total number of people jailed for all criminal offenses in Western Europe, although the U.S. has 100 million fewer people.

"If we're lucky, our grandchildren will recall the global war on drugs of the late 20th and early 21st centuries as some bizarre mania," says Nadelmann. "The true challenge is learning to live with drugs so that they cause the least harm. An effective strategy needs to establish realistic objectives and criteria for evaluating success or failure, and must focus on reducing the death, disease, crime and suffering associated with both drug use and drug policies."

Ethan Nadelmann
Ethan Nadelmann '84 of the Drug
Policy Alliance

Nadelmann and the DPA favor legalizing marijuana and treating it like alcohol--a commodity, he says, that's taxed and regulated with prescribed minimum legal ages for use. Working primarily at the state level, Nadelmann and his group have been successful in a variety of ballot initiatives dealing with medical use of marijuana and treatment instead of incarceration (for nonviolent offenders charged with possession). The DPA's single biggest victory, he says, has been the passage of California's Proposition 36, in 2000, which requires treatment in place of incarceration for many drug possession offenders and has already kept close to 100,000 people from going to jail or prison. "We doubled money for drug treatment while simultaneously saving taxpayers money by reducing prison populations," he notes. "We're now taking that model around the rest of the country."

Nadelmann has also been successful in pushing for needle-exchange programs, which now exist in nearly half the states. Neither Congress nor any presidential administration has taken federal action promoting such programs even though the public health world is nearly unanimous in its assessment that they significantly reduce the spread of HIV.

"At the state level, people have to deal with the fact that HIV and hepatitis are spreading; it's going to add to hospital costs," Nadelmann says. "They have to deal with the fact that building new prisons and new jails is a major cost. When you get to the national level in Washington, that's where you see a lot more of the rhetoric, a lot more of the disregard for both the human cost and the fiscal cost of the policy."

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