Tuesday, September 16, 2008

New US cannabis stats undermine drug czar's claims of enforcement success

“When we push back against the drug problem, it gets smaller” John Walters, White House Drug Czar has claimed. Unfortunately for Walter's the latest cannabis stats from the US don't support his rather sweeping drug war hypothesis.

A couple of weeks back federal officials released the 2007 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, conveniently perhaps on the same day as the climax of the republican convention and as a hurricane was battering the hell out of the Deep South, and media attention was elsewhere. The report, for those who did chance upon it, undermines Walters’ claims of success in reducing cannabis use during his tenure, which he likes attribute to his aggressive policies.

The total number of Americans (aged 12 and up) who have used illicit drugs is up from 108 million in 2002, the first full year of Walters’ tenure, to 114 million in 2007. And the number of Americans who’ve used cannabis has passed the 100 million mark for the first time — up from 95 million in 2002.

Its a confusing picture in some ways. In 2002, 46.0 percent of Americans had used an illicit drug at some point in their lives. In 2007 it was 46.1 percent. For cannabis, the rate went from 40.4 percent to 40.6 percent. Whilst only a marginal increase and probably within the limits of sampling error, it certainly does not signal the much heralded fall. Of course it depends on how you measure prevalence and only fair to point out that “current” (past 30 days) use of illicit drugs is down marginally since 2002 – from 8.3 percent to 8.0 percent for all illicit drugs, and the trend for cannabis is similar (although it also depends on the demographic breakdown, with a trend towards falling use for 12 to 17 year olds, more than matched by a perhaps suprising rise in over 50's) . However, on another, arguably even more significant measure, and despite all of Walters’ huffing and puffing, the number of Americans using cannabis for the first time has not budged during his tenure.

So how much harder have they pushed to achieve this apparent non-success on prevalence rates? This week the FBI published its annual report on Crime in the United States 2007. This reveals that,s once again, the number of people in the United States arrested for cannabis has gone up. A staggering 872,721 Americans were arrested for cannabis in 2007, and of those arrests, 89% or 775,138 were arrests for simple possession - not buying, selling, trafficking, or manufacture (growing).

This represents an increase in cannabis arrests of 5.2% from the previous year and the fifth straight year cannabis arrests have increased from the previous year. Now a cannabis user is arrested at the rate of 1 every 37 seconds and almost 100 cannabis arrests per hour. That is some fairly serious pushing one would think - yet the stats suggest the enforcement effort (and the huge financial and human costs it incurs) is, at best, largely irrelevant, or at worst, actively counterproductive.

The ONDCP officials regularly argue that maintaining criminal penalties for cannabis possession is essential to stopping drug abuse. So what’s happened with a dangerous drug whose possession is legal: cigarettes? The 2007 National Survey conveniently provides figures for past-month cigarette use, and both the number of users and the rate of cigarette use is down markedly. In 2002, 26 percent of Americans were current cigarette smokers; now it’s 24.2 percent, continuing a decades-long decline. And the decline in current cigarette smoking for 12-to-17-year-olds is even more dramatic, from 13 percent to 9.8 percent.

That, of course, is with zero arrests for cigarette possession, compared with, what was it again, 775,138 marijuana possession arrests in 2007.

Maybe, as Transform argued in its recent submission to the DoH consultation on tobacco control, we should be learning the lessons from tobacco successes (effective legal regulation and public health education), rather than cannabis failures (mass criminalisation and unregulated illegal markets). As the UK prepares to 'push back' harder on cannabis possession with the imminent re-reclassification of cannabis and attendant increase in possession penalties from 2 to 5 years (following 7 years of steady decline in use when they actually pushed back a bit less) do not expect any comment on the US stats from the Home Office.

Thanks to NORML and MPP blogs


Bruce Mirken said...

As America's White House drug czar John Walters was recently in London and elsewhere lecturing Europeans about the U.S.'s allegedly superior drug policies, I sent the letter below to the Telegraph a few days ago. Thus far it has not been published, but I haven't abandoned hope yet:

Dear editor,

As am American, I was amused to read that our "drug czar," John Walters, has been lecturing Europeans about drug policy ("Models and actors are glamorising cocaine use, says George W. Bush's drugs tsar," 9/11). Readers should understand that this man is not taken seriously in his own country.

Walters has obsessively crusaded against marijuana and yet, as revealed this month by the U.S. government's own National Survey on Drug Use and Health, the number of Americans who have used marijuana has risen during his tenure, breaking the 100 million mark for the first time last year. His much-touted anti-marijuana television ads have been found ineffective in independent evaluations, while prevention efforts under his supervision were labeled either "ineffective" or "results not demonstrated" in a review by the White House's own Office of Management and Budget.

The best thing one can say about John Walters is that he is expected to leave office when President Bush departs in January. That day can't come too soon.

Bruce Mirken, Director of Communications
Marijuana Policy Project
P.O. Box 77492, Capitol Hil, Washington, D.C. 20013, U.S.A.
http://www.mpp.org, Bruce.Mirken@MPP.ORG

Steve Rolles said...

Thanks Bruce. The idea of a 'drugs czar' was just one of a series of ill fated drug war ideas we have unfortunately seen fit to import from the spiritual home of prohibition. It didn't work here either.

Garfield. said...

If the war on drugs were to end, and be replaced by a model of educated tolerance.....( But then, there are lateral issues.)
What then would become of the tens of thousands of prisoners now incarcerated? The jobs of thousands of prison officers, the police officers, the judges and barristers, the customs officers, the Royal navy patrols...all depend on continuing prohibition.
What too, of the enormous profits made by the monopoly manufacturers of "legal drugs", whose products might be usurped by imports/home grown alternatives?

Stephen said...

In response to Garfield

- the tens of thousands of prisoners currently incarcerated could be released, severely reducing the problems of our overcrowded prison system and eliminating the need to build yet more prisons

- All those working in the war on drugs on the side of law enforcement can have their efforts directed elsewhere to dealing with crimes that actually have victims - like people trafficking, terrorism, and gun crime. They'd find doing all this alot easier as these areas of crime would no longer be funded by the sale of illegal drugs. They would also face much less chance of being corrupted by the staggering profits of the illegal drugs market.

- As to the enormous profits of legal drugs manufacturers, by which I assume you mean alcohol and tobacco companies, they may drop slightly, or they may not. I'm not aware of any research to support either perspective. But suggesting that we should carry on with a system of brutally and human rights abuse to protect tobacco growers is frankly ridiculous. You might as well argue that we should keep fighting the war on drugs because it creates jobs in organised crime.