Toward a New Foreign Policy

By Sterling, Eric E. | Foreign Policy in Focus, May 8, 2001 | Go to article overview

Toward a New Foreign Policy


Sterling, Eric E., Foreign Policy in Focus


A more enlightened U.S. foreign policy on drug control will necessarily mean major changes in U.S. domestic drug policy. Current consideration of alternative drug strategies is dominated by political cowardice and hot-button rhetoric. When Gov. Gary Johnson (R-NM) bravely suggested drug legalization, no politicians publicly joined him. Instead, President Clinton's drug czar, Gen. Barry McCaffrey, led a political attack, calling Johnson "irresponsible." And Rep. Bob Barr (R-GA) suggested that global philanthropist George Soros be investigated for racketeering offenses, just because he funded criticism of national drug policy.

The public, however, has lost faith in the U.S. drug strategy. According to a March 2001 survey by the Pew Research Center, 74% of the public agrees that America is losing the war on drugs. Public dissatisfaction with the antidrug strategy will not disappear by suppressing discussion of alternative strategies. Independent blue-ribbon commissions, faith communities, civic organizations, professional societies, and service clubs must undertake rational, cost-benefit, top-to-bottom reviews of drug strategies.

In the short term, increasing the availability of drug treatment on request would be the most important and effective policy initiative. Drug treatment is not perfect--many addicts relapse. But relapse rates are comparable to the rates of those who fail to change their behavior in dealing with chronic diseases such as diabetes or hypertension. Over time, many addicts are successful in quitting. A leading California study found treatment to be seven times more cost-effective than imprisonment. A RAND Corporation analysis suggested that cocaine consumption could be reduced by 1% by spending either $783 million in source countries, or $366 million on international interdiction, or $246 million on domestic enforcement, or just $34 million on treatment.

About 2.1 million addicts were treated in 1998, but 2.9 million were unable to get treatment. The percentage of prisoners receiving drug treatment in prison decreased during the 1990s. For the poor and uninsured, publicly funded treatment is scarce.

Evaluations have found current youth drug-prevention-through-abstinence programs to be almost totally ineffective. Given that 50% of U.S. youth end up experimenting with drugs, a safety-first message needs to be adopted instead of focusing on total abstinence. Promoting responsible use is the current policy with alcohol, i.e., promoting the use of designated drivers. A responsible-use approach to drugs would be honest, acknowledging that most youths stop with drug experimentation and never become addicts. Often programs that have nothing to do with drugs directly, such as Head Start and Big Brother/Big Sister, have dramatic effects in reducing youth drug use. …

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