America’s Drug Addiction

“Decriminalization means scrapping criminal penalties for the use of drugs. It falls short of legalization which, in its purest form, means the abolition of all forms of government control of drugs. I don’t think that legalization of drugs is going to be the answer,” – President Barrack Obama, 2012

Illicit drug use across the United States is on the rise. According to the National Institute for Drug Abuse (NIDA), 24.6 million Americans or almost 10% of the population has used an illicit drug in the past month.

DEA officers work alongside local police in Birmingham to raid drug labs across the city
DEA officers work alongside local police in Birmingham to raid drug labs across the city

It is now estimated that at least 17.3 million Americans, or 6.6% of the population are dependant on illicit substances. Despite these staggering numbers, only 2.5 million actually seek and receive treatment.

Drug decriminalization and legalization has taken off around the country, with Washington and Colorado being the first states to legalize recreational Marijuana in 2012. This is a big step forwards considering that prior to 1972 it was completely illegal. Progress has been slow, with “decriminalization” which allows making possession of small amounts of weed only occurring in Oregon in 1973. It wasn’t until 1996 that “medical” use of marijuana was allowed in California as a pain reliever.

DENVER APRIL 19: Anthony Parker from New York, front, is smoking marijuana during 420 Rally weekend in Civic Center Park. Denver, Colorado. April 19. 2014. (Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post)
DENVER APRIL 19: Anthony Parker from New York, front, is smoking marijuana during 420 Rally weekend in Civic Center Park. Denver, Colorado. April 19. 2014. (Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post)

According to the white house, America spent more than $100 billion annually over the past decade on illegal drugs. In its report into illicit use, it outlined how the negative flow on effects make the war on drugs the viable, if unpalatable tool to stop youths from turning to these illegal substances.They attribute school failure, poverty, mental illness, criminality, and health problems such as disorders directly to drug abuse. In 2007, the economic cost of lost productivity was put at $193 billion to the US economy. The war on drugs has been costly with the Federal government spent $26 billion in 2015 when treatment, prevention and law enforcement are included. This is up from $15 billion that was spent in 2010 at the rate of about $500 a second.

A Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) agent, right, participate in a training for Guatemalan anti drug agents. The United States supports the struggle anti drugs with the plan Mayan - Jaguar in Guatemala. (AP)
A Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) agent, right, participate in a training for Guatemalan anti drug agents. The United States supports the struggle anti drugs with the plan Mayan – Jaguar in Guatemala. (AP)

Most people use drugs for the first time when they are teenagers. In 2013, there were 2.8 million new drug users, or about 7,800 new users a day in the US, more than half of those being under the age of 18. The majority of new users are using Marijuana, with pain relievers and inhalants lagging behind at just under 20% of first experiences.

Drug use is at its highest between the ages of 18-22, with almost a quarter reporting to have used an illicit drug in the last month.

NIDA's figures on who uses drugs the most and when
NIDA’s figures on who uses drugs the most and when

Hooked on a feeling

The question of legalization is a complicated one. Americans are now spending more than $100 billion annually buying drugs. Regardless of the clashing opinions as to whether these substances themselves actually do any harm, the industry being illegal means that the profits go to the criminal organizations who take the risk to bring these drugs to American shores. Unfortunately, the vast majority of that money is flowing out overseas to the international gangs which run the complicated manufacturing and supply chains.

The case for legalization is multi-faceted, but ultimately hinges on government regulation as is the case for alcohol and tobacco. With federal government oversight the quality of the products could be ensure with standards in place as is the case with say cigarettes or liquor with a focus on “harm minimization”. Legalization advocates make the valid point that those who use drugs know the risk, and in a liberal society adults should have the freedom to use drugs if they choose to. There is also a tangible monetary incentive for all levels of government. Instead of losing that money to criminals, the money raised would be going back into the community with Uncle Sam receiving a cut through taxes.

Since recreational use was legalized in Colorado for example $36.5 million was taxed by local government in 2014, with $7 million allocated to the construction of new schools across the state.

A pedestrians walks past the Little Green Pharmacy medical cannabis dispensary in Denver, Colorado, on Tuesday, August 2, 2011. (Randall Benton/Sacramento Bee/MCT)
A pedestrians walks past the Little Green Pharmacy medical cannabis dispensary in Denver, Colorado, August 2, 2011. (Randall Benton/Sacramento Bee/MCT)

The rise of Mary Jane:

Marijuana has seen the biggest rise in usage over the last two decades. It is by far the most commonly used illicit drug, with 19.8 million Americans using it every year, most of whom use it at least once a month. Despite its reputation as a “soft” drug, it has the highest rate of dependency or abuse after Alcohol with an estimated 4.2 million Americans meeting the clinical criteria.

Opponents to legalization commonly attribute it as being the “gateway” to “harder” illicit substances such as cocaine and meth-amphetamines. Whether this has any truth is complicated, however NIDA proposes that early exposure to Marijuana makes the brain more susceptible to other drugs due to THC’s effect of dampening the reward centres of the brain.

Currently, weed remains as a “schedule 1 drug“, the US government’s designation for drugs that have no medical benefit and a high potential for abuse. At the forefront for the push to decriminalize weed is the widely held rejection of this classification by the weed community. It’s believed that marijuana’s damaging effects are vastly over stated and that the drug does in fact have medical applications. Research into the drugs applications in pain relief as well as in the treatment of seizures is well documented.

initiation-of-illicit-drug-use-2013
Courtesy NIDA

When the price is right

Where the furore around drugs gets interesting is when you consider the cost of illicit drugs against their legal cousins. The overall cost to the US economy from tobacco and alcohol, for instance, far outweigh the total cost for all illegal drugs. NIDA puts the costs for drug use at:

Health Care Overall
Tobacco $130 billion $295 billion
Alcohol $25 billion $224 billion
Illicit Drugs $11 billion $193 billion

Between alcohol and tobacco, there has actually been a marked decline in usage and abuse. On a positive note, under-age drinking is actually in decline, falling from 28.8% to 22.7% of youths since 2002. Instances of binge drinking have also dropped off from a rate of 19.3% to 14.2% of youths under 18.

Tobacco has also seen dramatic falls. On the whole, smoking has fallen from 26% of adults to just 21.3%. Teenage smoking has also dropped off from 13% to 5.6% of youths.

An infographic that captures the cost of the 40 year war on drugs courtesy of:http://visual.ly/40-years-war-drugs
An infographic that captures the cost of the 40 year war on drugs courtesy of:http://visual.ly/40-years-war-drugs

The War on Drugs:

By the end of 2015, the US government will have spent more than US$15 trillion on its anti-drug operations across the country and globe. America’s fight to prevent illegal drugs from entering domestic shores has been a long and costly. After it was formalized under President Reagan, America has spent hundreds of billions fighting drug cartels across the globe, though in spite of more than four decades work, there has been little effect to the overall quantity of these materials reaching the US.

DEA Agents working alongside Columbian Commandos to tackle drug producers
DEA Agents working alongside Columbian Commandos to tackle drug producers

The entrenched opposition to these illegal substances lies in the belief that the cost of the physical and mental health effects of legalization outweigh the cost of pursuing drug manufacturers, suppliers and smugglers, though at $15 trillion, the argument starts to fall apart.
America faces hard questions surrounding drug use as legalization spreads. There are no clear answers as to who is right or wrong, only the startling figures surrounding usage and the cost of prevention that have hamstrung the country for more than forty years.

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