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DRCNet Library | Schaffer Library | Major Studies
by Clifford A. Schaffer
A summary of the basic facts about drugs and the drug war.
Best Overall Introduction to the Subject.
If you only read one significant book on the subject, I recommend:
The Consumers Union Report On Licit and Illicit Drugs, by Edward M. Brecher and the Editors of Consumer Reports Magazine, 1972.
This book is the perhaps the most readable book ever written on the subject and contains surprises on every page. I have read a lot of research on drug policy and this has to rank as one of the best.
1. Why were the laws against drugs passed in the first place?
2. How many people use drugs in the United States?
3. How many people are actually killed by drugs?
4. Which drug causes the greatest burden on our medical facilities?
5. Which drugs are the most addictive?
6. Do illegal drugs cause violent crime?
7. Can we win the war on drugs this way?
8. How many millions of people will have to go to prison?
9. What does it cost to put a single drug dealer in jail?
10. What does this drug policy do to the black community?
11. How does our policy compare with the policies of other countries?
12. Do the illegal drugs have any legitimate uses?
13. Does marijuana lead to harder drugs?
14. What should we do about drugs?
Charts and Graphs on Drug War Statistics
15. How dangerous is marijuana, really?
16. Would "legalization" cost more than it saves?
17. How many people are currently in prison, and what are they in for?
The first American anti-drug law was an 1875 San Francisco ordinance which outlawed the smoking of opium in opium dens. It was passed because of the fear that Chinese men were luring white women to their "ruin" in opium dens. "Ruin" was defined as associating with Chinese men. It was followed by other similar laws, including Federal laws in which trafficking in opium was forbidden to anyone of Chinese origin, and restrictions on the importation of smoking opium. The laws did not have anything really to do with the importation of opium as a drug, because the importation and use of opium in other forms -- such as in the common medication laudunum -- were not affected. The laws were directed at smoking opium because it was perceived that the smoking of opium was a peculiarly Chinese custom. In short, it was a way of legally targeting the Chinese.
Cocaine was outlawed because of fears that superhuman "Negro Cocaine Fiends" or "Cocainized Niggers" (actual terms used by newspapers in the early 1900's) take large amounts of cocaine which would make them go on a violent sexual rampage and rape white women. There is little evidence that any black men actually did this, if only because it would have been certain death. The United States set a record in 1905 with 105 recorded lynchings of black men. At the same time, police nationwide switched from .32 caliber pistols to .38 caliber pistols because it was believed that the superhuman "Negro Cocaine Fiend" could not be killed with the smaller gun.
Dr. Hamilton Wright is sometimes referred to as the "Father of American Drug Laws". Dr. Wright was the Opium Commissioner at the time and had previously become famous because he had "scientifically proved" that beri-beri was a communicable disease. Beri-beri is a vitamin deficiency.
The Harrison Act which "outlawed" these drugs was, on its face, a simple licensing law which simply required sellers to get a license if they were going to handle the opiates and cocaine. As the Consumers Union Report on Licit and Illicit Drugs has said, it is doubtful that very many members of Congress would have thought that they were passing what would later be regarded as a general drug prohibition. The law even contained a provision that nothing in the law would prohibit doctors from prescribing these drugs in the legitimate practice of medicine.
In fact, even the people who wrote the Harrison Act and the Marijuana Tax Act in 1937 agreed that a general prohibition on what people could put into their own bodies was plainly an unconstitutional infringement on personal liberties. For comparison, see the history of the constitutional amendment which was required to prohibit alcohol. There is no fundamental reason why a constitutional amendment should be required to prohibit one chemical and not another.
The trick was that the bureaucrats who were authorized to issue licenses never did so, and there was a heavy penalty for not having the license. This heavy penalty required that the enforcing bureaucrats needed more staff and, therefore, more power, which, in turn required tougher laws. Over the years, through a series of court rulings, they gradually got the courts to change what had been well-established constitutional law. Specifically, they got the courts to accept the notion that it really was a tax violation when people got arrested for drugs, and that the fact that the government would not issue any licenses was not a defense. They also got the courts to bypass the old issue of whether the Federal Government had the right to control what an individual puts into their own bodies by creating the fiction that whatever the person puts into their bodies must have come as a result of some form of interstate commerce, which is regulated by the Federal Government in the form of taxes and licenses and, therefore, since the Federal Government is allowed to levy a tax it is -- by rather indirect logic -- allowed to regulate what anyone may put into their own bodies.
Marijuana was outlawed in 1937 as a repressive measure against Mexican workers who crossed the border seeking jobs during the Depression. The specific reason given for the outlawing of the hemp plant was its supposed violent "effect on the degenerate races." (Testimony of Bureau of Narcotics Commissioner Harry J. Anslinger, in testimony before Congress in hearings on the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937). The American Medical Association specifically testified that they were opposed to the law. When the supporters of the law were asked about the AMA's view on the law on the floor of Congress, they lied and said that the AMA was in favor of the law because they knew the law would never pass without the AMA's endorsement. The law passed, and the AMA later protested, but the law was never repealed.
In both cases, newspapers across the country carried lurid stories of the awful things that these drugs did to racial minorities, and of the horrors that people of racial minorities inflicted on innocent white people while they were under the influence of these drugs. Later research has shown that not a single one of the stories used to promote these laws could be substantiated.
There never was any scholarly evidence that the laws were necessary, or even beneficial, to public health and safety and none was presented when the laws were passed.
Consumers Union Report on Licit and Illicit Drugs, by Edward M. Brecher and the Editors of Consumer Reports, 1972
The American Disease, The Origins of Narcotics Control, by Dr. David F. Musto, 1973
The Report of the National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse, 1973
The History of the Non-Medical Use of Drugs in the United States, a short speech by Professor Charles Whitebread, of USC Law School.
See Themes in Chemical Prohibition, for a good historical review of the reasoning behind the laws.
Guinness Book of World Records (information on lynching)
Negro Cocaine Fiends: New Southern Menace, New York Times, February 8, 1914
See also: Historical References
This is a difficult question to answer with any certainty.
The Federal Government's Household Survey on Drug Abuse, conducted annually, is the most commonly cited set of statistics on the prevalence of drug use. According to the latest surveys, cited by the DEA themselves, there are about 12.7 million people who have used some illegal drug in the last month and perhaps 30 to 40 million who have used some illegal drug within the last year. Of the 12.7 million who used illegal drugs in the last month, about 10 million are presumed to be casual drug users, and about 2.7 million are addicts.
But there are a number of problems with these figures. The survey is conducted by calling people on the telephone at random and asking them about their use of illegal drugs. Some of the problems with this technique are:
Other surveys put the number of drug users at levels that are perhaps twice as high as the figures produced by the Household Survey on Drug Abuse. The very disparity of the estimates of various surveys points to one of the problems caused by a general drug prohibition. Because these drugs are illegal, it is difficult to get accurate information about their use.
The source for the number of drug users comes from, among other sources, the Household Survey on Drug Abuse, a Federal survey, available through any of the sources listed here. The costs to imprison them are based upon figures published by the Department of Justice, available through the sources mentioned here.
The number of drug deaths in the US in a typical year is as follows:
Source: NIDA Research Monographs
Alcohol and tobacco are the clear leaders. Some authorities have estimated that up to forty percent of all hospital care in the United States is for conditions related to alcohol.
As a medical hazard, few drugs can compete with alcohol or tobacco on any scale. A study at Rockefeller University in 1967 concluded that "Tobacco is unquestionably more hazardous to the health than heroin."
This is a difficult question to answer because it depends upon a lot of factors in both the drug and the person who uses it. In an attempt to define clearly what is meant by addiction, and which drugs are the most addictive, Dr. Jack E. Henningfield of the National Institute on Drug Abuse and Dr. Neal L. Benowitz of the University of California at San Francisco ranked six psychoactive substances on five criteria.
The tables listed below show the rankings given for each of the drugs. Overall, their evaluations for the drugs are very consistent. It is notable that marijuana ranks below caffeine in most addictive criteria, while alcohol and tobacco are near the top of the scale in many areas.
The rating scale is from 1 to 6. 1 denotes the drug with the strongest addictive tendencies, while 6 denotes the drug with the least addictive tendencies.
Substance Withdrawal Reinforcement Tolerance Dependence Intoxication Nicotine 3 4 2 1 5 Heroin 2 2 1 2 2 Cocaine 4 1 4 3 3 Alcohol 1 3 3 4 1 Caffeine 5 6 5 5 6 Marijuana 6 5 6 6 4
Substance Withdrawal Reinforcement Tolerance Dependence Intoxication Nicotine 3* 4 4 1 6 Heroin 2 2 2 2 2 Cocaine 3* 1 1 3 3 Alcohol 1 3 4 4 1 Caffeine 4 5 3 5 5 Marijuana 5 6 5 6 4
Psychoactive Substances and Violence, by Jeffrey A. Roth, Department of Justice Series: Research in Brief, Published: February 1994
All major authorities agree that the vast majority of drug-related violent crime is caused by the prohibition against drugs, rather than the drugs themselves. This was the same situation which was true during alcohol Prohibition. Alcohol Prohibition gave rise to a violent criminal organization. Violent crime dropped 65 percent in the year Prohibition was repealed.
There are about 25,000 homicides in the United States each year. A study of 414 homicides in New York City at the height of the crack epidemic showed that only three murders, less than one percent, could be attributed to the behavioral effects of cocaine or crack. Of these, two were victim-precipitated. For example, one homicide victim tried to rape someone who was high on crack and got killed in the process.
We could win the war on drugs if we could be successful in at least one of three areas:
On December 28, 1992 ABC Television aired a major special on the drug war in Bolivia which, according to the Bush Administration, is our "best hope" for winning the drug war in South America. They concluded decisively that there was no hope and that the war on drug production has already been lost.
By the US Federal Government's own estimates, the entire United States consumption of illegal drugs could be supplied by approximately one percent of the worldwide drug crop. In their best year, US Drug Enforcement Agents working together with foreign governments seized about one percent of the worldwide drug crop, leaving 99 percent free to supply the US. The US Government also states that, in the unlikely event that drug production was stopped in South America, several countries would suffer a major economic collapse.
There is no credible evidence anywhere to suggest that there is any possibility that drug production can be eliminated in other countries.
"Peter Jennings Reporting: The Cocaine War, Lost in Bolivia," ABC News, December 28, 1993
US Department of State, Bureau of International Narcotics Matters, International Narcotics Control Strategy Report (INCSR) (Washington: US Department of State, April, 1993
See also General Accounting Office Reports - the many reports on drug interdiction and related topics
No. Any examination of the statistics regarding border interdiction shows quite clearly that border interdiction is an expensive failure. In 1990, the General Accounting Office completed a major study on border interdiction. They reported that border interdiction was a waste of money and that no conceivable increase in funding or effort would make it any better.
In 1988, Stirling Johson, the Federal prosecutor for New York, stated that the police would have to increase drug seizures by at least 1,400 percent to have any impact at all on the drug market, assuming there were no corresponding increases in production. That was before the police busted twenty tons of cocaine in a single location and had to revise all their estimates of the cocaine market upward.
The best Federal Government evidence has concluded that there is no way to stop, or even greatly reduce, either production of drugs in foreign countries or the smuggling of drugs into the US.
There is no credible evidence anywhere that we could stop, or even greatly reduce, the flow of drugs across our borders. In fact, all of the Federal Government's own evidence shows that this is impossible and it is a waste of money to try.
Sealing the Borders: The Effects of Increased Military Participation in Drug Interdiction, Peter Reuter, The Rand Corporation, Santa Monica, CA, 1988
"Drug Control: Impact of the Department of Defense's Detection and Monitoring on Cocaine Flows," General Accounting Office, September 19, 1991
See also General Accounting Office Reports - the many reports on drug interdiction and related topics
The first question to address is how many drug dealers are there? Under the law, all drug users are drug dealers because the laws in most states state that any distribution of illegal drugs is considered a sale, regardless of whether there is a profit or monetary interest involved. Therefore, under the law, anyone who ever passed a joint to the next person at a rock concert is a "drug dealer". If we use the strict legal definition of a "dealer" then there are somewhere between 12 and 40 million drug dealers in the United States.
We might use a more restricted definition and assume that we will imprison only the drug dealers who distribute drugs on a regular basis. Research has long established that most drug sales are between friends who have known each other for a long time. Still, under this tighter definition, most drug users would be classed as "drug dealers" and we are left with the same problem of potentially incarcerating tens of millions of Americans.
No. Most of the prisons and jails in the United States are already far in excess of their planned capacity and correctional institutions in 24 states are under Federal court order to release prisoners. Arresting all of the drug dealers would require construction of at least five new prison beds for every one which now exists, assuming that no new drug dealers came along to fill the gap.
In September, 1992 Sheriff Sherman Block announced that he would release 4,000 prisoners, about twenty percent of the total Los Angeles County jail population, because there was no room to keep them and no more tax dollars to build more jails. For every person who goes to jail from now on, another one will be released. Tough drug laws have done all they can do and they have not solved the problem. The "get-tough" policy is over.
There is no credible evidence anywhere that we could stop, or even greatly reduce, the sale of drugs within the United States. In fact, all of the Federal Government's own evidence shows that this is impossible and not only is it a waste of money to try, but it actually does more harm than if we did nothing at all.
Many sources, including the list of major studies and Sterling Johnson, Federal Prosecutor for the District of New York, in testimony before the House Select Committee on Narcotics and Drug Abuse, September, 1988.
There are currently about 1.5 million people in state and Federal prisons and jails throughout the United States. At the current time, at least 24 states are under Federal court orders to relieve prison overcrowding.
The following chart shows the growth of the US prison population since 1960. The US prison population was relatively stable from about 1926, when figures were first compiled, through 1970. After this point, the effects of Nixon's war against drugs, and later the Reagan and Bush war against drugs, produced a dramatic increase in the number of prisoners.
There are an estimated thirty to forty million people who have used illegal drugs in the last year. If we imprisoned all of them, we would have to build a prison large enough to hold the combined populations of California, Arizona, and New Mexico. The total cost to imprison them for five years, including the costs of arrest and prosecution would be roughly ten to fifteen trillion dollars, or about ten times the total Federal annual budget. This does not include the related costs to society which would be caused by the imprisonment of millions of gainfully employed, tax-paying citizens.
There doesn't seem to be any clear answer to this question. I have asked public officials of all kinds, including law enforcement officers, elected officials and all three of the US Federal Drug Czars. To date, the only person who has ever replied with an actual numerical estimate is Michael Levine, one of the DEA's former top agents. He estimated that the optimum number of drug offenders to put in prison would be about 2.7 million -- in addition to the people who are currently in prison. His assumption, he said, was that we would put all of the addicts in prison, and he estimated the number of addicts at about 2.7 million, based on other government figures. Mr. Levine's plan would require that, for every prison cell which now exists, we would have to build three more just like it. He did not say what he would do about the fact that even this plan would leave tens of millions of recreational drug users free to continue their drug use with little fear of prosecution.
The cost to put a single drug dealer in jail is about $450,000, composed of the following:
The cost for arrest and conviction is about $150,000.
The cost for an additional prison bed is about $50,000 to $150,000, depending upon the jurisdiction.
It costs about $30,000 per year to house a prisoner. With an average sentence of 5 years, that adds up to another $150,000.
The same $450,000 can provide treatment or education for about 200 people. In addition, putting a person in prison produces about fifteen dollars in related welfare costs, for every dollar spent on incarceration. Every dollar spent on treatment and education saves about five dollars in related welfare costs.
At the present time, one-fourth of all of the young black men in America are either in prison or on parole. Most of them were arrested on non-violent drug charges.
In Washington, DC, the Bush administration's "demonstration" city, half of all of the black men in the city are currently in jail or on parole. More than ninety percent have arrest records. The same is true of inner city black men in Baltimore, New York, New Jersey, and Florida.
Two-thirds of all of today's black male high school students will be dead, disabled, or in prison before their thirtieth birthday. The majority will go to prison because of non-violent drug charges. For every black man who goes to college, three will go to prison.
By the year 2000, about half of all black men in America will have gone to prison. Most of them will go to prison for non-violent drug charges. Most of those who go to prison will be released into society again. Because they are black men with a prison record, they will be permanently unemployable.
"The Prevalence of Imprisonment," US Department of Justice, 1980, and The Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics.
"Incarceration of Minorities," The Sentencing Project, Washington, DC, 1992
See also the Sentencing Project Reports for additional reports on the effects of drug policy on black men.
Employment Problems of Released Prisoners, Department of Justice, Bureau of Prisons, 1992
Europe is beginning to form uniform drug laws as a result of European unification. Europe is decriminalizing drugs along the lines of the programs used in England and the Netherlands. Most of the countries have already approved the Frankfort Accord, which adopts decriminalization as the primary approach to drugs.
Let's compare the results of two roughly comparable major cities which both have a drug problem. The cities are New York, and Liverpool, England.
Liverpool, England, has adopted the same approach as the Netherlands and has had substantially the same results. They both chose decriminalizatiion.
Many sources, including "Rx Drugs" Sixty Minutes, December 27, 1992.
For additional information and resources on the situation in Europe, see DrugText
Heroin is a powerful pain-killer and could be used to control extreme chronic pain or the pain of severe diseases, such as cancer. The medical literature shows that heroin is significantly less hazardous than most of the drugs which are given in its place.
Cocaine is used as a topical anesthetic in medicine.
There are about 50,000 products which can be made from the marijuana (hemp) plant. It has been used since the dawn of history for the widest variety of uses. These uses include fibers, fuels, materials, and medicine. The first American laws regarding marijuana were passed in the 1700's and required farmers to grow hemp (marijuana) because of its tremendous commercial value for dozens of uses. It was grown throughout the United States as a commercial product well into the 1940's. It was made illegal in 1937 largely as a result of pressure from oil and chemical companies who feared the competition from marijuana. Despite the laws, during World War II marijuana was considered so vital to the national interest that the US Government exempted farmers from military duty if they grew marijuana. Local 4-H clubs were encouraged to have their members grow marijuana and the US Government produced a film called "Hemp for Victory"'
Marijuana produces fibers which are ideal for ropes, cloth, paper, and dozens of other products. The fiber is unusually strong, soft, absorbent and cheap to produce. If we grew marijuana solely for paper production, we could completely eliminate cutting forests for paper. Marijuana produces eighty times as much usable fiber per acre as a comparable stand of forest.
Marijuana can produce several different kinds of fuel. In the 1800's and 1900's hempseed oil was the primary source of fuel in the United States and was commonly used for lamps and other oil energy needs. The diesel engine was originally designed to run on marijuana oil because Rudolf Diesel assumed that it would be the most common fuel. Mairjuana is also the most efficient plant for the production of methanol. It is estimated that, in one form or another, marijuana grown in the United States could provide up to ninety percent of the nation's entire energy needs.
Marijuana is useful for a wide variety of medical problems and, according the the Drug Enforcement Administration's Chief Administrative Law Judge, "marijuana is probably the safest therapeutically active substance known to man," and "it is safer than many of the foods we commonly eat." Marijuana is often the most effective treatment for chronic pain, glaucoma, nausea from chemotherapy, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, and other medical conditions.
See also the Hemp Menu - Industrial Info
See also the Medical Marijuana Master Reference for a list of documents relating to the medical effects of marijuana.
See also Medical Uses of Illicit Drugs
There is no evidence that smoking marijuana leads to the use of harder drugs. In the first place, it is chemically illogical that the consumption of any drug could give someone the craving for another drug they have never had.
When the Marihuana Tax Act was first passed in 1937, Harry Anslinger, then head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics testified before Congress and was asked specifically if there was any association between the use of marijuana and the use of harder drugs. He replied specifically that there was no such connection and that the users of the different types of drugs commonly did not associate with each other.
This myth arose in the 1950's when it became apparent that the old motives for the law against marijuana would no longer be viable. It was then that Anslinger contradicted his earlier testimony and started saying that marijuana led to harder drugs. This change occurred most prominently in the hearings for the Boggs Act of 1951, after a series of doctors had just destroyed everything Harry Anslinger had said about marijuana in 1937.
For Harry Anslinger's testimony, see the hearings for the Marihuana Tax Act.
For a short discussion of the origins of the "gateway" myth and how it arose at the hearings for the Boggs Act see The History of the Drug Laws, a short speech by Professor Charles Whitebread, of USC Law School.
For a more complete discussion of some of these issues, please see The Myth of Marijuana's Gateway Effect by John P. Morgan, M.D. and Lynn Zimmer, Ph.D.
The overwhelming weight of the scholarly evidence on drug policy supports decriminalization. Every major study of drug policy in history has recommended a non-criminal approach. This is irrefutable.
I recommend that you start with: The Consumers Union Report on Licit and Illicit Drugs, published by the Editors of Consumer Reports Magazine.
Not very. The DEA's own Chief Administrative Law Judge, after listening to the evidence for two years concluded that marijuana in its natural form is safer than many of the foods we commonly eat. More detailed information can be found in the following links:
Report of the National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse. This is the largest study of drugs and drug policy ever conducted by the US Federal Government. It contains detailed information on all aspects of the medical effects of marijuana.
DEA Docket No. 86-22, Sept. 6, 1988,
Anseers to Frequently Asked Questions About Marijuana Use
This is an excellent summary of many of the questions regarding marijuana. It is very well-documented. Contributed by Christopher Reeve.
Pharmacology of Marijuana: Just Another Sedative by Frederick H. Meyers, M.D., Professor of Pharmacology, University of California, San Francisco, Ca.
A Review of the Scientific Literature Re Amotivational Syndrome
This is an excellent synopsis of the information regarding the "amotivational syndrome" and marijuana. Complete with citations for further reference. Contributed by Brian of DRCNet.
Health and Psychological Consequences of Cannabis Use - Australian Government Report
No. The best analysis done to date by any Federal official shows that "legalization" of the now illegal drugs would result in a net $37 Billion annual savings. This estimate is considered conservative. That is, it is likely that the savings would be more.
Federal Financial Analysis of Legalization of Drugs
This Federal financial analysis of legalization comes from Theodore R. Vallance, Former chief of the Planning Branch of the National Institutes of Mental Health. His main professional effort for many years was directed at just this sort of analysis. The analysis was published in the 7-10-95 issue of National Review.
Reductions (in millions of $) From To Saving
Direct Law Enforcement 13,203 3,300 9,903 *Interdiction costs 2,200 0 2,200 *International anti-drug 768 384 384 *OCDETF (Organized Crime & Drug 399 40 359 Enforcement Task Force) ONDCP (the "drug czar") 69 17 52
Indirect Victims of Crime 842 210 632 Incarceration 4,434 887 3,547 Crime careers 13,976 2,679 11,297 ________ Subtotal 28,374 Less increase in prevention research and service (3,572) Less increase in treatment research and service (2,802) ________ Subtotal 22,000 Plus net income from drug taxes 15,000 ________ Total 37,000 *1993 Figures.
How many are in prison?
The Department of Justice announced that there are now 1.5 million people in prisons across the United States?
Who are they?
What are they in for?
TYPE OF OFFENSE (Sentenced Pop. Only) - Federal Prisoners
Drug Offenses 59.6%
Property Offenses 5.5%
Extortion, Fraud, Bribery 6.8%
Violent Offenses 2.7%
Firearms, Explosives, Arson 8.6%
White Collar 1.0%
Courts or Corrections 0.8%
National Security 0.1%
Continuing Criminal Enterprise 0.8%
Federal Bureau of Prisons Home Page
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