George Will’s latest column starts out with a key insight about drugs and drug policy: the bulk of the volume is consumed, the bulk of the money spent, and the bulk of the damage taken and inflicted, by a minority of users: the ones who lose control of their drug-taking. As is often the case, 20% of the people engaged account for 80% of the activity.
When it comes to cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine, those heavy users are likely to be criminally active, and therefore to come into contact with the criminal justice system. If we could drastically reduce their drug use, we could drastically reduce the volume of illicit drug sales, reducing the drug-market problems here and abroad.
The good news is that we now precisely how to do this: frequent, random drug testing and very short jail stays for each incident of detected use for heavily drug-involved felons on probation, parole, or pretrial release. The HOPE approach not only cuts down on their drug use, it reduces their days-behind-bars by more than half, since they don’t get arrested for new crimes or revoked for probation/parole violations nearly as often as those on what is now “normal” probation or parole.
That’s the way to escape the unpleasant choice Will sketches between enriching a few dealers and imprisoning hundreds of thousands of others by maintaining prohibition or risking a huge increase in drug abuse by alcohol-style legalization.