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policies, which largely reflect the drug-warrior approach, aim above
all at reducing drug use. The favored tools are stricter controls,
increased enforcement, harsher punishments and school-based and
mass-media efforts to stigmatize the use of illicit drugs. Treatment
is very much an afterthought.
least three-quarters of the roughly $40 billion now spent by governments
at all levels on the control of illicit drug abuse now goes into
enforcement; the size of that effort and the number of persons incarcerated
for drug-law violations have grown approximately tenfold during
the past 20 years. Yet hard-drug prices, the clearest measure of
enforcement effectiveness, are currently near their all-time lows.
contrast, critics of current policies focus not on use reduction
but "harm reduction" -- that is, making the consumption of illicit
drugs less harmful to those who consume them and to non-users. The
most widely debated, though not even nearly the most important,
example is needle exchange, which aims to reduce the transmission
of HIV and other pathogens from needle-sharing among drug injectors.
Some advocates of harm reduction also assert that the legalization
of drug use and distribution would decrease addicts' need to steal
to finance their habits and the violence associated with the drug
all this ignores is that the total damage associated with drug use
depends not only on its harmfulness but also on its extent. Legal
drugs would indeed do less harm to each user, but there would be
many more users. Harm-reduction measures short of legalization also
need to be scrutinized for their risks of increasing the extent
of drug use, much greater in some cases than in others. (Needle
exchange, for example, is low-risk, but also in most circumstances
goal of drug policy ought to be to minimize the aggregate damage
created by drug-taking, drug trafficking and the enforcement effort.
That is, we ought to judge drug-control efforts as we judge other
public policies: by their results in producing benefits or avoiding
harms to individuals or institutions.