We Have Lost the War on Drugs

So says Vermont’s Governor, Peter Shumlin. And it’s impossible to argue with his conclusion. Last week Shumlin dedicated all 34 minutes of his annual State of the State speech to what he described as Vermont’s “full blown heroin crisis”. Here’s a nine minute long PBS NewsHour segment on Shumlin’s speech. “In every corner of our state,” Shumlin said, “heroin and opiate drug addiction threatens us.” Most of what follows are excerpts from the New York Times coverage of Shumlin’s speech.

Sumlin wants to reframe the public debate to encourage officials to respond to addiction as “a chronic disease, with treatment and support, rather than with only punishment and incarceration.” “The time has come for us to stop quietly averting our eyes from the growing heroin addiction in our front yards,” Governor Shumlin said, “while we fear and fight treatment facilities in our backyards.”

Last year, he said, nearly twice as many Vermonters died from heroin overdoses as the year before. While it may be acute in Vermont, it is not isolated. In the past few years, officials have reported a surge in the use of heroin in New England, with a sharp rise in overdoses and deaths, as well as robberies and other crimes common among addicts. Those same statistics are being replicated across the country. Lawmakers in virtually every state are introducing legislation in response to what is rapidly being perceived as a public health crisis.

“The Centers for Disease Control and most national experts agree there’s an epidemic of drug overdose deaths in America,” Dr. Harry L. Chen, Vermont’s health commissioner, said in an interview. He said the rate of overdose deaths across the country had tripled since 1990.

“Nationwide, more people die of drug overdoses than from motor vehicle crashes,” he said. And nearly 80 percent of inmates in the state are jailed on drug-related charges. The governor made a plea for more money for treatment programs, noting that incarcerating a person for a week costs the state $1,120, while a week of treatment at a state-financed center costs $123.

Mr. Shumlin also wants to encourage discussions on ways to prevent addiction in the first place. He is providing a grant for a team that made a documentary film on heroin addiction titled, “The Hungry Heart”, to visit every high school in the state.

I learned of Shumlin’s bold speech shortly after reading an essay titled, “A Mission Gone Wrong” by Mattathias Schwartz in the January 6, 2014 New Yorker. I highly recommended Schwartz’s piece. He thoughtfully weaves several decades of US drug policy throughout the story of a recent joint US-Honduran drug mission gone horribly wrong. Long story short, it is impossible to limit the global supply of drugs. The only way to minimize their impact is to somehow reduce demand.

Upon finishing Schwartz’s engaging and depressing history lesson, I concluded that our national drug policy isn’t just the least effective of all our government’s domestic and foreign policies, but it has been the least effective for decades. I like to give our government the benefit of the doubt, meaning I assume most government workers are rational; we learn from our mistakes; and consequently, our policies gradually improve over time. None of those assumptions hold when it comes to the War on Drugs. Our policies are irrational and unchanging. As a result, the negative outcomes are totally predictable.