RAND Study Finds Strategies in “War on Drugs” Need to Be Reassessed As Drug Use Patterns Change
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March 21, 2005
Anti-drug policies in the past two decades have not been a principal influence on illegal drug use and need to be more carefully tailored to address changing drug use trends, a RAND Corporation report issued today concludes.
“What works today in combating the use of a particular illegal drug may not be the best strategy to follow in a few years, and what works then may not be the best strategy a few years later,” said Martin Iguchi, director of the RAND Drug Policy Research Center and one of the study's authors. “Different responses are needed at the start of a drug epidemic, when the epidemic is mature, and when the use of the drug declines.”
The study reviewed evidence for and against the effectiveness, costs and consequences of U.S. drug policies of the past 20 years. It concludes that at different times in the course of a drug epidemic, enforcement, treatment and prevention can all be successfully used to reduce illicit drug use and the crime and violence with which it is associated.
However, the strategies are not equally effective in all stages of a drug use epidemic. For example, law enforcement is most effective in the early stages of a drug epidemic, when relatively fewer suppliers are available and suppressing the supply is easier. In contrast, treatment is more effective in the later stages of a drug use epidemic, when a much larger percentage of ongoing users are drug dependent.
The study suggests that for drugs with mature epidemics such as cocaine, the current allocation of resources for controlling the drug should be redistributed among law enforcement, treatment and prevention to maximize their effectiveness. Most cocaine-control spending is focused on enforcement, but the report suggests that spending more to treat heavy drug users would be more effective.
The report offers an objective, nonpartisan analysis of U.S. drug policies and calls for a more careful balancing of policy options to improve their effectiveness at different stages of drug epidemics.
“Drug problems can be addressed and minimized if all the evidence is thoroughly and objectively analyzed, as we've tried to do,” Iguchi said. “Evidence is typically lost in the drug debate because advocates of different strategies focus on only the facts that support their position and ignore contradictory information.” “Our goal was to offer a concise, accessible and objective view of the past, present and likely future of America's long war on drugs,” said Jonathan Caulkins, lead author of the RAND study. “This shows us there are measures that can be taken to increase the likelihood of success in the future.”
The study, titled "How Goes the 'War on Drugs'?: An Assessment of U.S. Drug Problems and Policy" was funded by core funds provided by the Ford Foundation and by philanthropic contributions from other donors.
The report makes the following recommendations:
- Focus long-term drug problem management on limiting the number of drug users, the frequency and duration of their drug use, and the damage drug users do to themselves and others. Collateral damage resulting from policy choices should also be considered.
- Apply a rigorous analysis of the costs and benefits of law enforcement, treatment and prevention interventions to establish a balance better designed to achieve reductions in the consequences of illicit drug use.
- Correct the current allocation of resources for controlling illegal drug use among law enforcement, treatment and prevention to maximize their effectiveness. Most anti-drug spending is focused on enforcement, but some studies suggest that spending more to treat heavy drug users would be more effective.
- Time the mix of approaches to coincide with the drug epidemic cycle. For example, there aren't many dealers and dependent users in the early stages of an epidemic for a particular drug, so enforcement may be the most effective policy. But when use of a drug becomes more widespread, the market may be too large for enforcement to disrupt, giving treatment programs a much bigger impact. Prevention efforts against drugs growing in popularity should always be under way.
For 15 years, the RAND Drug Policy Research Center has conducted research to help community leaders and public officials develop more effective ways of dealing with drug problems. In doing so, the DPRC brings an objective, pragmatic perspective to this often emotional and fractious policy arena. The center's goal is to provide a firm, empirical foundation on which sound policies can be built.
Printed copies of “How Goes the ‘War on Drugs’?: An Assessment of U.S. Drug Problems and Policy,” (ISBN: 0-8330-3737-4) can be ordered from RAND's Distribution Services (firstname.lastname@example.org or call toll-free in the United States 1-877-584-8642).
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