ISSUE GUIDE: Illegal Drugs


Illegal Drugs


Most Americans regard illegal drugs as one of the nation's most serious problems, but two generations after the "war on drugs" began, disagreement remains on what should be done.

For most people, this is an intensely personal problem as well as a government concern. More than half of the public worry that a family member might become addicted, and an overwhelming majority say the government isn't doing enough to address the problem.

Overall illicit use of drugs – defined as the use of illegal drugs and non-medical use of prescription drugs and other substances – has declined from its peak thirty years ago. Partly because survey participants might not be honest, drug abuse is hard to measure. Federal researchers have also updated their methods of conducting surveys on the subject. As a result, some recent and older polls can't be statistically compared, but their findings do provide at least a glimpse into changing behavior.

In 1979, 14.1 percent of individuals age 12 and older participating in the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse (NHSDA) reported illicit drug use in the month before the question was asked. In 2008, 8 percent of individuals age 12 and older said the same, in the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. That represents about 20 million people, and the rate has stayed stable since 2002. This apparent trend is underscored by statistics on teen drug abuse, from the University of Michigan's annual nationwide "Monitoring the Future" survey.

Researchers there link peaks and valleys in drug use to changing perceptions of the degree of health or other risks in using or even experimenting with various substances. These perceptions are in turn influenced by factors including parental attitudes, celebrity behavior, the experiences of other teens, high-profile drug-related deaths, cultural trends, and anti-drug advertising campaigns.

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Stopping Drugs at the Source by Cutting Off the Supply
Reducing Demand by Holding Users Accountable
Redefining Drug Use as Addiction, Not Criminal Behavior
Certain drugs are illegal for a reason -- they're so dangerous that there is no safe way to have them in our society. We have to do everything possible to keep illegal drugs out of the country and off the streets. We need to cut off the supply of drugs by targeting traffickers and dealers, both wholesalers and street corner drug dealers. Tougher enforcement and stricter sentencing of dealers and users helped to deal with the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1990s and kept overall drug use at stable levels. To win the war on drugs, we need to pursue this strategy aggressively, making every effort to identify, prosecute, and imprison drug dealers, thus cutting off the drug supply both at home and abroad.
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The drug problem has persisted because millions of drug users continue to buy them. Despite abundant evidence of their corrosive effect on users and the society as a whole, drug use is still widely tolerated and even glamorized in the media. Sports stars use steroids and many people abuse even over-the-counter inhalants and prescription drugs. The war on drugs will be won only when millions of users are persuaded to stop, and young people are persuaded not to start. We have to make zero tolerance for drugs a top national priority -- starting at home, in the schools, and the workplace.
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The drug problem has persisted, and in some respects worsened, because we've gone at it the wrong way. The war on drugs isn't working and even if it was, the price is too high. The prohibition on drugs leads to black market prices. It generates crime and violence as dealers fight over turf and sales, and drug users steal to buy illicit substances at inflated prices. The drug laws turn users -- who need treatment -- into criminals. We'd be far better off if drug use were regarded as a health problem. We should legalize at least some drugs and reduce the harm they cause by regulating their sale and treating their victims.
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