The anti-Trump resistance has a new hero. Chuck Rosenberg, acting head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, announced his resignation on September 26, citing concerns that President Donald Trump was not interested in the rule of law. Rosenberg had previously made headlines when he sent an e-mail to some 10,000 DEA staff members countering the statements of President Trump that law enforcement officers shouldn’t be afraid to rough up “thugs.” Rosenberg has been a staunch supporter of rationalizing the DEA and trying to work more closely with communities to find more effective ways of enforcing the drug laws.
Under the Obama administration, the DEA signaled some potential reforms to the agency. They requested scientific studies about the potential benefits of marijuana, and conceded to public pressure to reverse their decision to put kratom on the list of most prohibited drugs without public input.
But none of this changes the fact that the DEA oversees a multibillion-dollar enterprise whose primary purpose is to criminalize millions of people for the use of drugs. Nearly half of those incarcerated in federal prison are there for drug violations, including 60 percent of all female inmates. The DEA has kept marijuana on the list of Schedule 1 drugs in the face of widespread evidence of its benign nature. Racial disparities in the policing of the drug war remain profound.
The Washington Post reported this week that the pharmaceutical industry holds immense sway over the DEA. Since 2000, the drug industry has hired at least 56 former DEA and Department of Justice officials. Others have gone on to work for them indirectly as lobbyists and lawyers. When Congress gutted regulations that allowed the DEA to restrict the distribution of opioid pills tied to hundreds of thousands of overdose deaths, this was done in cooperation with Rosenberg and his team.
There is also a culture of corruption within the DEA. Officers are regularly arrested for taking bribes from drug dealers, stealing drugs and reselling them, and having sex parties with prostitutes hired by drug cartels. Instead of mourning the loss of an enlightened head of the DEA, it’s time to join the Drug Policy Alliance and call for its abolition. In my new book The End of Policing, I lay out the following alternatives for addressing the public-health issues raised by drugs without relying on police.
The use of police to wage a war on drugs has been a nightmare. Not only have the police failed to reduce drug use and the harm it produces, they have actually worsened those harms and destroyed the lives of millions of Americans through pointless criminalization. Ultimately, we must create robust public-health programs and economic-development strategies to reduce demand and help people manage their drug problems in ways that reduce harm—while keeping in mind that most drug users are not addicts. We also need to look at the economic dynamics that drive the black market and the economic and social misery that drive the most harmful patterns of drug use. Harm-reduction, public-health, and legalization strategies combined with robust economic development of poor communities could dramatically reduce the negative impact of drugs on society without relying on police, courts, and prisons.
One of the best-known harm-reduction strategies is needle exchanges. These programs allow IV drug users to bring in used needles and exchange them for clean ones. This has proven to be an incredibly successful strategy in reducing the transmission of disease. When needles are scarce, people share them, which increases the risk of transmission of HIV, hepatitis C, and other serious infections. Arguments that needle exchanges enable users are not based in facts. People with heroin addictions are not going to quit overnight because they can’t get needles, nor is the availability of needles going to encourage a non-user to start using drugs. These are spurious arguments driven by a moral absolutism that is divorced from reality.
Another harm-reduction strategy is supervised injection. Supervised injection facilities give addicts a place to inject drugs where medical personnel can administer lifesaving treatments such as Naloxone quickly if needed. These facilities can also help people access treatment for existing medical conditions as well as addiction, and reduce the presence of discarded needles in public places. Such centers exist in several European countries and Canada, and are being explored in several parts of the United States.
Drug treatment on demand is another strategy. Right now, most drug users face long waits for medically supervised inpatient drug treatment. They are expected to deal with their addictions alone for weeks, months, or years after requesting help. Too often users are no longer interested in treatment when it becomes available, or die in the meantime. Making treatment available when people are ready for it would reduce the burden of addiction on families and communities.
Finally, we should look to public-education and public-health messaging. Unfortunately, the bulk of public-education efforts occur within a punitive and moralizing framework. The most popular program, DARE, is run by police and has never been shown to have any positive effect in youth drug-use rates. Newer programs are often for profit and rely heavily on drug-testing regimes in which they or others have a financial stake. Public-health messaging must acknowledge the obvious and pervasive appeal that drugs have for young people and explain the real risks. Telling kids to “just say no” doesn’t work. Many will try and even regularly use drugs; we should make that use as safe and temporary as possible. Driving them into the shadows encourages riskier behavior, isolates them from help, and entangles them in a criminal-justice system that will only terrorize, stigmatize, and demonize them.
Legalization and regulation can take several forms; the benefits include eliminating dangerous black markets, providing purer and safer drugs to those who use them, and collecting taxes that can be used to strengthen communities and individuals to reduce the demand for drugs and black-market employment.
The United States has begun experimenting with the legalization of marijuana and, so far, the results look promising. Colorado has implemented its system without incurring a breakdown in civilization. Crime has not taken hold and usage rates seem largely unchanged. Across the country, two-thirds of police officers approve of some form of marijuana legalization. Even minor upticks in crime or usage would be a small price for ending prohibition. Most likely, they would reflect a sorting-out period rather than a long-term trajectory. It’s also worth noting that the benefits of marijuana legalization may in fact be much less than those of legalizing other drugs, since marijuana usage poses so few health hazards.
There are many potential methods for legalization. One is to follow the example of Colorado, in which possession for personal use and even low-level sharing are legal and sales are regulated and taxed. This could be done for all drugs, with controls on purity and restrictions on sales to minors. A less regulated form or legalization might be one in which people can buy drugs on an open and unregulated market or go to a doctor and request a prescription for maintenance doses, which would be especially important for opioid users. Any system, however, would have to accommodate recreational use that comes with medical risks. Yes, people would be able to go and buy cocaine or ecstasy on a Friday night before going to a party or a club. And yes, some of them may suffer negative consequences for that, just as they currently do from consuming alcohol and tobacco. The reality is that the system we have in place now does nothing to mitigate these harms.
People will be concerned about public intoxication, disorderly behavior, and driving under the influence of drugs. Those are real concerns, and police have tools to sanction such behavior. But, as clinical psychiatrist Michael Reznicek points out in his book Blowing Smoke, legalization opens the door to the possibility of reasserting informal social controls on problem behavior. By bringing drug use out of the shadows, families, friends, and others will be in a stronger position to set limits on the behavior of users. Social norms are always more powerful and effective than formal, punitive ones. Look at the alcohol-abuse rates and problem behavior in places like Italy and France. Public drinking there is widespread and almost completely unregulated, even for minors, but public intoxication and alcoholism are much less of a problem than in the United States.
Many people involved in the drug industry don’t really have a drug problem; they have a job problem. Many others have drug problems that directly stem from the economic conditions in which they live. There is no way to reduce the widespread use of drugs without dealing with profound economic inequality and a growing sense of hopelessness.
African-American and Latino neighborhoods have suffered devastating declines in employment levels and overall economic well-being. Private-sector employment has largely dried up and what remains is low-paying and contingent, offering little chance for advancement. At the same time, austerity has undermined the public-sector employment and social programs that constitute the few remaining avenues for stability in these communities. Buying power for the jobs that remain is declining as employee contracts fail to keep pace with inflation.
Rural white areas are also under considerable stress. Here, too, living standards are headed straight down as manufacturing jobs are mechanized or move overseas and wages and social programs stagnate or decline. For too long, the only economic assistance many in these areas could hope for was the opening of a new prison. Even when private-sector employment becomes available, low, nonunion wages are typical and often combined with dangerous and demeaning working conditions. These conditions have fueled the rise of methamphetamine use and dealing. Researchers like William Garriott have shown that use and dealing are concentrated among the under- and unemployed and those working in dirty, dangerous, and repetitious jobs with low pay and poor working conditions. Strict enforcement, forced treatment, and police-driven public-education campaigns have been a total failure, because people’s underlying economic circumstances remain unaddressed. Until we do something about entrenched rural poverty, this trend will continue. Unemployment and bleak prospects drive people into black markets, which become the employers of last resort.
We need to invest in developing the human capital of people in these areas and find meaningful employment in developing infrastructure and improving the environment. We also need to take a tough look at how multinational agribusinesses have transformed the rural landscape in ways that degrade the quality of the food we eat, the livelihoods of rural people, and the natural environment.
Groups like Black Youth Project 100 in Chicago are working to develop economic strategies to improve the economic well-being of poor communities of color, so that they are not dependent on black markets. They demand increased public-sector hiring, a livable minimum wage, and real social supports, especially for children and families. The issue of reparations must also figure into this conversation. As the author Ta-Nehisi Coates points out, the history of American wealth generation is a history of the exploitation of black people—from slavery to the present. That past cannot be ignored in any effort to come to terms with inequality. Some of the resources for overcoming that legacy could come from the billions we now spend on fighting the drug war and the taxes we could collect from legalized drugs.