This New York Times article describes an increasing awareness that the drugs that sparked the War on Drugs may not be the ones that should be getting so much attention:
America’s drug problem is shifting from illicit substances like cocaine to abuse of prescription painkillers, a change that is forcing policy makers to re-examine the long and expensive strategy of trying to stop illegal drugs from entering the United States. ...
What has changed is Americans’ use of cocaine.
The most recent National Survey on Drug Use and Health found 1.5 million people who had used cocaine in the past month, down from two million in 2002 and, according to an earlier government survey, 5.8 million in the mid-1980s. (Methamphetamine use has also fallen in recent years, while heroin use is up somewhat, to 239,000 monthly users in 2010 from 213,000 in 2008.)
Some officials argue the cocaine decline shows that supply side efforts have worked, but experts note that prices in the United States have held mostly steady since the late ’80s, suggesting that decreasing demand is the main cause. Mark A. R. Kleiman, a professor of public policy at the University of California, Los Angeles, said that in the United States, cocaine has simply run its course among aging addicts. “What you’re recording,” he said, “is the rate at which they are dying or quitting.”
Now the drugs most likely to land Americans in emergency rooms cannot be interdicted. Studies show that prescription painkillers, and stimulants to a lesser extent, are the nation’s biggest drug problem. The same survey that identified 1.5 million cocaine users in 2010 found seven million users of “psychotherapeutics.” Of the 36,450 overdose deaths in the United States in 2008, 20,044 were from prescription painkillers, more than all illicit drugs combined.
And whereas cocaine and heroin have been concentrated in big cities, prescription drug abuse has spread nearly everywhere.Historically, lawmakers pass mandatory minimum sentences in the hopes of scaring people off of the "drug du jour." Back in the 1980s, it was cocaine. Note that this article does not attribute the decrease in cocaine or meth use to longer, scarier sentences, but changes in drug use and preference. Now that the "drug du jour" appears to be something else, we hope lawmakers won't repeat their expensive mistake of the past by creating mandatory minimum sentences for prescription drugs. Those expensive, ineffective sentences don't do anything well in the War on Drugs -- except pack our prisons, cost taxpayers a fortune, and send too many of the wrong people to prison for too long.
Oh, and that Mexican drug war with all its violence? Still going, despite 30 years of mandatory sentencing policies.
Let's hope that this time around, with prescription drugs, our lawmakers have wisened up. No new mandatory minimum sentences for drugs -- any drugs -- period.