WASHINGTON, Oct. 10 (UPI) -- At the same time America confidently wages war on terrorism abroad it is losing the war on drugs fought on its own streets, according to a study from a Canadian think tank.
Rather than combating drug use through law enforcement, the problem should be tackled through medical and treatment programs, according to the report, "Sensible Solutions to the Urban Drug Problem," a series papers on the topic published by the libertarian Fraser Institute in British Columbia.
Drug prohibition is the source of the very social problems it intends to eliminate, contends Patrick Basham, a senior fellow at Washington's libertarian Cato Institute, in the report's introduction.
"Drug prohibition causes crime; drug prohibition corrupts police officers; drug prohibition violates civil liberties and individual rights; drug prohibition throws good money after bad; and drug prohibition weakens -- at times, even destroys -- families, neighborhoods, and communities," Basham writes.
Basham says that drug interdiction has created an "ever growing law enforcement and penal industry" in which large segments of America's populace are incarcerated for crimes that harm virtually no one other than themselves.
In fact, heavy users are practically compelled to steal in order to fund their addiction, according to Basham.
"So many addicts must spend their days stealing the large amounts of money -- on average, between $500 to $1,000 a day -- needed to buy their drugs," Basham writes. "Why are the drugs so costly? The only reason is their illegality."
Drug prohibition has also increased drug-related deaths, Basham says. Many individuals needlessly die of overdoses because there is no "quality control," he says. Intravenous drug users will also contract HIV because their illicit drug use prevents access to clean syringes they could otherwise acquire legally, he says.
Instead of considering drug use and related violence as a criminal justice problem, the Fraser Institute supports approaching the problem from a public health standpoint. Patricia Erickson, a senior scientist at the Center for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto and author of one of the papers in the report, finds an attractive solution in an approach called harm reduction, where public health officials use multiple approaches in order to break the user's addiction, prevent the spread of disease and reduce violence throughout the community.
Most important, harm reduction keeps the drug user involved, Erickson writes.
"Voluntary participation of those involved is encouraged in decision-making and coercion (though not absent from the public health model) is seen as a last resort," she writes. "In contrast, the criminal justice model is reactive, concerned with moral standards of right and wrong, geared to assign blame, seeks to publicly stigmatize wrong-doers, offers punishment as its primary strategy, and imposes a decision without reference to the consent of the individual offender."
"Medicalization" is another option the Fraser Institute explores in its study. Related to the public health approach of harm reduction, medicalization offers a "third way" between prohibition and decriminalization, writes Dr. Jeffrey Singer, the medical spokesman of Arizonans for Drug Policy Reform and author of another of the report's papers. The approach would allow physicians to prescribe drugs -- even hard ones -- to patients.
However, John Cohen, executive director of the Progressive Policy Institute's Community Crime Fighting Project and former chief of staff of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, says the Fraser Institute is typical of simplistic thinking in regard to the drug problem.
"It's a little misleading in the Fraser Institute reports because they tend to paint the picture as if we have a number of innocent, productive people running around taking drugs and not harming anyone else," he says. "That's not true. Drugs cause people to engage in behaviors that are harmful to society and police have to deal with that."
A former police officer, Cohen says he has had to subdue criminals who became violent after using drugs. In addition to incarcerating dangerous individuals, Cohen says law enforcement officials will always have to deal with violent criminal organizations that will continue drug trafficking.
Cohen says the United States will always have some type of illicit market for the drugs the government refuses to legalize, or for minors who are prohibited from using them. Therefore, crime fighting will continue to remain an aspect of the government's response, he says.
Jacob Sullom, senior editor of Reason magazine, published by the libertarian Reason Public Policy Institute of Los Angeles, says he supports abolishing the prohibition of drugs. However, he says medicalization of drugs is useless because drug use is a conscious choice, not a disease.
"It's a behavior that people choose to engage in and they don't push it on other people," Sullom says. "I don't believe it is a disease."
By assigning drug treatment instead of jail time, the government is establishing a precedent in which it assumes more control over individuals, he says.
"Overall, what you're doing is giving credibility to the idea that drug use is not under people's control and it's a disease," Sullom says. Mandatory treatment, he says, confines drug users for indefinite period of time until the government "can define when you are better."
"I don't like buying into the fact that the government can prevent us from harming ourselves, or is in the business of maximizing health," he says. "Clearly there are totalitarian implications in believing government is in the business of maximizing health."
While Cohen doesn't support drug treatment alone, he says it is a viable option because addicts are often in dire need of medical attention for what he calls a diseased condition.
"The scientific evidence supports the research that addiction is a biochemical and neurological condition in a person's body," Cohen says. "Is it Orwellian for a doctor to say that you're a diabetic and you need to take medicine everyday so you won't pass out and aren't a threat to other drivers on the road?"
Dr. Sally Satel, W.H. Brady fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute in Washington, says it's difficult to tell from current data whether harm reduction programs, especially needle exchanges, really work.
She says harm reduction programs simply make it safer to be an addict, instead of helping addicts break their addiction and become productive citizens.
In addition to signaling what she characterizes as a position of retreat, harm reduction programs support addicts whatever the cost, something she finds unusual for libertarians like the Fraser Institute to support.
"It says drug use is a human right, but if a drug user can't manage the drugs and becomes addicted, then it's the taxpayer's responsibility to support or treat them," she says. "A libertarian would say that people are free to use drugs and have to absorb the consequences."
While they disagree on the particulars, scholars do agree there needs to be innovative thinking when it comes to changing the government's war on drugs.
Although it is tempting to face the problem from a perspective of black and white, says Cohen, officials must realize that any approach will be complex and multi-faceted.
"There is a role for police, a role for prevention and a role for treatment," he says. "The challenge for policy-makers is to maximize the use of those resources in order to reduce the societal harm of illicit drug use. Any single approach by itself will not do it."