Over the past two decades, the War on Drugs has become one of the most controversial federal programs. In its zeal to rid our country of potentially life-destroying substances, the drug war has dramatically increased our incarceration rates and contributed to the rise of powerful drug gangs, while largely failing to decrease drug abuse.Now it looks as if some states are trying a new approach, and while some will criticize these initiatives as too punitive, the new measures could launch a saner approach to one of our most difficult and persistent social problems. The New York Times reports:
Policy makers in three dozen states this year proposed drug testing for people receiving benefits like welfare, unemployment assistance, job training, food stamps and public housing. Such laws, which proponents say ensure that tax dollars are not being misused and critics say reinforce stereotypes about the poor, have passed in states including Arizona, Indiana and Missouri. […]Supporters of the policies note that public assistance is meant to be transitional and that drug tests are increasingly common requirements for getting jobs.“Working people today work very hard to make ends meet, and it just doesn’t seem fair to them that their tax dollars go to support illegal things,” said Ellen Brandom, a Republican state representative in Missouri.
These programs, while still controversial, point a way forward for the drug war. As I wrote in a previous post, rather than punishing drug addicts through the legal system, better to attack drug addiction through the demand side, by increasing the social stigma surrounding drug use:
Any change in drug policy is likely to disappoint the Stoner Lobby; the decriminalization of drugs is almost certain to lead to tougher non-criminal sanctions against their use. Marijuana may well get a pass, but other drugs will not. If criminal sanctions disappear, drug tests are likely to proliferate. You won’t be able to work in health care or any of the professions if you test positive for most drugs; likely you won’t be able to enroll in many colleges, receive government benefits (including financial aid) or teach.
Such a policy would help reduce the heavy-handedness of our current drug laws without opening the floodgates for all types of heavy drug use. The drug war goes too far when it ruins the lives of teenagers for youthful indiscretions and criminalizes decisions that individuals make for themselves. On the other hand, the social interest in limiting the use of drugs by vulnerable young people and in fighting the consequences of drug abuse suggests that Americans are not going to turn their backs on the fight against drugs. And why should non-drug using citizens subsidize the behavior of drug takers?Using drug screening as a prerequisite for access to special services is a workable compromise, not shielding drug takers from negative consequences but not putting prisons and the court system on the front lines of the drug war. These policies are not without risks; just because mom is on drugs doesn’t mean baby isn’t hungry or in need of shelter. These restrictions will be to be carefully written and intelligently applied to avoid harm to the innocent, and they need to be followed by reductions in criminal penalties for drug use and a shift in enforcement strategies.Change will be slow and halting, but the status quo doesn’t work. Even if the states don’t get everything right on the first try, trial and error is better than sit and stew.