Drugs come in and out of vogue. This makes things fun for those who abuse them and interesting for those who make it their mission to stamp out drug abuse. Heroin and prescription drugs are big now, or at least that’s what we hear from experts who claim to know about these things. Methamphetamine might still be popular, but it is not quite as efficient of a killer so it doesn’t have the same press appeal. Marijuana’s status as an acceptable entertainment is on an upward curve that will only keep rising as more and more states figure out how much money they can make from taxing weed.
Cocaine is where things get really dicey. Once the bane of inner city neighborhoods and the subject of countless films glamorizing the ups and downs of drug trafficking, it is now the chief argument in favor of relaxing prison sentences for drug crimes and putting felons back on the street.
Is America’s affair with illicit drugs the fault of drug abusers and their dealers, or is it a trumped-up excuse for public officials to climb up on their stumps?
Drug abuse is fun for government
America’s drug war has been fought by every politician who was too afraid to tell the truth: there is a subset of Americans who enjoy abusing drugs and there always will be. Those who supply the market will go out of their way to make drugs affordable, appealing, and profitable, and there is not a lot we can do to stop them.
Let’s face it. Drug abuse is one of the best things government has going for it. We still have pictures of Nixon sniffing a marijuana brick as he kicked off his antidrug crusade. His drug war ended with his presidency, but drugs were still with us. Nancy Reagan told us to “just say no” over three decades ago as her husband began his fight against drug abuse. Drugs are still around, including a galaxy of designer fun and games unheard of in Reagan’s day.
So why is drug abuse fun for government? Because no one wants to say no to spending lots of money on the problem and the opportunities are limitless, from border security, to building jails and prisons, to hiring more police officers, to dumping money into social services.
We have had a cocaine epidemic. A meth epidemic. We are now in the throes of what the government has labeled a heroin epidemic:
Over the past year, heroin abuse has reached epidemic proportions in the United States. According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, the United States has an estimated 600,000 heroin users, which is three times the number in 2012. The sharp rise in heroin use is partly attributable to the related problem of prescription drug addiction since many prescription drugs are opioids and cause a similar effect on the body.1
Heroin will still be on the street after the battle is fought and the current epidemic forgotten. When we tire of fighting heroin, we will pick another target.
How much should we spend on 2016’s drug war?
If drug abuse continued to rise at the rates we have been threatened with there would be a junkie in every living room. That hasn’t happened, no matter what the government drug abuse gurus say to convince us that society is being destroyed. Iran will be detonating nukes on U.S. soil before we ever come close.
In 1995 we were warned by Health and Human Services about increasing numbers of 8th graders using heroin and three consecutive years of rising cocaine use in 8th, 10th, and 12th graders:2
1995 was a long time ago. Either the children’s heroin and cocaine problem tapered off, kids got over it and moved on to other things, or it wasn’t as bad as predicted.
Flash forward twenty years and we have an election coming up with too many explosive issues our candidates know they can’t fix with empty promises. Fortunately, drug abuse is always a popular cause and there are two especially good targets: heroin and Obama. Heroin use is said to be escalating. After fighting the cocaine war with mandatory minimums, the president has turned that battle into an excuse to release non-violent offenders, including traffickers, from prison.
Heroin abuse is a political problem, too
The rise in heroin and prescription opioid deaths is a veritable goldmine for federal and state lawmakers and yes, presidential candidates.
Hillary Clinton wants to spend $10 billion on drug and alcohol abuse, including $7.5 billion to treat addiction.3 In his role as senator, Ted Cruz took a different stance. He added Obama’s failure to apply mandatory minimum sentences for drug violations to the president’s abuses of power,4 a move which stands in contrast to his support of the Smarter Sentencing Act to relax punishment guidelines.5.
When it comes to Obama’s views on our national drug abuse problem and immigration, his unsecured Southwest border is a problem. A House Judiciary Committee observed about the heroin epidemic:
Additionally, the growing availability of heroin trafficked into the United States from Mexico is also a significant concern. Drug cartels have noticed the rise in heroin use and have begun trafficking more heroin and methamphetamine into the United States. Since 2009, heroin seizures along the border have nearly tripled, as law enforcement seized 2,181 kilograms of Mexican heroin last year alone. 6
If drug traffickers can bring their product into our country they will, but do we have to let wayward immigration policy make it so easy?
Are we battling an epidemic or a propaganda war?
The Biden-promoted effort to stem prescription narcotic use, the “Opioids Risk Evaluation and Mitigation Strategy (REMS),” must have been hilarious for users breaking open capsules and crumbling tablets into teaspoons. Safe drug use isn’t what they want and they know this “alarming public health crisis”7 will blow over sooner or later, despite the effort to hold drug makers accountable:
The new program will require manufacturers of long-acting and extended-release opioids to provide educational programs to prescribers of these medications, as well as materials prescribers can use when counseling patients about the risks and benefits of opioid use.8
The government still hasn’t figured it out. People like to abuse drugs. Sometimes they go overboard. Sometimes they die. Education is not going to stop that because seasoned users probably already know more about the drugs they are abusing than the ones telling them to stop.
For those whose preference is heroin, do the numbers justify calling their abuse an epidemic?
0.1% of Americans were described as “current heroin users” in 20139 17.8% of the population smokes.10 Smoking is a much bigger killer, but the tobacco industry is vast and legitimized. Our alcohol producers have come a long way since Prohibition, too.
There were 8,257 heroin deaths in 2013.11 In that same year, there were 10,076 people killed in car crashes related to alcohol.12 Smoking kills 480,000 people each year in the U.S. and costs us $326 billion for health care and lost productivity.13
Admittedly, cigarettes and alcohol are different from heroin, cocaine, and other illicit treats. They are harder to use to justify spending on inner city neighborhoods, though the rhetoric on drug abuse usually includes warnings about problems spreading to middle class suburbs. They are harder to exploit to expand Medicaid spending, since the problems they cause already exist and are things politicians seem comfortable with. They can’t be used to hire more police or first responders. They can’t be used to expand the court system or to release criminals from incarceration or to make charges of racial inequality.
In the end, whether or not heroin or other drugs of abuse are creating epidemics doesn’t really matter. After the speeches and press releases the money will flow, no matter how our drug wars turn out.
Updated March 30, 2016 to edit link text and remove broken link.