Speech

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

(Director often deviates from prepared text.)

Thank you. Good morning. On behalf of the DEA, I'm pleased to participate in this conference. Many thanks to our host organizations: John Jay College, the London Metropolitan Police, and the FBI for gathering some of the best minds in criminal justice policy from across the world. To the faculty and staff of John Jay, thank you for not only preparing students for a career in law enforcement, but also challenging those in leadership toward more effective criminal justice policies.

It is a distinct privilege for this farm boy from Gravette, Arkansas, to be in the land where the principle of liberty secured by law became a foundation of all democratic societies. From the rights laid down in the Magna Carta to the institution of the writ of habeas corpus, we find in this land the very foundations of a free and just society.

In this century, Great Britain has continued to stand as a bulwark against tyranny. Both in World War II and now in our war against terrorism, England has been steadfast in support of freedom. I am grateful for the leadership of Prime Minister Blair. 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 world and terrorism.

I am here to speak about another war today--the war on drugs. It is perhaps not as intriguing as the war on terrorism—but as we know—drug trafficking and terrorism are two evils that exist in the same jungle. They make a deadly combination like wind and fire that threatens our societies. For that reason, we cannot abandon nor weaken our resolve in this ongoing struggle.

The nations represented in this room understand the human suffering that comes with war. We know that war should be avoided, but not at the sacrifice of freedom. We know wars are 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 evil triumphs.

These realities of war are common in democratic societies. We know they are also true 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, by communities, and by our nations.

It is because drug addictions weaken us and drug violence threatens the rule of law. Democracy cannot remain strong if our society succumbs to a culture of drugs that seeks to enslave, diminish and corrupt the citizens. that is the reason we persist and remain vigilant in this fight.

The difficulty in the analogy of war is that we desire and expect for war to end—either in victory or defeat. But we must understand that some wars reflect an on-going struggle. As long as there is temptation, despair, greed, and youthful indiscretion, there will be drug abuse. But each step of the way there will be victories marked by changed lives, less usage, and reduced availability of illegal drugs. Yes, it is an on-going struggle, but there is the reward of life-transforming human victories.

In many circles, US drug policy is under attack. It is being criticized primarily by those who favor a legalization agenda. It is also being challenged by those who approve of the trends in Europe of decriminalization, harm reduction, and distinctions between hard and soft drugs.

I have had occasions to debate many of these proponents of a shift in US drug policy. Invariably, the arguments for change are based upon misinformation and distortions of the real facts in the United States. The arguments for change are based upon 4 myths. Myths that have been perpetuated by those who seek change and myths that are believed by some because they have lost hope. Let me discuss and dispute each of these 4 myths.

1. The first is that America's drug policy is a miserable failure.

The facts are just the contrary.

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 diminished in scope. And we've 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 done enough. We still have much progress to make. We are concerned with emerging drug threats like Ecstasy and methamphetamine. But the fact is that our current policies balancing prevention, enforcement, and treatment have kept drug usage outside the scope of acceptable behavior in the U.S.

To put it in perspective, less than 5% of the population uses illegal drugs of any kind. That's 12 ½ million regular users of all illegal drugs compared to 55 million tobacco users and over 100 million alcohol users.

Drug policy also has an impact on general crime. In a 2001 study, the British Home Office found violent crime and property crime increased in the late 1990s in every wealthy country except the United States. I know our murder rate is too high, and we have much to learn from those with greater success—but this reduction is due in part to a reduction in drug use.

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.

For example: 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. There has been success, and the reports of failure are only myths.

#2: The second myth is that U.S. prisons are filled with drug users.

There is a perception that law enforcement in U.S. targets drug users and that our prisons are filled with those who possess small amounts of drugs.

On the contrary, 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.

In New York, which has received criticism from some because of its tough Rockefeller drug laws, it is estimated that 97% of drug felons sentenced to prison were charged with sale or intent to sell.

In fact, first time drug offenders, even sellers, typically do not go to prison.

In addition, there has been a shift in the U.S. criminal justice system to provide treatment for non-violent felons with addiction problems, rather than incarceration. In New York, prosecutors currently divert from prison each year over 7,000 convicted drug felons. Many enter treatment programs. Inn fact, the criminal justice system acts as the largest referral source for drug treatment programs.

I hope the 2nd myth that users fill our prisons has been dispelled.

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

Drug legalization advocates in the United States single out cannabis 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.

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

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

Clearly, cannabis 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, cannabis 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.

If we are to effectively confront drug problems in our society, we cannot accept the myth that marijuana represents no harm. It does.

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

There are many innovative ideas in American drug policy—ideas that are achieving success. From drug courts to community coalitions; from more investment in education to more effective treatment; from drug testing in the workplace to drug counselors in schools, these are ideas that work.

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. Also, substance abuse research is funded at record levels.

One of the most successful new ideas in our country is drug courts. 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. Drug courts offer treatment with accountability. 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 culture of 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 community coalitions to dry up the demand. We're working with schools, civic groups, businesses, churches, and health professionals to change the character of the community.

New ideas are essential in working old problems. But these new ideas should be within the framework that drugs are illegal and there should be risk and accountability for use.

So those are four often repeated views about U.S. drug policy, and they are all 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.

We need to aim higher than simply managing drug addicts. Maintaining addictions will never bring down demand. Decriminalizing classes of drugs weakens the message that drug abuse is harmful.

In deciding where to go with drug policy, we have the responsibility to look at the facts, dispel the myths, and 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 with that drug abuse.

But we fought those problems by passing and enforcing tough laws. 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-- it is our laws that keep the vast majority of our citizens away from drugs.

And that is our responsibility as government leaders. Let me conclude by quoting Winston Churchill—a great lover of freedom. He said that, "The price of greatness is responsibility." Yes, all of our great nations have that responsibility to take us in a direction that will reject 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 gives hope through the just enforcement of our laws.

Thank you for lending your energy, your talents, and your hopes to this great mission. Thank you. ##

Home USDOJ.GOV Privacy Policy Contact Us Site Map