With heroin making a comeback as the drug of choice on the East Coast, methamphetamine distribution moving across the country from west to east, and pot smoking by the nation’s teen-agers continuing to rise steadily, 1996 brought a renewed chorus of voices insisting that the Government’s approach to drug fighting is not as effective as it should be, and that a new, balanced look is needed at what works and what doesn’t.
Surveys, experimental programs and support for alternative approaches to drug enforcement by police last year indicate that even law enforcers are willing to try new ideas they may have resisted in the past.
A nationwide poll conducted for the Police Foundation and Drug Strategies, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that advocates a more balanced approach to anti-drug efforts, found in April that more than half of the 300 police chiefs surveyed thought the current approach to fighting drugs needs a “fundamental overhaul.”
Ninety percent of the chiefs insisted that decriminalization would be wrong, but 47 percent said education is the most effective approach to the problem, compared to 28 percent who felt interdiction of drug supplies was the best approach, and just 15 percent who said punishment is more useful that interdiction, treatment and education.
Placing users in court-supervised treatment programs was found by 59 percent of the chiefs to be more effective than imprisonment, and fully two-thirds said funding for such intervention programs should not be curtailed.
Some police chiefs are already exploring or advocating new approaches to the drug issue, including New Haven Police Chief Nicholas Pastore, who has been supportive of needle-exchange programs and other measures that address drugs as a public-health issue. In Baltimore, Police Commissioner Thomas Frazier last year sent a team of officers overseas to the Dutch city of Rotterdam to study its relaxed approach to drugs, which has resulted in just 3,500 addicts in a population of roughly 600,000. Baltimore, meanwhile, has 100,000 more residents than Rotterdam, but more than 10 times the number of drug addicts.
In Birmingham, Ala., the National Institute of Justice awarded a $1-million grant in September for an experiment that would test every arrestee for illegal drug use. Those who test positive would be required to attend treatment programs. While there is debate over how effective mandatory treatment is, between one-half and three-fourths of the nation’s criminal population tests positive for drugs at the time of arrest.
The profile of hard-core users is changing as well at least where heroin in concerned, with the drug having gained popularity with the middle-class and professional sectors of society. It’s “remarkably different than it was 20 years ago,” said Robert Strang, a former DEA agent who once worked undercover on Wall Street. “We’ve seen a tremendous increase in heroin use over the past six years, not only in New York, but also in Dallas, Los Angeles, Chicago and Miami.”
Usually at least 65 percent pure, and disturbingly cheap, heroin has been blamed by Orlando police for the deaths of five teen-agers over a recent 12-month period. During the first half of 1995, heroin-related emergencies at Boston hospitals jumped 72 percent compared with the same period in 1994. Heroin seized by law enforcement agencies tested 97-percent pure, as compared with a product that was less than 10-percent pure five years ago.
Law enforcement officials are also increasingly concerned about the eastward spread of methamphetamine, also known as crank, ice or speed, and feared by many officials as the likely successor to crack. The Drug Use Forecasting program has said that roughly 6 percent of all adult arrestees test positive for the drug, with use concentrated in the West and Southwest.
“This is the most malignant, addictive drug known to mankind,” said Dr. Michael Abrams of Broadlawn Medical Center in Des Moines. Police sources in Washington state say cocaine users are switching to methamphetamine because the drug is believed to be less adulterated than cocaine and its effects can last far longer.
From 1992 to 1994, speed-related deaths increased 145 percent nationwide, according to attendees at a conference in February, which brought together Federal, state and local law enforcement officials to formulate a national strategy for curbing methamphetamine traffic. In Los Angeles, deaths more than tripled during those two years, while Phoenix’s casualty toll rose sixfold from 1993 to 1994.
Since 1992, the use of marijuana among teen-agers has been creeping back up. According to a nationwide survey by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, juveniles are declining to “just say no” at an alarming rate. Factors for the increase, which briefly became an issue in the 1996 Presidential campaign, may include the glamorization of pot in the media, a lack of persistent government programs, and communication problems between parents and their children.
The annual National Household Survey on Drug Abuse found that while the use of illicit drugs by adolescents dropped from 3.2 million in 1985 to 1.3 million in 1992, the number shot up again in 1994 to 2.1 million.
LSD is also a favorite of teens, according to a University of Michigan survey which found that in 1994, LSD use among the nation’s high school students hit a 20-year high.