DEA Congressional Testimony
June 16, 1999

 

Donnie Marshall, Deputy Administrator
Drug Enforcement Administration
United States Department of Justice

Before the:

Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, Drug Policy and Human Resources

Date:

June 16, 1999

Note: This document may not reflect changes made in actual delivery.

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Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee, I appreciate the opportunity to appear before you today on the issue of drug legalization, decriminalization and harm reduction.
I am not a scientist, a doctor, a lawyer, or an economist. So I'll do my best to leave the scientific, the medical, the legal and the economic issues to others. At the Drug Enforcement Administration, our mission is not to enact laws, but to enforce them. Based on our experience in enforcing drug laws, I can provide you with information and with our best judgment about policy outcomes that may help put into context the various arguments in this debate.

I would like to discuss what I believe would happen if drugs were legalized. I realize that much of the current debate has been over the legalization of so-called medical marijuana. But I suspect that medical marijuana is merely the first tactical maneuver in an overall strategy that will lead to the eventual legalization of all drugs.

Whether all drugs are eventually legalized or not, the practical outcome of legalizing even one, like marijuana, is to increase the amount of usage among all drugs. It's been said that you can't put the genie back in the bottle or the toothpaste back in the tube. I think those are apt metaphors for what will happen if America goes down the path of legalization. Once America gives into a drug culture, and all the social decay that comes with such a culture, it would be very hard to restore a decent civic culture without a cost to America's civil liberties that would be prohibitively high.

There is a huge amount of research about drugs and their effect on society, here and abroad. I'll let others better acquainted with all of the scholarly literature discuss that research. What I will do is suggest four probable outcomes of legalization and then make a case why a policy of drug enforcement works.

Legalization would boost drug use

The first outcome of legalization would be to have a lot more drugs around, and, in turn, a lot more drug abuse. I can't imagine anyone arguing that legalizing drugs would reduce the amount of drug abuse we already have. Although drug use is down from its high mark in the late 1970s, America still has entirely too many people who are on drugs.

In 1962, for example, only four million Americans had ever tried a drug in their entire lifetime. In 1997, the latest year for which we have figures, 77 million Americans had tried drugs. Roughly half of all high school seniors have tried drugs by the time they graduate.

The result of having a lot of drugs around is more and more consumption. To put it another way, supply drives demand. That is an outcome that has been apparent from the early days of drug enforcement.

What legalization could mean for drug consumption in the United States can be seen in the drug liberalization experiment in Holland. In 1976, Holland decided to liberalize its laws regarding marijuana. Since then, Holland has acquired a reputation as the drug capital of Europe. For example, a majority of the synthetic drugs, such as Ecstasy (MDMA) and methamphetamine, now used in the United Kingdom are produced in Holland.

The effect of supply on demand can also be seen even in countries that take a tougher line on drug abuse. An example is the recent surge in heroin use in the United States. In the early 1990s, cocaine traffickers from Colombia discovered that there was a lot more profit with a lot less work in selling heroin. Several years ago, they began to send heroin from South America to the United States.

To make as much money as possible, they realized they needed not only to respond to a market, but to create a market. They devised an aggressive marketing campaign which included the use of brand names and the distribution of free samples of heroin to users who bought their cocaine. In many cases, they induced distributors to move quantities of heroin to stimulate market growth. The traffickers greatly increased purity levels, allowing many potential addicts who might be squeamish about using needles to snort the heroin rather than injecting it. The result has been a huge increase in the number of people trying heroin for the first time, five times as many in 1997 as just four years before.

I don't mean to imply that demand is not a critical factor in the equation. But any informed drug policy should take into consideration that supply has a great influence on demand. In 1997, American companies spent $73 billion advertising their products and services. These advertisers certainly must have a well-documented reason to believe that consumers are susceptible to the power of suggestion, or they wouldn't be spending all that money. The market for drugs is no different. International drug traffickers are spending enormous amounts of money to make sure that drugs are available to every American kid in a school yard.

Dr. Herbert Kleber, a professor of psychiatry at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, and one of the nation's leading authorities on addiction, stated in a 1994 article in the New England Journal of Medicine that clinical data support the premise that drug use would increase with legalization. He said:

"There are over 50 million nicotine addicts, 18 million alcoholics or problem drinkers, and fewer than 2 million cocaine addicts in the United States. Cocaine is a much more addictive drug than alcohol. If cocaine were legally available, as alcohol and nicotine are now, the number of cocaine abusers would probably rise to a point somewhere between the number of users of the other two agents, perhaps 20 to 25 million...the number of compulsive users might be nine times higher than the current number. When drugs have been widely available -- as...cocaine was at the turn of the century -- both use and addiction have risen."
I can't imagine the impact on this society if that many people were abusers of cocaine. From what we know about the connection between drugs and crime, America would certainly have to devote an enormous amount of its financial resources to law enforcement.

Legalization would contribute to a rise in crime.

The second outcome of legalization would be more crime, especially more violent crime. There's a close relationship between drugs and crime. This relationship is borne out by the statistics. Every year, the Justice Department compiles a survey of people arrested in a number of American cities to determine how many of them tested positive for drugs at the time of their arrest. In 1998, the survey found, for example, that 74 percent of those arrested in Atlanta for a violent crime tested positive for drugs. In Miami, 49 percent; in Oklahoma City, 60 percent.

There's a misconception that most drug-related crimes involve people who are looking for money to buy drugs. The fact is that the most drug-related crimes are committed by people whose brains have been messed up with mood-altering drugs. A 1994 study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics compared Federal and State prison inmates in 1991. It found, for example, that 18 percent of the Federal inmates had committed homicide under the influence of drugs, whereas 2.7 percent committed homicide to get the money to buy drugs. The same disparities showed up for State inmates: almost 28 percent committed homicide under the influence versus 5.3 percent to get money to buy drugs.

Those who propose legalization argue that it would cut down on the number of drug-related crimes because addicts would no longer need to rob people to buy their drugs from illicit sources. But even supposing that argument is true, which I don't think that it is, the fact is that so many more people would be abusing drugs, and committing crimes under the influence of drugs, that the crime rate would surely go up rather than down.

It's clear that drugs often cause people to do things they wouldn't do if they were drug-free. Too many drug users lose the kind of self-control and common sense that keeps them in bounds. In 1998, in the small community of Albion, Illinois, two young men went on a widely reported, one-week, non-stop binge on methamphetamine. At the end of it, they started a killing rampage that left five people dead. One was a Mennonite farmer. They shot him as he was working in his fields. Another was a mother of four. They hijacked her car and killed her.

The crime resulting from drug abuse has had an intolerable effect on American society. To me, the situation is well illustrated by what has happened in Baltimore during the last 50 years. In 1950, Baltimore had just under a million residents. Yet there were only 300 heroin addicts in the entire city. That's fewer than one out of every 3,000 residents. For those 300 people and their families, heroin was a big problem. But it had little effect on the day-to-day pattern of life for the vast majority of the residents of Baltimore.

Today, Baltimore has 675,000 residents, roughly 70 percent of the population it had in 1950. But it has 130 times the number of heroin addicts. One out of every 17 people in Baltimore is a heroin addict. Almost 39,000 people. For the rest of the city's residents, it's virtually impossible to avoid being affected in some way by the misery, the crime and the violence that drug abuse has brought to Baltimore.

People who once might have sat out on their front stoops on a hot summer night are now reluctant to venture outdoors for fear of drug-related violence. Drug abuse has made it a matter of considerable risk to walk down the block to the corner grocery store, to attend evening services at church, or to gather in the school playground.

New York City offers a dramatic example of what effective law enforcement can do to stem violent crime. City leaders increased the police department by 30 percent, adding 8,000 officers. Arrests for all crimes, including drug dealing, drug gang activity and quality of life violations which had been tolerated for many years, increased by 50 percent. The capacity of New York prisons was also increased.

The results of these actions were dramatic. In 1990, there were 2,262 homicides in New York City. By 1998, the number of homicides had dropped to 663. That's a 70 percent reduction in just eight years. Had the murder rate stayed the same in 1998 as it was in 1990, 1629 more people would have been killed in New York City. I believe it is fair to say that those 1629 people owe their lives to this effective response by law enforcement.

Legalization would have consequences for society

The third outcome of legalization would be a far different social environment. The social cost of drug abuse is not found solely in the amount of crime it causes. Drugs cause an enormous amount of accidents, domestic violence, illness, and lost opportunities for many who might have led happy, productive lives.

Drug abuse takes a terrible toll on the health and welfare of a lot of American families. In 1996, for example, there were almost 15,000 drug-induced deaths in the United States, and a half-million emergency room episodes related to drugs. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has estimated that 36 percent of new HIV cases are directly or indirectly linked to injecting drug users.

Increasing drug use has had a major impact on the workplace. According to estimates in the 1997 National Household Survey, a study conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), 6.7 million full-time workers and 1.6 million part-time workers are current users of illegal drugs.

Employees who test positive for drug use consume almost twice the medical benefits as nonusers, are absent from work 50 percent more often, and make more than twice as many workers' compensation claims. Drug use also presents an enormous safety problem in the workplace.

This is particularly true in the transportation sector. Marijuana, for example, impairs the ability of drivers to maintain concentration and show good judgment on the road. A study released by the National Institute on Drug Abuse surveyed 6,000 teenage drivers. It studied those who drove more than six times a month after using marijuana. The study found that they were about two-and-a-half times more likely to be involved in a traffic accident than those who didn't smoke before driving.

The problem is compounded when drivers have the additional responsibility for the safety of many lives. In Illinois, for example, drug tests were administered to current and prospective school bus drivers between 1995 and 1996. Two hundred tested positive for marijuana, cocaine and other drugs. In January 1987, a Conrail engineer drove his locomotive in front of an Amtrak passenger train, killing 16 people and injuring 170. It was later determined that just 18 minutes before the crash, both he and his brakeman had been smoking marijuana.

In addition to these public safety risks and the human misery costs to drug users and their families associated with drug abuse, the Office of National Drug Control Policy has put a financial price tag on this social ill. According to the 1999 National Drug Control Strategy, illegal drugs cost society about $110 billion every year.

Proponents of legalization point to several liberalization experiments in Europe -- for example, the one in Holland that I have already mentioned. The experiment in Holland is now 23 years old, so it provides a good illustration of what liberalizing our drug laws portends.

The head of Holland's best known drug abuse rehabilitation center has described what the new drug culture has created. The strong form of marijuana that most of the young people smoke, he says, produces "a chronically passive individual -- someone who is lazy, who doesn't want to take initiatives, doesn't want to be active -- the kid who'd prefer to lie in bed with a joint in the morning rather than getting up and doing something."

England's experience with widely available heroin shows that use and addiction increase. In a policy far more liberal than America's, Great Britain allowed doctors to prescribe heroin to addicts. There was an explosion of heroin use, and by the mid-1980s known addiction rates were increasing by about 30 percent a year. According to James Q. Wilson, in 1960, there were 68 heroin addicts registered with the British Government. Today, there are roughly 31,000.

Liberalization in Switzerland has had much the same results. This small nation became a magnet for drug users the world over. In 1987, Zurich permitted drug use and sales in a part of the city called Platzspitz, dubbed "Needle Park." By 1992, the number of regular drug users at the park had reportedly swelled from a few hundred in 1982 to 20,000 by 1992. The experiment has since been terminated.

In April, 1994, a number of European cities signed a resolution titled "European Cities Against Drugs," commonly known as the Stockholm resolution. The signatories include some of the major European cities, like Berlin, Stockholm, Paris, Madrid, London, Warsaw and Moscow. As the resolution stated: "the answer does not lie in making harmful drugs more accessible, cheaper and socially acceptable. Attempts to do this have not proved successful. We believe that legalizing drugs will, in the long term, increase our problems. By making them legal, society will signal that it has resigned to the acceptance of drug abuse." I couldn't say it any better than that. After seeing the results of liberalization up close, these European cities clearly believe that liberalization is a bad idea.

You do not have to visit Amsterdam or Zurich or London to witness the effects of drug abuse. If you really want to discover what legalization might mean for society, talk to a local clergyman or an eighth grade teacher, or a high school coach, or a scout leader or a parent. How many teachers do you know who come and visit your offices and say, Congressman, the thing that our kids need more than anything else is greater availability to drugs. How many parents have you ever known to say, "I sure wish my child could find illegal drugs more easily than he can now."

Or talk to a local cop on the beat. Night after night, they deal with drug-induced domestic violence situations. They roll up to a house and there is a fight, and the people are high on pot or speed, or their husband or father is a heroin addict, and you can't wake him up or he's overdosed in the family bedroom. That's where you see the real effects of drugs.

Anyone who has ever worked undercover in drug enforcement has witnessed young children, 12- and 14-year old girls, putting needles into their arms, shooting up heroin or speed. To feed their habit, the kids start stealing from their parents and their brothers and sisters, stealing and pawning the watch that's been handed down from their grandmother to buy a bag of dope. Drug addiction is a family affair. It's a tragedy for everyone involved. And it wouldn't matter a bit to these families if the drugs were legal. The human misery would be the same. There would just be more of it.

Legalization would present a law enforcement nightmare

The fourth outcome of legalization would be a law enforcement nightmare. I suspect few people would want to make drugs available to 12-year old children. That reluctance points to a major flaw in the legalization proposal. Drugs will always be denied to some sector of the population, so there will always be some form of black market and a need for drug enforcement.

Consider some of the questions that legalization raises? What drugs will be legalized? Will it be limited to marijuana? If the principle is advanced that drug abuse is a victimless crime, why limit drug use to marijuana?

I know that there are those who will make the case that drug addiction hurts no one but the user. If that becomes part of the conventional wisdom, there will certainly be pressure to legalize all drug use. Only when people come to realize how profoundly all of us are affected by widespread drug abuse will there be pressure to put the genie back in the bottle. By then, it may be too late.

But deciding what drugs to legalize will only be part of the problem. Who will be able to buy drugs legally? Only those over 18 or 21? If so, you can bet that many young people who have reached the legal age will divert their supplies to younger friends. Of course, these young pushers will be in competition with many of the same people who are now pushing drugs in school yards and neighborhood streets.

Any attempt to limit drug use to any age group at all will create a black market, with all of the attendant crime and violence, thereby defeating one of the goals of legalization. That's also true if legalization is limited to marijuana. Cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine will be far more profitable products for the drug lords. Legalization of marijuana alone would do little to stem illegal trafficking.

Will airline pilots be able to use drugs? Heart surgeons? People in law enforcement or the military? Teachers? Truck drivers? Workers in potentially dangerous jobs like construction?

Drug use has been demonstrated to result in lower work-place productivity, and often ends in serious, life-threatening accidents. Many drug users are so debilitated by their habit that they can't hold jobs. Which raises the question, if drug users can't hold a job, where will they get the money to buy drugs? Will the right to use drugs imply a right to the access to drugs? If so, who will distribute free drugs? Government employees? The local supermarket? The college bookstore? If they can't hold a job, who will provide their food, clothing and shelter?

Virtually any form of legalization will create a patchwork quilt of drug laws and drug enforcement. The confusion would swamp our precinct houses and courtrooms. I don't think it would be possible to effectively enforce the remaining drug laws in that kind of environment.

Drug enforcement works

This is no time to undermine America's effort to stem drug abuse. America's drug policies work. From 1979 to 1994, the number of drug users in America dropped by almost half. Two things significantly contributed to that outcome. First, a strong program of public education; second, a strict program of law enforcement.

If you look over the last four decades, you can see a pattern develop. An independent researcher, R. E. Peterson, has analyzed this period, using statistics from a wide variety of sources, including the Justice Department and the White House Office of National Drug Control Strategy. He broke these four decades down into two periods: the first, from 1960 to 1980, an era of permissive drug laws; the second, from 1980 to 1995, an era of tough drug laws.

During the permissive period, drug incarceration rates fell almost 80 percent. During the era of tough drug laws, drug incarceration rates rose almost 450 percent. Just as you might expect, these two policies regarding drug abuse had far different consequences. During the permissive period, drug use among teens climbed by more than 500 percent. During the tough era, drug use by high school students dropped by more than a third.

Is there an absolute one-to-one correlation between tougher drug enforcement and a declining rate of drug use? I wouldn't suggest that. But the contrasts of drug abuse rates between the two eras of drug enforcement are striking.

One historian of the drug movement has written about America's experience with the veterans of Vietnam. As you may recall from the early 1970s, there was a profound concern in the American government over the rates of heroin use by our military personnel in Vietnam. At the time, U.S. Army medical officers estimated that about 10-15 percent of the lower ranking enlisted men in Vietnam were heroin users.

Military authorities decided to take a tough stand on the problem. They mandated a drug test for every departing soldier. Those who failed were required to undergo drug treatment for 30 days. The theory was that many of the soldiers who were using heroin would give it up to avoid the added 30 days in Vietnam. It clearly worked. Six months after the tests began, the percentage of soldiers testing positive dropped from 10 percent to two percent.

There may be a whole host of reasons for this outcome. But it demonstrates that there is nothing inevitable about drug abuse. In fact, the history of America's experience with drugs has shown us that it was strong drug enforcement that effectively ended America's first drug epidemic, which lasted from the mid-1880s to the mid-1920s.

By 1923, about half of all prisoners at the Federal penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas, were violators of America's first drug legislation, the Harrison Act. If you are concerned by the high drug incarceration rates of the late 1990s, consider the parallels to the tough drug enforcement policies of the 1920s. It was those tough policies that did much to create America's virtually drug-free environment of the mid-20th Century.

Drug laws can work, if we have the national resolve to enforce them. As a father, as someone who's had a lot of involvement with the Boy Scouts and Little Leaguers, and as a 30-year civil servant in drug enforcement, I can tell you that there are a lot of young people out there looking for help. Sometimes helping them means saying "no," and having the courage to back it up.

Let me tell you a story about one of them. He was a young man who lived near Austin, Texas. He had a wife who was pregnant. To protect their identities, I'll call them John and Michelle. John was involved in drugs, and one night we arrested him and some of his friends on drug charges. He went on to serve a six-month sentence before being turned loose.

Sometime after he got out, he and his wife came to our office looking for me. They rang the doorbell out at the reception area, and my secretary came back and said they were here to see me. I had no idea what they wanted. I was kind of leery, thinking they might be looking for revenge. But I went out to the reception area anyway.

John and Michelle were standing there with a little toddler. They said they just wanted to come in so we could see their new baby. And then Michelle said there was a second reason they came by. When he got arrested, she said, that's the best thing that ever happened to them.

We had been very wholesome people, she said. John was involved in sports in high school. He was an all-American guy. Then he started smoking pot. His parents couldn't reach him. His teachers couldn't reach him. He got into other drugs. He dropped out of high school. The only thing that ever got his attention, she said, was when he got arrested.

Meanwhile, John was listening to all this and shaking his head in agreement. He said that his high school coach had tried to counsel him, but he wouldn't listen to him. He said his big mistake was dropping out of sports. He thought that if he had stayed in sports he wouldn't have taken the route he did.

When I arrested those kids that night I had no idea of the extent to which I would ultimately help them out of their problems and influence their lives in a positive way. In 30 years of dealing with young Americans, I believe that John is more typical than not.

America spends millions of dollars every year on researching the issue of drugs. We have crime statistics and opinion surveys and biochemical research. And all of that is important. But what it all comes down to is whether we can help young people like John - whether we can keep them from taking that first step into the world of drugs that will ruin their careers, destroy their marriages and leave them in a cycle of dependency on chemicals.

Whether in rural areas, in the suburbs, or in the inner cities, there are a lot of kids who could use a little help. Sometimes that help can take the form of education and counseling. Often it takes a stronger approach. And there are plenty of young people, and older people as well, who could use it.

If we as a society are unwilling to have the courage to say no to drug abuse, we will find that drugs will not only destroy the society we have built up over 200 years, but ruin millions of young people like John.

Drug abuse, and the crime and personal dissolution and social decay that go with it, are not inevitable. Too many people in America seem resigned to the growing rates of drug use. But America's experience with drugs shows that strong law enforcement policies can and do work.

At DEA, our mission is to fight drug trafficking in order to make drug abuse the most expensive, unpleasant, risky, and disreputable form of recreation a person could have. If drug users aren't worried about their health, or the health and welfare of those who depend on them, they should at least worry about the likelihood of getting caught. Not only do tough drug enforcement policies work, but I might add that having no government policy, as many are suggesting today, is in fact a policy, one that will reap a whirlwind of crime and social decay.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman and members of the Committee, for the opportunity to testify before you today. I would be happy to try and answer any questions you might have.

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