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New Figures Don’t Merit a Clampdown

Jack Riley is the director of the criminal justice research program at Rand

According to news reports, government officials now think that cocaine production and importation estimates may be substantially off the mark. Setting aside the issue of whether these new estimates are more trustworthy than the estimates they replace, the new figures will raise predictable calls to increase border enforcement, crop eradication and suppression efforts in producing countries.

Before the mix of drug control policies is reconsidered, however, there are some factors to bear in mind:

* Cocaine production and imports have not suddenly changed. Cocaine producers and traffickers have been slowly adapting to U.S. anti-drug strategies, but our ability to measure or understand that has lagged behind the speed of the adaptations. The new figures may make it appear that the U.S. is being flooded with new cocaine imports, but a review of U.S. cocaine use trends and developments in international markets indicates otherwise.

* The only estimates that matter are those of the number of users and the consequences of their use. Importation of cocaine is driven by demand for the drug. That is, the more users, and the more the average user consumes, the more that will be smuggled in.

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However, there is abundant good news on the user front in the United States. Surveys of juveniles and young adults show that fewer are reporting recent or frequent use of cocaine than at almost any other time in recent years. Cocaine use among the general population, as captured in the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, has been dropping slowly for years and remains substantially below the peaks recorded in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Drug-test results among arrested suspects show sharp declines in measured cocaine use in a number of key cities, including New York, Detroit and Washington. Moreover, much of the drop in overall cocaine use, particularly among the arrested population, appears among crack users, and declines in crack use have contributed to the declines in crime felt in many parts of the country. In short, nearly every indicator demonstrates substantial progress in reducing cocaine use.

* If cocaine use in the United States is holding steady or declining and yet more of it is being produced than we thought, where is it all going? Unfortunately, there is growing evidence that cocaine use is becoming worse globally.

A recent report by the National Institute of Justice showed that nearly 10% of the arrested suspects in England were positive by urinalysis for cocaine at the time of arrest. Other reports show that cocaine use among arrested suspects is even higher in parts of Latin America.

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One reason that information about global cocaine consumption is lagging is because few countries other than the U.S. make systematic attempts to quantify drug use. The higher cocaine production estimates that result from the changed methodology should serve as a warning call to other nations that this cocaine is going someplace, but the quality and breadth of the U.S. data lead one to safely conclude that it is not yet being used in the United States.

* Supply control programs have been credited with reducing cocaine use by restricting availability, increasing prices and deterring dealing, but the new production figures, if true, call into question the logic of such assertions. Clearly, U.S. cocaine markets cannot be supply-constrained if there is actually twice as much being produced as previously thought and yet cocaine use is declining.

The real reasons for reduced cocaine use can be found in changing demand and changing user populations. The cocaine epidemic in the U.S. is now 15 years old. The original users are now aging and dying, or have been incarcerated so that their drug-using careers have been disrupted, or are seeking treatment (sometimes with a push from the criminal justice system) to curb their addiction. Moreover, potential new users have witnessed these effects and have thus been deterred from initiating use.

Given that the real reasons for declines in cocaine use have almost nothing to do with restrictions on availability, the latest news on production figures, while alarming, are weak justification for boosting border enforcement, crop eradication and suppression efforts in drug-producing countries at the expense of the other components of a balanced drug-control strategy.


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