The War on Drugs in a Time of Austerity
Aug. 8, 2011
TORONTO–When Missouri Supreme Court Chief Justice William Ray Price Jr. was president of the Kansas City Board of Police Commissioners, law enforcement took down one drug house a day. The effort was immense. The impact on the use and availability of drugs in Kansas City was not.
Notorious gangs like the Crips and the Bloods moved in immediately. “All we did was make a market for other criminal drug market organizations,” sighed Price. “If there is demand, there will be supply.”
Price was joined in his frustration by other panelists discussing drug control and the future of criminal justice programs in a time of budget austerity at the _’s Annual Meeting in Toronto.
“There is a bias against funding for public health in this current fiscal environment,” said John Carnevale, who previously worked in the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy and the Office of Management and Budget.
Carnevale explained that while the United States allocates more than $26 billion annually to fight the War on Drugs, “we seem incapable at the federal level of spending money wisely.”
Drug control is handled across several federal agencies, but spending fits into five categories. Roughly 36 percent of funds, or $9.5 billion, goes toward domestic law enforcement. Treatment and prevention, which Carnevale call “very effective,” receive 34 and 7 percent of funding respectively, a total of $10 billion. Interdiction, which consists of efforts to stop drugs getting into the United States nets 15 percent of the budget, or $4 billion. Development, crop eradication and other international programs receive 8 percent or $2 billion. Carnevale faulted the government for spending so much on interdiction and international programs.
Although federal drug control budgets have not faced widespread reductions, panelists said they expect significant cuts. An analysis by Carnevale of how a dollar taken from drug control efforts would reduce spending in each of the categories found that prevention stands to lose the most.
“The one that’s hurt the most is one of the ones that’s the most effective,” said Carnevale. An across the board $1 cut to all appropriations for federal drug control would cost prevention $.40. Interdiction would lose $.07. “One of the least effective is hurt the least.”
If federal monies disappear it will be left to the states to increase their contributions, but state coffers are empty. That leads Carnevale to believe that budget cuts will “undermine and dramatically change the focus of our national drug policy.”
Speakers including Melody Heaps, founder and president emeritus of Chicago’s Treatment Alternatives for Safe Communities, believes the continuing financial crisis requires a reprioritization of spending to boost proven programs. Alternatives to the traditional system of arrest, trial and long imprisonment–including drug courts, substance abuse treatment, and supervision–are part of what Heaps calls “the new therapeutic justice.
“We have definitive science that proves addiction is a brain disease.”
For that reason, Heaps believes “the courts and the justice system need to realize that relapse is possible” and not simply jail individuals who are dealing with addiction.
Price agrees that the “anger and punishment”-based system of treating addicts harshly has not paid off. Speaking of efforts to get tough on drugs, Price said that the United States tried to “incarcerate our way out of drug use, and it didn’t work.”
Instead, Price pointed out that the use of specialized courts is proven to reduce the recidivism rate, at one-fifth of the cost of jail. A greater reliance on drug courts could be a boon for states since the majority of inmates are either incarcerated because of a drug crime, a crime related to use, or are processed into jail with drugs in their system.
Still, drug courts, like any other drug control program, needs adequate funding. “If the resources aren’t there then clearly our drug courts can’t fulfill their role,” said Edward Jurith, senior counsel at ONCDP.
“In my mind it’s a pay now or pay later kind of fiscal environment,” added Carnevale. “You’re going to pay a lot down the road.”