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Speech by Asa Hutchinson Decrying "Myths" of the Drug War Reform Movement

Asa Hutchinson
Director
Drug Enforcement Administration
Modernizing Criminal Justice Conference
London, England
June 18, 2002

(Director often deviates from prepared text.)

Good morning. I'm honored to join such a prestigious conference. Many thanks to our host organizations: John Jay College, the London Metropolitan Police, and the FBI for their tremendous achievement in gathering the best minds in criminal justice policy in Europe and the United States. To the faculty and staff of John Jay, thank you especially for not only preparing students for a career in law enforcement, but through conferences such as this, for also challenging those in leadership toward more effective policies.

It is a distinguished privilege for this farm boy from Gravette, Arkansas, to be in the land where the principles of liberty were instituted so many thousands of years ago. Through the ancient rights and liberties laid down in the Magna Carta in 1215 to the institution of the writ of habeas corpus in the 17th century, we find the very foundations of our democratic nations here.

In the modern world, when Great Britain stood courageously against tyranny in World War II, and now in our war against terrorism, we seek to secure that rule of law that was born here so many centuries ago.

We fight to uphold those same principles of liberty and freedom today in our post-9/11 world. England has been America's staunchest ally in that fight. I know we all look forward to hearing Prime Minister Blair later today. He has defined the attacks against America very clearly as a battle between not just America and the terrorists, but between all of the free and democratic world and terrorism.

I am here to speak about another war today--the war on drugs. It is a fitting topic, perhaps not as appealing as the war on terrorism. But there is a real parallel there between fighting terrorism and fighting drugs.

The nations represented in this room understand war of any kind should be avoided, but not at the sacrifice of freedom. Wars must be fought to sustain democracy, but they are not without costs. We know that the costs of war must be weighed against what is lost when war is not waged.

These realities of war are common in democratic societies, and they are true also when it comes to our shared struggle against illegal drugs. If we avoid the war, then democracy will suffer; if we flinch at the costs, then a greater price will be paid by families, communities, and by our nation.

Drugs weaken us, threaten the rule of law, and insidiously endanger our way of life. The anti-drug effort is truly a fight between the free and democratic world and the world of drugs that seeks to enslave and corrupt.

At its very basic level, the anti-drug effort is a fight for individuals: to live their lives free of the destruction of drugs. And it's a belief in that freedom that brought me to the DEA. I came to drug enforcement because it's a cause I believe in from the bottom of my heart. It's a cause with hope and optimism. And it's a cause that makes a difference in the lives of individuals and the life of our nations.

There aren't many other criminal policies that are as studied, debated, and analyzed like the U.S. war against drugs. Since coming to the DEA, I've debated a number of critics of our anti-drug policies. As a former prosecutor, I enjoy engaging in that kind of lively debate. As an attorney, I enjoy looking at the evidence—looking at the facts about our drug policies—to find the truth.

And I've found that many misunderstandings of the U.S. war on drugs persist. If we want to truly examine U.S. drug policy, we have to embrace the facts and dispel the myths. I'd like to talk about four myths in the U.S. anti-drug effort.

1. The first is that there has been no progress in the U.S. war against drugs.

Some say our fight against drugs has been a failure, and we have not made any progress. But when we look at measurements there, we see a different story.

First, on the demand side. We've reduced casual use, chronic use, and prevented others from even starting. Overall drug use in the United States is down 50% since the late 1970s. That's 9.3 million people fewer using illegal drugs. We've reduced cocaine use by an astounding 75% during the last 15 years. That's 4 million people fewer using cocaine on a regular basis.

The crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s and early 1990s has long passed. We've also reduced the number of chronic heroin users over the last decade. And the number of new marijuana users and cocaine users continues to steadily decrease.

This is not to say we have reached our optimal level of drug abuse. We still have much progress to make, particularly with drugs like Ecstasy and methamphetamine. But the bottom line is that our current policies have kept drugs away from most Americans.

On the supply side, we're having successes, too. And this is where the DEA focuses much of our efforts: enforcement and interdiction. The goal is to increase the risks to traffickers and decrease drug availability.

I'll give you some examples. First, with cocaine. Based on interagency estimates, cocaine flow from South America to the United States has decreased by almost 20% in just the last 5 years. In 1996, it's estimated 600 metric tons were sent to the United States. By 2001, that dropped to 500 metric tons.

Also with cocaine, we've begun to see purity decrease somewhat—about a 9% decrease overall. The reasons are many and complex, but one that must be credited is our international effort to restrict the supply of potassium permanganate—a chemical necessary to cocaine processing. That effort is impacting the quality and is making processing more difficult for producers.

We're aiming to have a similar impact on methamphetamine. To do that, we're targeting not only traffickers of meth but suppliers of pseudoephedrine—a main ingredient of meth. In Operation Mountain Express, we targeted rogue chemical companies in the U.S. and shut down that source of supply. Manufacturers were forced to find another source. They turned to Canada.

But in another phase of our operation, we targeted that source and seized 30 tons of pseudoephedrine and dismantled major trafficking organizations. As a result, meth manufacturers are having more trouble obtaining the materials they need for their dangerous recipes. Prices have risen for illicit supplies of pseudoephedrine and have caused street prices of meth to go up as well.

We also increase traffickers' risks through interdiction. The increased law enforcement presence at the U.S.-Mexico border since September 11th has resulted in increased drug seizures. Customs officials seized more than 16,000 pounds of cocaine along the border in the last six months, almost twice as much as the same period last year. At one of our ports in Texas, seizures of methamphetamine are up 425% and heroin by 172%. Enforcement makes a difference—traffickers' costs go up with these kind of seizures.

The new Office of Homeland Security President Bush is creating will make our border interdiction even more productive by coordinating efforts more effectively.

But the question always remains—have we significantly reduced the availability of drugs on the street?

We're not making that argument—yet. There is such an overproduction of cocaine, heroin, meth, and marijuana that there exists excess supply. To reduce that, we need to look beyond interdiction to source country production.

We look to Afghanistan that produces 70 percent of the world's supply of illicit opium in 2000 and has stockpiled a large part of that supply. And certainly European countries are most impacted by that supply. We're making an international effort there to destroy poppy crops and institute alternative crop development and criminal justice system development.

It's not an easy task. We're up against hundreds of years of tradition. But we have a unique opportunity to break that cycle.


It can be done. Consider Bolivia, a country long-dependent on coca production. But over the course of just 5 years, they eradicated over 90% of their illicit coca. They did it through crop eradication, alternative crop development, and law enforcement interdiction. President Jorge Quiroga has said, "Bolivia shows what a little country with a big problem, a plan, and a lot of will can do."

Drug addicts have told me the way to prevent others from becoming addicted is to reduce availability. They tell me how easy it was to start and how hard it is to stop when drugs are readily available, at low cost, and high purities. U.S. anti-drug policies are making progress against all of those.

#2: The second myth is that U.S. prisons are filled with people convicted of drug possession.

There is a perception that law enforcement targets drug users for arrest and treats them as solely a criminal offender and not someone who may need treatment. They couldn't be more wrong.

Only 5% of people in U.S. federal prisons for drug offenses are there on possession convictions. In our state prisons, it's somewhat higher—about 27% of drug offenders.

But from my experience as a federal prosecutor, most of those in prison on possession charges are traffickers who plea bargained down to a possession charge, or are people with repeat offenses. The fact is, you have to work pretty hard to end up in jail for drug possession in the United States.

There has also been an important shift in the U.S. criminal justice system to treating nonviolent, first time drug offenders rather than incarcerating them. We've got an extremely successful way to do that—through drug courts. Working within the criminal justice system, drug courts provide close accounting and monitoring of an addict's treatment program. I'll talk more about that later, but it makes my point that we're not incarcerating drug users—the numbers don't support it and neither does the institution and expansion of drug courts.


#3: The third myth is that marijuana is a harmless drug and therefore should be excluded from the anti-drug effort.

Drug legalization advocates in the United States single out marijuana as a different kind of drug, unlike cocaine and heroin and methamphetamine. They say it's less dangerous. And I know some countries in Europe have lowered its classification as such.

But in the United States, there's a growing number of people who are not finding marijuana quite as harmless as it's purported.

In 1999, a record 225,000 Americans entered substance abuse treatment primarily for marijuana abuse and dependence. It's second only to heroin—and not by much—as the drug people seek treatment for. In addition, about the same number of people—87,000—sought treatment at hospital emergency rooms for medical problems related to marijuana as those for heroin-related problems.

Clearly, marijuana causes health problems and dependence. It impacts young people's mental development, their ability to concentrate in school, and their motivation and initiative to reach goals.

And, like all drugs, marijuana harms far more than the user: A study in the United States showed that showed as many car accidents were caused by drivers using marijuana as were caused by alcohol. Of adult males arrested for all kinds of crime, 40% of them tested positive for marijuana at the time of their arrest.

#4: The fourth, and final, myth is that there are no new ideas in the fight against drugs.

U.S. anti-drug efforts are sometimes classified as the "Just Say No" approach. But our approach goes well beyond that. There are a lot of innovative ideas in American drug policy—ideas that are achieving success. They are all predicated on our nation's overall strategy to have a balanced approach: one that combines enforcement and prevention and education.

Enforcement is necessary because it puts a risk in trafficking and sets the right social parameters for behavior in our country. But enforcement alone is not going to do the job. It takes education to teach young people to make the right decisions in life, and it takes treatment to heal those who have become addicted. The Bush Administration is investing more in prevention and treatment efforts than ever before—we've increased funding for those efforts by almost a quarter from 1999. For just treatment alone, we've budgeted $3 billion—a 27% increase.

One of the most successful new ideas in our country is drug courts. I understand here in Great Britain, you're using them to some degree. I can only encourage you to use them more. In the United States, we've got 600 in operation, with plans to greatly expand because of their tremendous success. Through close supervision and monitoring by the court, nonviolent drug offenders are overcoming drug addiction.

I've met drug court graduates. I've seen how their lives have been saved by holding them accountable. I've seen how, one by one, they contribute to decreased demand for drugs. It's clearly an investment in treatment that pays off. And it's one of the most important things we're doing in the anti-drug effort.

Another new idea we initiated at the DEA is an Integrated drug Enforcement Assistance program. We call it IDEA. With this program, we give lasting impact to drug enforcement operations. The DEA takes pride in removing criminal organizations from neighborhoods. But if the demand remains and the community has not changed, then another trafficking organization takes over.

That's frustrating to law enforcement. With the IDEA program, our approach is to dismantle the criminal organizations, but at the same time work side-by-side with the entire community on drug awareness and prevention efforts and build treatment programs and community coalitions to dry up the demand. We're working with schools, civic groups, businesses, churches, and health professionals to build that team approach.

We're supporting it by doubling the number of DEA agents assigned to work with communities on demand reduction. We're also encouraging that 15% of the seized assets from an operation be transferred to treatment and education programs. Last year, we seized $176 million in assets—giving 15% of that would make $26 million available to communities.

In the prevention arena, educators are using new ideas to keep our young people off drugs. I visited an extremely successful program in New York City last month. Prevention counselors educate students about the dangers of drugs. But then they do a lot more: they teach them how to say no, how to resist peer pressure, how to set goals. The counselors become mentors, give structure to these at-risk kids, get them involved in positive alternatives to a life of drugs and crime. In short, they work to build the character of these young people. As a result, students in New York City schools have the lowest substance abuse rates in the state.

So those are four myths about U.S. drug policy and some pretty convincing evidence why they are, in fact, myths. They're dangerous beliefs because people draw a faulty conclusion from them: that we need to abandon current drug policy. That drugs need to be decriminalized, legalized, or somehow managed.

I know that some nations here today may be going in that direction. I would have to respectfully disagree with those approaches. In many cases, they provide band-aid solution: a short-term fix to a long-term problem. Maintaining addictions will never bring down demand. Decriminalizing classes of drugs will never send the message that drug abuse is harmful. The only way to end the many devastating effects of drug abuse is to overcome addiction and stop using drugs. It's not an easy thing to do, but that's where I believe we should put our energy and resources.

In deciding where to go with drug policy, we have the responsibility to look at the facts and see where we can make progress.

That progress doesn't come overnight. But it will come. America has had a long problem with drugs. It's not a war we've been fighting for 20 years. We've been fighting it for 120 years. In 1880, many drugs, including opium and cocaine, were legal. We didn't know their harms, but we soon learned. We saw the highest level of drug use ever in our nation, per capita. There were over 400,000 opium addicts in our nation. That's twice as many per capita as there are today. And like today, we saw rising crime come with that drug abuse.

But we fought those problems by passing and enforcing tough laws. Americans learned that drugs are illegal because they're harmful. And they worked—by World War II, drug use was reduced to the very margins of society. And ever since then, we've looked to our drug laws to teach us acceptable parameters of behavior. We look to our laws to uphold standards of accountability. The fact is-- that it is our laws that today keep the vast majority of our citizens away from drugs.

And we need to have a position that honors those laws and teaches respect for them. Our laws need to clearly echo the belief that drugs harm our citizens and weaken our nations. Particularly in our post 9/11 world, when citizens are looking to strengthen our institutions of government to fight the war on terrorism, they also need to look to our institutions to fully engage in the war on drugs.

And that is our responsibility as government leaders. Winston Churchill said that, "The price of greatness is responsibility." And so I believe all of our great nations have that responsibility to take us in a direction that will lead us away from permissive drug abuse and drug dependence. A direction that will take the next generation to an even greater future. A future that upholds the rule of law and the lasting traditions of liberty and freedom that have been secured and fostered over centuries here in Great Britain. Thank you. ##

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