Toward a New Foreign Policy

By Sterling, Eric | Foreign Policy in Focus, November 16, 1999 | Go to article overview

Toward a New Foreign Policy


Sterling, Eric, Foreign Policy in Focus


The public is losing faith that enforcement is the most effective strategy. In February 1995, 50% of the U.S. public gave the federal government a grade of F or D for its handling of the drug problem; only 10% gave the government an A or B.

In the short term, increasing the availability of drug treatment on demand 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 ,n 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 as cost effective as imprisonment. A RAND Corporation analysis found that cocaine consumption could be reduced by 1% by spending $783 million in source countries, $366 million on international interdiction, $246 million on domestic enforcement, or just $34 million on treatment.

About two million addicts were treated in 1996, but 3.3 million were unable to get treatment. The percentage of prisoners getting drug treatment in prison has decreased during the 1990s. For the poor and uninsured, publicly funded treatment is almost nonexistent.

Evaluations have found current youth drug-prevention-through-abstinence programs 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., suggesting the use of designated drivers. A responsible-use approach to drugs would be honest, acknowledging that most youths stop with drug experimentation and do not become addicts. Often programs that have nothing to do with drugs directly, such as Big Brother/Big Sister, have dramatic effects in reducing youth drug use.

Drug abuse by women has been increasing in the U.S., while male drug abuse has been declining. More research regarding female drug abusers, as well as treatment programs for women, is vitally needed. In addition, discriminatory policies toward women should be stopped. Women should not be forced to give up their children to enter drug treatment programs. Regrettably, the state of New York had to be sued before it would provide drug treatment to pregnant addicts.

Ninety percent of new AIDS cases among children under 13 are due to the sharing of used injection equipment by mothers or fathers. All these cases could be prevented if the nearly universal recommendations of public health authorities for syringe exchange were followed by Congress and the executive branch.

Sentences for drug offenses need to be reduced dramatically. Sixty percent of federal prisoners are drug offenders, and federal drug sentences are longer than those imposed for many violent crimes. Drug offenders should not be singled out for additional penalties, such as eviction from housing or denial of aid for higher education--especially when persons convicted of violent crimes are not subject to such penalties.

Physicians should be encouraged to prescribe marijuana and other appropriate pain relief. Studies show that doctors undertreat pain for 40%-80% of their terminally ill patients.

Current public debate of alternative drug strategies is reminiscent of the reaction faced by Galileo in the 17th century. …

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