Former Secretary of State George P. Shultz’s Mea Culpa on the War on Drugs

A Unique Perspective of the War on Drugs

George Shultz has fought the war on drugs. He worked as the Secretary of State during the Reagan Administration when First Lady Nancy Reagan failed to significantly decrease drug abuse with her well-intended, yet overly simplistic, “Just Say No” campaign.

He has a unique perspective on the current drug crisis, since he’s fought in the trenches. Therefore, it’s especially significant that he now admits we have used the wrong tactics and are losing the battle. George P. Shultz and Pedro Aspe provide an accurate and sensible analysis of the current drug crisis in a recent New York Times article.

As Shultz and Aspe correctly point out, supply is not the major contributor to the drug crisis. In fact, the focus on restricting supply “has ruined lives, filled prisons and cost a fortune.” At the same time, it “has done little to curtail drug abuse.”

Winning the War on Drugs

Some policymakers and media outlets would like to simplify the drug crisis. They blame the overprescribing of opioids and inappropriate marketing efforts of Pharma for most of the problem.

However, the issue is far more complicated than that. There is nothing simple about the drug crisis.

Finding solutions won’t be easy, but our efforts must begin by correctly identifying the myriad causes. There is blame enough to go around for everyone, so singling out a few will only exacerbate the problem. We must begin to solve the opioid crisis through a multi-pronged approach.

Some of our elected officials continue to believe we should rely on our criminal court system to penalize people who abuse opioids or use illicit drugs. Lately, they’ve even demonstrated a conviction that people in pain who use prescription opioids appropriately, and the doctors who prescribe them, are also criminals. I have received hundreds of emails from pain patients who tell me that their doctors consider them to be drug seekers, and I hear stories such as this one that illustrate how pain doctors, too, can be in the line of fire.

Incarcerating minor drug offenders has done nothing to help solve our drug problem. Arguably, it has exacerbated the problem.

Researchers at RTI International and Temple University found that providing drug abuse treatment instead of prison sentences could reduce crime rates and save billions of dollars. According to BLVD Centers, “if just 10 percent of eligible offenders were treated in community-based programs instead of going to prison, the criminal justice system would save $4.8 billion as compared with current practices.”

Incarcerations don’t improve drug-seeking behaviors. They actually worsen them by making it more difficult for offenders for obtain an education, create fulfilling careers, develop support systems, and maintain positive relationships. Once convicted, they are caught in a system that scars them for life.

Socio-Economic Conditions Contribute to the Epidemic

Across the United States, programs are underway to educate people about the dangers of substance abuse. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration’s (SAMHA) Center for the Application of Prevention Technologies provides links to some of these resources.

Education is part of the solution, but we also have to focus on the socio-economic factors that drive demand. As I said in my blog, hopelessness contributes as much to the drug crisis as overprescribing.

Wayne Drash and Max Blau describe the horrific social factors contributing to the heroin epidemic in Huntington, West Virginia. They show how economic insecurity, desolation, and hopelessness contribute to the problem in vulnerable communities. Sam Quinones covers the same subject in his book, Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic.

Incarceration for substance abusers will not decrease the demand for drugs. However, if society puts its resources toward addressing the socio-economic realities and biological drivers that lead to drug abuse, these education programs stand a chance of helping.

Reason tells us that we must change our approach.

Learning What Creates the Demand for Drugs

Decreasing the drug supply by increasing criminal penalties for offenders will not solve the problem. Nor will it prevent people in pain from going to the street. Learning what creates demand for drugs, on the other hand, will help.

In addition, we should provide those with substance abuse disorder with the opportunity to get help. It makes eminent sense when Shultz and Aspe state, “…we must create well-staffed and first-class treatment centers where people are willing to go without fear of being prosecuted and with the confidence that they will receive effective care.” Providing access to affordable treatment is critical to curbing the crisis.

Understanding the complexity of the drug problem and addressing its elements, through funding and research, is the only reasonable path. We must let compassion lead us forward but allow science to light the way.™

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