Yesterday Senator Jim Webb–who seems to be on many people’s shortlistas a possible running mate for Senator Barack Obama–chaired the Joint Economic Committee’s hearing on “Illegal Drugs: Economic Impact, Societal Costs, Policy Reponses”. It was the second hearing on drug policy that Senator Webb has convened, the first focused on the steep increase in the US prison population.

In his two years in Congress, Senator Webb has established himself as a leader in fighting for economic populism, an end to the War in Iraq and a new GI Bill. Yesterday we saw that his interest in revamping our approach to drug policy is strong as well.

In his opening statement Senator Webb noted that we have 5 percent ofthe world’s population and 20 percent of the world’s prison population–“either we have the most evil people in the world or we are doing something wrong with the way we handle our criminal justice system, and I choose the latter. The central role of drug policy in filling our nation’s prisons makes clear that our approach to curbing illegal drug use is broken.”

Senator Webb said the illegal drug problem is one of “demand-pull–therest of the world looks at drug use in this country and provides asupply to meet the demand that’s here.” The demand is so great that”global exports of wine and beer are equivalent to only one-quarter ofillegal drug flows,” and US, Canada and Mexico account for 44 percent of those illegal drug sales. (Webb said the latter is a “conservativeestimate” from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime.)

“While [the US is] spending enormous amounts of money to intercept drug shipments at the border and inside the country,” the Senator said, “supplies remain consistent.” According to a UN report, Colombian farmers planted 245,000 acres of coca last year, 27 percent more than in 2006. And coca cultivation in the three largest producers–Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia–increased by 16 percent to 447,743 acres. The Washington Post writes, “The findings follow almost eight years of heavy aerial fumigation of drug crops in Colombia, an American-designed strategy that has cost more than $5 billion.”

In addition to the drug supply remaining constant, the incarcerationepidemic has failed to curb illegal drug use while also “devastating our minority communities.” Senator Webb said, “the number of persons in custody on drug charges increased thirteen times in the past 25 years…[And] when it comes to incarceration for drug offenses, the racial disparities are truly alarming. Although African Americans constitute 14 percent of regular drug users, they are 37 percent of those arrested for drug offenses, and 56 percent of persons in state prisons for drug crimes…Our current combination of enforcement, diversion, interdiction, treatment and prevention is not working the way we need it to…There has been little effort to take a comprehensive look at the relationship between the many interlocking pieces of drug policy.”

First Assistant District Attorney Anne Swern–a prosecutor at the KingCounty (Brooklyn) District Attorney’s Office–spoke of two innovativeprosecutor-run programs that “seek to reduce drug abuse, improve public safety, and save money.” The Drug Treatment Alternative-to-Prison (DTAP) program diverts addicted offenders into long-term community-based substance abuse treatment in lieu of incarceration. The Community and Law Enforcement Resources Together (ComALERT) focuses on recidivism reduction through re-entry programs for former inmates returning to Brooklyn communities. A five-year study on DTAP by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University revealed that DTAP graduates had rearrest rates that were 33 percent lower, reconviction rates 45 percent lower and were 87 percent less likely to return to prison two years after completing the program than the control group two years after leaving prison. And the cost comparison? $32,975 on average for the DTAP participant, and $64,338 if that same person had been sent to prison. Swern noted that New York taxpayers currently pay over $2.5 billion annually to maintain prison operations. “While community-based treatment and other wraparound social services carry a price tag their cost is much less than that of incarceration in prison, especially when one considers the effectiveness of diversion and re-entry programs at reducing recidivism,” she said. “These programs deserve to be replicated in jurisdictions around the country, and Congress should ensure that adequate funding is appropriated for that goal.”

John Walsh, Senior Associate for the Andes and Drug Policy at theWashington Office on Latin America, stressed the folly of eradicating coca bushes. “Without other alternatives in place to earn a living,” he said, “farmers [will] replant coca sooner or later.” He said there is a “balloon effect…increased pressure on the drug trade at a given time and location tends to displace activities elsewhere, much as squeezing a balloon in one place forces it to expand in others.” Walsh also suggested that the US drug policy emphasis on cracking down on the supply is futile as long as the demand for illicit drugs continues to grow. “There is a strong case for much more ambitious efforts to reduce the size of the illicit market through proven demand side programs such as treatment,” he said.

Dr. Peter Reuter, Professor in the School of Public Policy and theDepartment of Criminology at the University of Maryland, questioned the very foundation by which successive administrations have determined drug policy choices. “Congress has not pressed any Administration to justify its policy choices in a systematic fashion but has been content to accept the standard rhetoric and argue about details. One sign of this neglect… is the absence of Congressional reaction to the failure of the Office of National Drug Control Policy to continue to estimate the scale of the nation’s drug problem.”

With this hearing, Senator Webb continues to lead a much overdueCongressional reaction to the US’s failing drug policy. Indeed twocolleagues on the committee, Senator Amy Klobuchar and RepresentativeMaurice Hinchey praised Senator Webb for his “courage.” And don’texpect the Senator to back off any time soon. His press secretary,Kimberly Hunter, e-mailed me following the hearing, “Senator Webb hasbeen interested in the US incarceration rate and drug policies since he was a journalist studying the Japanese prison system in 1984…. [This] issue is far from popular but needs to be debated in the public view. With every hearing, his efforts help to raise the awareness of the American people and draw attention to a problem that is easier to ignore then address head-on.”