Thursday, February 25, 2010

Thoughts from a trip to the U.S.-Mexico border -- fixing the violence?

Eric L. Olson, a very distinguished American analyst at the Mexico Institute at The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, has just issued a ten-page report on his recent trip to the borderlands.

This balanced and thoughtful report gives a very straightforward description of the crisis of violence and lack of respect for the government that prevails in Mexico -- without the hyperbole that characterized the trip report of Gen. Barry McCaffrey after his visit in December to Mexico, "fighting for survival against narco-terrorism."

The report should be read by everyone interested in what is happening in Mexico as it struggles against violence and the drug trafficking organizations.

Most Americans are probably completely unaware that Mexico is in the process of completely transforming its justice system from the Napoleonic (or inquisitorial) approach which relies upon documents to the Anglo-American-style approach with trials involving witness testimony. The challenge of re-training prosecutors, judges and defense attorneys across Mexico is profound. In Chihuahua, it lags behind Baja California.

The problems are not simply that the cartels are powerful, drugs are profitable, or the government's response is wrong. The problems are more universal: deep-seated, endemic mistrust of the government, widespread poverty and lack of economic opportunity. Some of the problems are similar to problems that face anti-crime initiatives in the United States: politicization of anti-crime initiatives, intense bureaucratic rivalries among agencies for credit and resources, and lack of cooperation across jurisdictions and the levels of local, state and federal administration, and quick fixes that attempt to employ military assets (i.e. drug interdiction), techniques (i.e., S.W.A.T. tactics and raids) or ideologies (i.e., zero tolerance).

There is nothing wrong with Olson's recommendations -- they clearly identify the general areas in which Mexico and the U.S. need to move forward. Calling first for a reduction in demand for drugs in the U.S. by increasing treatment and prevention is perfectly appropriate, if utterly predictable.

Tragically, America has reached the sorry state in which any reasonable suggestion to reduce demand by improving our ability to prevent illegal drug use and increase the availability of treatment is a cliche.

However, most states are now cutting back on drug treatment and prevention programs as they address what has been estimated to be a collective $300 billion gap between current expenditures and projected revenues that must be closed.

I believe that treatment works. Of course, not everyone who is using illegal drugs needs treatment. In simple numerical terms, most of those who use illegal drugs do not need treatment, but there is a minority who use drugs heavily or compulsively who could use treatment. Those who have committed crimes -- robbery, burglary, shoplifting, domestic violence, etc. -- who use expensive and addictive drugs can and should be compelled to abstain from drug use by using programs such as Hawai'i's Operation HOPE. There, most hard core drug users stop without treatment. They modify their behavior to avoid the inconvenience of guaranteed arrest if one of their frequent drug tests comes up positive for illegal drugs. But in most of America, probation for offenders is ineffective supervision, treatment beds insufficient, and access to treatment screwed up. In your community is there a central intake for treatment that is conveniently reached at convenient hours? If you show up for treatment, will you get a bed -- or a place at the back of the line?

Of course one can drill down into the wide variety of treatment offerings and find a mixed bag. There are plenty of poorly run programs and outright scams. But treatment works for those who are in well-run programs or who are sufficiently motivated.

Will we see more treatment? The Obama Administration is asking for $137 million more for treatment in FY 2011 compared to FY 2010. Chickenfeed! The Administration is asking for $180 million more for its enforcement programs (excluding increased federal spending on prisons, prosecutors, etc.). Not since President Richard Nixon has there been a serious high-level national commitment to providing effective drug treatment in a scale that approaches the need.

The other half of the cliche to reduce demand is for more drug abuse prevention. Most of the expenditures for dedicated drug abuse prevention "programs" are a proven waste. D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education), founded by Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates (who famously said that "casual drug users should be taken out and shot"), was found to be worthless after numerous evaluations. D.A.R.E. revised its curriculum, but a Google search finds no new evaluations published in the past twenty years. Even D.A.R.E.'s website can only report some preliminary -- first year of a five year evaluation -- from 2003! Another bogus prevention program is the ONDCP White House Media Anti-Drug campaign. Once again, the program was found to be ineffective in scientific evaluations. But the Obama Administration is asking for almost a 50 percent increase -- from $45 million to $66.5 million. They want to throw away another $21.5 million on a program that has been proven to be ineffective.

My daughter is in her middle school health education program this quarter which includes drug abuse prevention. Last night at dinner, she told my wife and me about the program's self-esteem enhancing exercise that she and her classmates engaged in Wednesday. Go around the circle and tell the next student what you like about them. She said that everyone was embarrassed and resorted to saying vapid things like, "I like your hair. I like your blouse. I like your personality." She didn't have to tell us explicitly that she thought this was silly and pointless, her sarcasm was unmistakable.

Scholars, policy experts, commentators and politicians have been exhorting one another about the urgency and importance of reducing demand for drugs for more than thirty years. In the 1980s, successive heads of DEA would testify that more money should be spent on demand reduction. DEA even started its own demand reduction programs. America may someday get serious about demand reduction, but not in time to do anything about Mexico's violence and corruption. One could ask which will come first, a regime to regulate and control drugs (usually crudely called "legalization") or adequate and effective prevention programs and treatment capacity.

Regulation and control of the now illegal drugs will not be easy to execute, even after the political consensus adopts it. But there is little likelihood that any less radical strategy will appreciably reduce violence, other than engaging in corrupt accommodation of the drug trafficking organizations along the lines of the pre-Fox, PRI governments.

Among the obvious consequences of drug regulation and control in the U.S. is that schools and parents will have to have much more meaningful conversations with their children about drugs legally distributed. Teachers potentially can be truthful and accurate, freed of serving as propagandists in the "war on drugs" crusade. Parents will be able to speak truthfully about their experiences with drugs without the stigma of law-breaking. Drug prevention may rely less upon stigma ("Users are losers!") and more upon science and reinforcing positive behaviors.

The demand for illegal drugs that Eric L. Olson and other observers of the crisis in Mexico lament is not going to be reduced by exhortation or policy papers. The most well-meaning "drug czars," DEA Administrators, HHS and Department of Education Secretaries, Surgeon Generals, Congressional leaders and other have a thirty year record of insignificant actions. Drug use declines have been real at various times but, as factors affecting the global criminal trade, negligible.

To reduce the demand for illegal drugs in the scale that will substantially impact corruption and violence in Mexico demands that their illegal character be eliminated. When that happens, notwithstanding the repeated warnings of the International Narcotics Control Board, the global drug control regime will have more "coherence" and "effectiveness."

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Per your "not everyone who is using illegal drugs needs treatment."
It was refreshing to read this.
There is a sudden appearance of addiction, dependence counselors and experts with comments showing up on blogs that support the end to Prohibition. The drug treatment mantra has not impressed me and as you said, "there is a minority who use drugs heavily or compulsively who could use treatment." End of story.

Drug Policy Alliance Network sends out email alerts to send the President a message, and I do comply. Today I got one but deleted the line, "I believe a greater portion of federal funding should go to treatment and other areas that help reduce the demand for drugs in our country."
We are a species that enjoys an altered state of consciousness on occasion, without the abuse far too many cry about.