You’ve read the news. Drug use has become an epidemic and a crisis. The statistics are staggering: Since 1979, drug overdoses are up 1,460%, and opiod overdoses among whites are up 2,627%.  According to the government agency SAMHSA, some 30 million Americans over the age of 12 use illicit drugs, and 83 million more abuse alcohol.
Yet our answers to this crisis are most often misdirected: we restrict access to drugs, and we incarcerate the abusers, compounding their problems by giving them a criminal record that prevents meaningful employment. Almost half of all federal prisoners (45%) are locked up for drug offenses.
The irony is, we claim to be a capitalist nation. The law of supply and demand, we insist, will regulate the market. Yet none of our solutions addresses the basic problem: people want to escape their reality. Demand exists. But I’ll deal with that in another post. What’s important for this post is that the War on Drugs is economically ridiculous. Any economist will tell you that reducing supply does not reduce demand, it just raises the price.
The second irony is that most of those who want to quit can’t get help. According to SAMHSA’s report, 20 million Americans sought treatment in 2017. Of these, 89% did not receive it.
That’s right. Only about 1 in 9 of those who needed treatment received it.
The same report details the reason they didn’t get it. The most common reason? Lack of insurance coverage. They either didn’t have insurance, or their plan didn’t cover treatment. (And just try to find a treatment facility that will take you if you don’t have cash!)
We’ve spent over a trillion dollars of taxpayer money– $31 billion in 2017 alone– in a doomed “war” to eliminate the supply of drugs. It hasn’t worked because the laws of economics can’t be repealed. Supply will seek to meet demand. We have to eliminate demand.
Yet those trying to get off drugs can’t get help.
It costs around $30,000 per year for each person we incarcerate for drug crimes. The average prison sentence for drug possession is 3 years. For the cost of one year of incarceration, these people could instead get a 30-day inpatient rehab and 90 days outpatient rehab. Not all will be successful at kicking their addiction. But some will. And these are people who (1) won’t be buying more drugs, and (2) won’t be costing the taxpayers money for prisons and emergency medical care.
Instead, they’ll be getting jobs, contributing to society, and above all, telling others about the nightmare they survived. Recovering addicts and their stories could be the best advertisement for staying off drugs!
Isn’t that a better way to spend a trillion dollars?
For those who think such an approach is impractical, check out this evaluation of the Gloucester Initiative, in which police refer addicts seeking help to treatment instead of arresting them. According to the police chief, “It costs the program $55 per individual treatment, whereas it costs $220 to send a low-level drug user through court.” In the first year, 90% of those who sought treatment received it. The followup evaluation showed that, yes, 40% of those surveyed did return to drugs after completing the program. But do the math: 60% didn’t.
Our current national drug policy is flawed. It has been from the start. It doesn’t help, and it may actually make things worse.
But there are alternatives.
As more and more families struggle with addiction, perhaps the stigma will begin to disappear. Perhaps we can talk about addiction logically, rather than emotionally. And perhaps we can find real solutions for those who suffer.
 Statistics drawn from Jeanine M. Buchanic, et. al., “Exponential Growth of the USA overdose epidemic,” Pittsburg: University of Pittsburg, 2017, 2 (https://www.biorxiv.org/content/biorxiv/early/2017/05/09/134403.full.pdf, accessed September 22, 2018). “Drug Overdoses,” National Safety Council (https://injuryfacts.nsc.org/home-and-community/safety-topics/drugoverdoses/data-details/?gclid=EAIaIQobChMIxryIk-DO3QIVDK_ICh1c7gZVEAAYAiAAEgLHnvD_BwE, accessed September 22, 2018). Monica J. Alexander et. al., “Trends in Black and White Opioid Mortality in the United States 1979-2015,” Epidemiology 29:5, September 2018 (https://journals.lww.com/epidem/Fulltext/2018/09000/Trends_in_Black_and_White_Opioid_Mortality_in_the.16.aspx, accessed September 22, 2018).