Nancy Reagan was right, but will our politicians pay attention?

Originally published in Jackson Hole News & Guide

By David Dodson

First lady Nancy Reagan was correct when she told an Oakland schoolgirl to “Just say no” if offered drugs. At the time, she was mocked for being naive and simplistic. But the first lady was simply trying to nudge her husband’s policy from reducing the supply of drugs to reducing demand.

At the United Nations, she later said, “If we cannot stem the American demand for drugs, then there will be little hope of preventing foreign drug producers from fulfilling that demand.” As far back as 1971, then-President Richard Nixon admitted in an address to Congress that “as long as there is a demand, there will be those willing to take the risks of meeting the demand.” Yet for over 30 years, he and his successors — Democrats and Republicans alike — failed to heed that reasoning. At the time of his capture, Pablo Escobar’s enterprise brought in $420 million per week. With riches like that, behind every Escobar there will be an “El Chapo” happy to take the spot.

We currently spend nearly half of our Federal Drug Control budget on reducing the supply of drugs. Having spent tens of millions of dollars on spraying the poppy fields in Afghanistan with glyphosate, worldwide poppy production is up 800% in the last decade. Just as there will never be a shortage of aspiring drug lords, there will also be plenty of poppy or cannabis farmers who need to feed their families. For these same reasons, our efforts at the border continue to fail because the value of illegal drugs increase by about 500% as soon as they cross into the U.S. With those profit margins, there will also never be a shortage of willing smugglers.

Threats to get tough on drug users have also been ineffective. “Demand” is not the same as “desire,” which is why Reagan didn’t warn that Oakland schoolgirl about the risks of going to jail. She understood that for a person who becomes physically or physiologically addicted, detention is no more a deterrent than losing one’s job or drivers’ license is to an alcoholic. Nine “drug czars” and five presidents since the War on Drugs began, the number of people incarcerated for drug offenses is up elevenfold, while drug deaths are up tenfold. Prison has not succeeded in rehabilitating drug users, as evidenced by the leading cause of death among recently released inmates: drug overdose.

The promising news is that either political party has an opportunity to reshape how we address this national emergency, because we have proven policies that lower the desire for dangerous narcotics. “Drug Courts” and similar programs that focus on rehabilitation rather than incarceration have shown between 24% and 58% improvement in recidivism over conventional criminal systems. As well, many jurisdictions are reducing the harm from drugs by lessening the risk and stigma of seeking help and then expanding the availability of treatments, such as naloxone for opioid overdose. By the way, rehabilitation is significantly less expensive than warehousing someone in prison.

Decriminalizing, which is not the same as making narcotics legal, allows for these interventions to be accepted and implemented without the stigma or risk of criminal prosecution. Portugal, for example, had the highest rate of deaths from heroin in the European Union. Under a traditional system of strict criminal penalties, the problem escalated. In response to this failure, Portugal experimented by decriminalizing drug use, shifting the challenge from a crime problem to a medical issue. While the country kept in place strict penalties for those who sell or distribute narcotics, it treated users as patients instead of criminals, and instituted widespread access to counseling and pharmacological interventions, such as methadone. With these policies, Portugal reduced heroin use by 75% and reduced its mortality rate from drug overdose to the lowest in the EU. Seattle is now attempting the same experiment, with similarly promising results.

A trillion dollars have been spent on the War on Drugs, yet more Americans die every year from drug overdose than we lost during the entire Vietnam War. We need leaders willing to take political risks and consider alternative strategies.

— David Dodson, a resident of Teton County, is a lecturer at the Stanford University Graduate School of Business, an entrepreneur and a former Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate.