Drug Use and Abuse
The is little doubt that drug use constitutes one of the most serious problems facing North
American society in the twenty first century. This opinion is shared by politicians, police
officials, media commentators, the general public and even the drug users themselves. In
truth, there may well be considerable evidence to support this contention. Recent
estimates suggest that over 13 million Americans (approximately 6% of the population)
use drugs regularly (Hanson & Venturelli, 1999). Other researchers argue that the United
States has the highest number of heroin addicts in the world (Meier & Geis, 1997). These
figures are alarming and help explain why many people believe that drugs are a scourge
that ruin lives, cause crime and undermine the foundations of society. For these people, it
is clear that drug use must be eliminated, and that American society is justified in using
whatever measures are necessary to achieve this end.
It is this mind set that has fueled the current war against drugs that annually costs
the United States government over 20 billion dollars (Jacobs, 2001). This figure does not
include the expenditures of state and local governments, and thus the total enforcement
costs are actually much higher.
Globally, the costs of drug enforcement efforts are
astronomical and cannot be estimated with any degree of accuracy. What is unclear in the
present debate is the degree to which drug enforcement efforts are effective at stemming
drug use or whether they may actually be exacerbating the problem. Indeed, there is little
evidence that tough enforcement provisions actually deter drug use. For example, during
the late 1970’s, the United States, Iran, and Singapore had extremely high rates of heroin
addiction, despite the fact that they also employed some of the most stringent legal
remedies. Although Iran and Singapore actually used the death penalty extensively for
drug trafficking, it did not appear to have much effect on the number of addicts. In
contrast, Canada, which employs a much more lenient approach to drug control, had an
addiction rate that was one-third that of the United States and even further behind that of
Iran and Singapore.
These figures are extrapolated from data reported by Treback (1982, cited in Meier & Geis, 1997). Of
course it must be noted that there are many other factors, including poverty, cultural practices and lifestyle,
that will affect drug use in addition to enforcement practices. Nevertheless, these figures do suggest that
strict enforcement is not likely to solve the drug problem by itself.