The Drug War:

A Losing Battle?

by Kevin Cool ( for From the Hill )


LEFT- Judge Torruella

Sweeping changes are needed in government anti-drug policies, beginning with pilot programs to test the effectiveness of decriminalization of some drugs, an influential federal court judge told a Colby audience last spring. Juan Torruella, chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First

Circuit, said that the "war on drugs" waged since the early 1970s has been expensive and largely ineffective and may have contributed to a growing criminal subculture sustained by extraordinary profits. "The more you restrict supply [of a product] the higher the price goes," Torruella said. Attracted by profit margins of 20,000 percent, drug dealers are engaged in "the best business in America," he said. Torruella emphasized that his ideas about changes in drug policies do not amount to an endorsement of decriminalization but present other options for debate. "Nothing I say should be interpreted as my promoting the use of drugs because nothing could be further from my own personal position," he said. "But we must ask ourselves which imposes greater cost on our society--permitting drugs or prohibiting them." Federal spending on anti-drug programs--including education, rehabilitation and enforcement--has increased from $100 million in 1973 to $12 billion in 1993, the latest year for which figures are available, Torruella said. While attempts to curb the supply of drugs have done little to reduce their use, educational programs aimed at reducing the demand have had reasonably good success. "When it comes to reducing drug use, the government gets more bang for the buck from education than enforcement," he said. Torruella noted that alcohol and tobacco use produce much greater problems for society than illegal drug use, but funding for combating these legal drugs is a fraction of the amount spent to fight illicit substances. According to statistics Torruella presented, one in five Americans uses tobacco, resulting in 474,000 deaths annually and billions of dollars in medical costs. Meanwhile, about one in 25 Americans uses illegal drugs, resulting in 5,000 deaths each year. "The harm caused by alcohol and tobacco are many times greater than that of drugs," he said. Short of instituting draconian laws like those in Singapore and Malaysia--where possession of even tiny amounts of illegal drugs is punishable by hanging--the government cannot significantly control drug use, Torruella said. "We simply can't put everybody in jail," he said. Torruella recommended a national debate about drug policies and a bipartisan commission to explore options, as well as a pilot program of decriminalization. "Let's look at this problem and find new ways of dealing with it," he said.