Global Commission on Drug Policy: Legalization, decriminalization, and the war on drugs

A commission made up of some big names, though not really any names of addiction or drug researchers I noticed, just released a report that’s making a lot of noise throughout every news channel including NPR (see here, and here for stories) and others (see CNN). They want the debate about the current state of drug regulation expanded, and since I’ve written on the issue before, I figured it’s time for another stab at this. Continue reading “Global Commission on Drug Policy: Legalization, decriminalization, and the war on drugs”

Two Million Dollars a piece – The cost of drug use and violence

The average cost to society of a lifelong criminal = About $2 million

I’ll get into more of this in later posts (I already talked about the cost of addiction prevention versus treatment versus enforcement), but if that cost of drug use and violence doesn’t cry out for a better application of money to prevention and addiction treatment, I don’t know what does.

At that cost, even if a treatment method costs $10k per client, it only needs to work for 1 out of 200 people to break even, and benefit society while doing so. In reality, our success rates are much higher than .5% (1/200) and closer to 15%-25%. When you take into account the fact that average cost of a month in addiction treatment (residential, outpatient treatment is much cheaper) is indeed about $7000-$10,000, it seems silly not to avoid the cost of crime by greatly reducing drug use, and hence criminal behavior.

NIDA, the government’s top agency for drug and alcohol abuse research recommends three months of treatment, but even then, success rates as low as 2% would leave us with a profit by providing treatment. Screw it, even a whole year of treatment would save us money if it succeeded but I can tell you that funding for that kind of addiction treatment length is almost non-existent, especially when compared to the actual need.

So with success rates about 20 to 30 times higher than our break-even point, we would literally benefit, and I’m talking financially, from helping people with treatment as expensive as $100,000 or more (as long as it worked). One of the things I’ve learned in all my work has been that while some individuals are actually interested in helping people, yes, even if they’ve been dirty drug addicts who have commited crimes, almost everyone cares about money. So forget for a second about all the social justice arguments to be made for helping addicts and think about the cost savings to our society… It makes sense.

True, true, not all drug users who would enter treatment would become lifelong offender, but if you’re still keeping tabs, even if only 1/20 or so do, we’re more than breaking even here. In fact, with our prison populations exploding as more and more drug users enter the system, I bet we’re in for some real savings.


Dodge, K. A. (2008) Framing public policy and prevention of chronic violence in American youths. America Psychologist, 63, 573-590.

California prisoner release – Is Sheriff Baca’s fear justified?

The notion of releasing some 40,000 California prisoners to relieve overcrowding is milling around Sacramento and now, the Supreme Court. Okay, it’s more than a notion, it’s a law, but it’s being held up for the moment, so let’s see what happens.

The prisoners being discussed would be the lowest risk inmates, and as you know from reading some past articles on here, I’m in full support of treatment instead of incarceration. But guess what?! The CA officers’ union, and many other public-safety agency’s are opposed.

Less than an hour ago, I heard LA Sheriff Lee Baca talk about not wanting “these [drug users and thieves] out on the street unsupervised under any circumstances.” The question is, is Mr. Baca’s viewpoint justified?

The law, drugs, and incarceration

Now I understand the notion that when people break the law, especially by hurting others, they need to be reprimanded. It’s how we keep people in line (to some extent) an how we keep the dangerous ones away from the rest of society. But it’s Baca’s general problem with low-risk drug users and thieves that has me worried.

First of all, more than 50% of the U.S. population has experimented with drugs (when marijuana is included). This would, technically, qualify a whole lot of Americans as “drug-users.” In fact, both this President and our last one were drug users at some point in their lives, and I’m pretty sure that a cursory examination of any law enforcement force would reveal quite a few ex-drug users. Still, less than 10% of Americans develop real drug-use problems, and that’s more likely the population Baca was referring to.

Given the fact that approximately 20% of our prison population is incarcerated for drug-related offenses alone, I think it’s time Mr. Baca reevaluated his thinking. These people did nothing wrong except for use drugs, which are illegal, therefore landing them in jail. Their danger to society is, at most, their reduced productivity.

Add to that the 10%-20% who are in jail for drug-addiction-related property-crime, and you start seeing the reason behind our prison population explosion. When it comes to this category of criminal, I see Mr. Baca’s point, to some extent – These prisoners did hurt someone, by stealing their stuff. Still, I believe that if our goal is to stop their stealing, not imprison our citizens, than drug-addiction treatment, not incarceration, is the way to go.

How do we fix the drug-use prison problem?

One of the arguments against the imminent release I heard today was the economic downturn and the fact that “even doctors can’t get a job right now, so these criminals will just go back to what they know best, committing crime.” Well guess what again?! I have a solution!!!

Let’s release the prisoners, but then increase the capacity in drug treatment facilities and other transition settings. This will create jobs, even for those lowly unemployed M.D.s, and will get a good portion of the released inmates the kind of supervision they really need, the kind that could actually turn their lives around.

Social services, job training, and education are all in dire need of funding, and they could actually make our state better by reducing crime through means aside from incarceration. This reduction in crime will save us money by allowing the legal system to focus on dangerous criminals, the ones that inflict violent crime, though I have a feeling that some of those will be helped in the process.

Just an idea, but I think it’s a good one. I’d love to hear your take on this…