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Feeding the Media Frenzy

By and | November 24, 2009

How drug policy made in response to crisis misses the mark

In 2008, 50,000 kilograms of cocaine and 660,000 kilograms of marijuana were seized within the United States. According to Drug Enforcement Administration statistics, that same year also saw 26,425 domestic drug arrests. These staggering numbers might seem to suggest that the United States is aggressively combating its drug problem. According to the Bureau of Justice, however, nearly 114 million Americans have “reported illicit drug use at least once in their lifetime,” approximately one third of the population. All these arrests and drug seizures, then, seem more a measure of the scope of drug use than of the law’s effectiveness. The federal government typically emphasizes enforcement, curtailment of drug smuggling, and stricter sentences rather than treatment or education programs, leading to overcrowding prisons and rapidly increasing costs. At its core, this is due to the distortion of federal drug policy by political responsiveness to media coverage, which is decoupled from careful consideration of the long-term effectiveness of drug policy.

Media and Punishment

As Graham Boyd, Director of the ACLU Drug Law Reform Project, explained to the HPR, federal policy has generally been to create stringent laws against drug use and emphasize “public drug issues.” In Boyd’s words, “Over the last 25 years, there has been a very significant increase in federal sentences for drug crimes, pretty much across the board. Quite often, those laws are passed by Congress in the wake of public outcry over some high profile media-driven drugs.”

These policies often lay down wildly different punishments for certain high-profile drugs. Boyd believes that especially severe penalties, such as those for crack cocaine and methamphetamine, are usually caused by media exposure. The media focuses on drug abuse and drug trafficking crises, and politicians and law enforcement officials gain more recognition through a tough crime bill, or a large drug bust, than through nuanced, carefully justified penalties for offenders. Sentencing increases are thus often the subject of quick, unconsidered congressional debate.

Crisis-Response Mode

Yet for a media frenzy to arise, and thus motivate more draconian drug policy, there must first be a crisis. According to Mark Kleiman, professor at UCLA, strict drug laws are ultimately attributable to “the crime epidemic and crack explosion … starting in 1962”. As Kleiman noted to the HPR, the United States has a homicide rate five times that of other developed countries; stricter drug laws thus came in response to a genuine crisis, not a figment of the media’s imagination. Nonetheless, Kleiman continued, the hysteria those conditions induced in Washington was “not a very smart response to the problem we actually had.” “No one ever asks how much doubling the drug sentence will cost,” he remarked, and so sentences increase with no end in sight.

Reforming How We Reform

Despite these criticisms, supporters of federal drug policy emphasize that it contributes positively to social welfare. As Calvina Fay, Executive Director of the Drug Free America Foundation, told the HPR, “Our drug laws come about due to things that are causing problems in society, and are used to provide relief.” Yet Fay acknowledged that prosecution ought to depend on the circumstances of drug usage, “There are people that are using that are not yet addicted. There is a distinction between addicts and users.” Drug punishment should serve as a deterrent to drug use but should not, Fay insisted, be structured to harshly punish addicts. In short, she said, “To effectively deal with the drug issue we need prevention, education, law interdiction, and treatment.”

Federal drug policy, however, is far more focused on law interdiction than on Fay’s other three tenets. The national mood on drugs, driven by the media, has been particularly hostile to efforts focused on treatment. The effective separation of drug policy from the media cycle thus has the potential to beneficially impact policy as much as new ideas reformers will bring to the issue. Accordingly, rather than responding to public outcry by ratcheting up penalties, politicians ought to work in moments of calm, not fear, to pass sensible and nuanced legislation.

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