Academic journal article Journal of Drug Issues

U.S. Drug Control Policies: Federal Spending on Law Enforcement versus Treatment in Public Health Outcomes

Academic journal article Journal of Drug Issues

U.S. Drug Control Policies: Federal Spending on Law Enforcement versus Treatment in Public Health Outcomes

Article excerpt

This paper evaluates the relationships among federal anti-drug law enforcement expenditures, education and treatment expenditures, and public health outcomes. The data include four types of spending: criminal justice system, interdiction and international intelligence, education in the community and workplace, and drug treatment. These data were combined with mortality rates for drug abuse, a public health outcome. The empirical findings support the hypothesis that resources allocated to drug prevention and treatment have benefited the public health. Conversely, a 10% reduction in enforcement expenditures is associated with a long-run reduction of approximately 3,000 deaths per year.

INTRODUCTION

By any measure, there have been dramatic increases in public resources devoted to drug control - increases in criminal justice system expenditures for arrests, incarceration, and interdiction as well as resources devoted to education and treatment. Over the past two decades, federal spending on enforcement of the drug laws has increased more than tenfold, with total federal, state, and local spending on control of illegal drugs now estimated to exceed $30 billion each year (National Research Council [NRC], 2001). The United States has over two million prisoners and one of the highest incarceration rates in the world, driven in part by enforcement of drug laws by all levels of government (U.S. Department of Justice [DOJ], 2002a). Since 1980, the number of individuals incarcerated for drug-related offenses in state prisons has also increased more than tenfold (NRC, 2001). In 2001, there were over 1.5 million arrests for illegal drugs, a majority for possession as opposed to sales or manufacture (DOJ, 2002b). The economic costs associated with the current "drug war" have increased dramatically and underscore the need for further study of the effectiveness of the current approach and its emphasis on enforcement.

Although there is a growing body of literature on illegal drug markets and public policy, little is known about many of the consequences of alternative enforcement activities.1 For example, an assessment by MacCoun, Reuter, and Schelling( 1996) concluded that there is inadequate research on the magnitude and costs of many of the consequences, including public health outcomes, of different enforcement regimes. Because of the importance of this issue, the National Research Council established the Committee on Data and Research for Policy on Illegal Drugs. In their report, they argued that "because of a lack of investment in data and research, the nation is in no better position to evaluate the effectiveness of enforcement than it was 20 years ago, when the recent intensification of enforcement began" (NRC, 2001, p. 3).

The public health consequences of our nation's drug control efforts are an important area of research with significant public policy implications. One of the goals of U.S. policy is to reduce use and abuse of illegal drugs and thereby lower the associated health costs of sickness and disease, emergency room visits, and overdoses. However, over the same time period that expenditures on enforcement have escalated, overdose deaths and emergency room visits associated with illicit drugs have increased significantly. A review of the literature by Mast, Benson, and Rasmussen (2000) identified significant unintended consequences from policy actions. They cited studies that demonstrate a positive association between increases in resources devoted to enforcement and higher rates of both property and violent crime over time and across geographical areas. Similarly, some researchers (Drucker, 1999; Nadelmann, 1988) have argued that strict enforcement policies serve to exacerbate the public health problems of illicit drug use by marginalizing the drug user and rendering uncertain the quality and potency of any drugs taken. The causal relationships underlying these trends are uncertain. Further analysis of the long-run relationship between alternative drug control policies and important outcomes such as the public health may therefore make an important contribution to the current public policy debate. …

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