As a result of a surprising agreement between the president and Congress last month, the nation may see a substantial reduction in drug abuse and drug-related violence.
The key to controlling the drug problem is reducing the demand. While most drug consumers are casual users, four-fifths of the cocaine and heroin is consumed by a relatively small number (fewer than 3 million) of chronic, frequent users, who spend an average of about $15,000 per year each on their habits. Since few of them can generate that much after-tax disposable income legitimately, about three-quarters of the hard-core users get arrested in the course of a year. When not in prison or jail, they are usually on bail, probation or parole. Therefore, about 60% of the cocaine and heroin sold in this country is sold to people who are nominally under the supervision of the criminal justice system.
If you're going duck hunting, you have to go where the ducks are. If you want to shrink the drug market, you have to work on the steady high-volume customers. Treatment helps, and more treatment would help more, but even unlimited treatment capacity wouldn't solve the problem; many hard-core users don't want treatment if they can get cocaine or heroin instead. They have to be pushed into abstinence; talking and offering treatment aren't enough.
Employers, most notably the military services, have already made abstinence from illegal drug use a condition of continued employment. Probation and parole departments have the legal authority to make abstinence a condition of continued liberty, but they have been ineffective in doing so. They tend to test too infrequently and punish too sporadically and too severely.
A better policy would demand abstinence from all drug-involved offenders and back up that demand with systematic screening of the entire population under criminal-justice supervision, frequent (more than weekly) tests for those who register positive on the initial screen, and immediate and automatic penalties for those who test positive a second time or who miss a test.
The sanctions do not have to be severe--two days in jail should be ample for a first offense--but they have to be delivered every time. That requires setting aside or creating special confinement facilities and having sufficient parole or police officers available to round up all the scofflaws.
A national program of testing and punishment, with backup treatment as necessary, could be done for less than $4 billion per year, a little more than 10% of current federal, state and local anti-drug spending. For that money, we could reasonably expect about a 40% reduction in the volume of cocaine and heroin sold each year and thus a substantial reduction in the violence and disorder created by the drug markets and the need to use scarce prison cells to lock up drug dealers. In addition, the user-offenders in the program would be healthier, more employable and less likely to wind up back in prison.
Where this approach has been tried on a pilot basis, for example in the Washington, D.C., drug court, it has substantially reduced drug use. Adding treatment availability so that those who repeatedly fail can be helped would improve behavior even further. What has been lacking to date is the funding and the political will to make coerced drug abstinence universal.
In September, President Clinton proposed that Congress require each state to develop such a system as a condition of receiving federal prison-building grants. Congress agreed last month (though it refused to allow the states to spend any of their prison-grant money on creating those new programs).
Now comes the hard part. The Justice Department has to translate the legislative language into regulation, the states have to adopt plans, and the people who actually do the work--probation and parole officers--have to make it happen. But if the Clinton drug-testing plan is given a fair chance, illicit drug use is one problem we might see less of in the new millennium.