Searching for More Effective Drug Policies

Drug use is on the rise and treatment lags
Mathea Falco. Photo by Webb ChappellMathea Falco. Photo by Webb Chappell

Faced with rising recreational drug use at home and an epidemic of heroin addiction among American soldiers returning from Vietnam, President Richard Nixon declared war on drugs. The antidrug campaign has cost the United States more than $2.5 trillion in just over 40 years, and yet the White House reports that illicit drug use is on the rise and that treatment is available for only one-tenth of the addicts who need it.

When the drug war began, Mathea Falco ’65 was the new chief counsel and staff director of the US Senate Judiciary Juvenile Delinquency Subcommittee, which had jurisdiction over juvenile delinquency, gun control, and the nation’s drug laws. When she took the job in 1971, Falco sent a staffer to the Library of Congress. “Bring me every book about heroin,” she said. “I don’t know anything about it.”

Falco went on to become assistant secretary of state for international narcotics matters under President Jimmy Carter, traveling the globe to meet with other governments about curtailing illicit drug production and trafficking—on the theory that reducing foreign supplies would shrink drug use at home. Now president of Drug Strategies, a nonprofit research institute in Washington, DC, Falco calls this approach “the supply-side seduction,” relying on foreign crop eradication and interdiction as well as domestic enforcement to drive up drug prices in the United States. For four decades, both Republican and Democratic administrations have directed more than two-thirds of total drug spending toward supply-side strategies, while the remainder has gone to prevention and treatment. This approach has failed to reduce US drug abuse, resulted in mass incarceration of drug offenders, and created unanticipated problems with other countries and at home.

For example, herbicidal marijuana eradication in Mexico funded by the United States in the 1970s to stop Mexican marijuana from coming into the United States alienated farmers in key growing areas, exacerbating political tensions and violence. Meanwhile illegal production of much higher quality marijuana in the United States rapidly accelerated to meet domestic demand. By 2000 experts estimated that after corn and soybeans, marijuana was the largest agricultural crop in the United States despite its illegal status.

Clearly a new strategy is needed.

Working with former US deputy attorney general Philip Heymann, now the James Barr Ames Professor of Law and Director of the International Center for Criminal Justice at Harvard Law School, Falco co-organized a January Exploratory Seminar with an interdisciplinary approach at the Radcliffe Institute. Falco and Heymann brought together 18 experts in diverse fields, including Patti B. Saris ’73, a federal judge and chair of the US Sentencing Commission; Peter Reuter, professor of public policy at the University of Maryland; John Knight, director of the Center for Adolescent Substance Abuse Research and assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School; and Hubert Williams, past president of the Police Foundation.

“The Radcliffe Institute was an ideal venue for this exploration,” Falco says, “because of its commitment to developing new approaches to policy issues that reflect a broad spectrum of professional and academic expertise.”

Over the course of two days in the Academic Ventures seminar, the group reviewed the evidence emerging from multidisciplinary research to examine the assumptions underlying past drug policies and practices. They focused on the history and sociology behind existing strategies, the current state of domestic antidrug law enforcement, and the latest developments in treatment and prevention, including early childhood interventions and adolescent programs. They considered the challenges and possibilities for international drug control.

The resulting summary will be sent to legislative and executive leaders. Falco and Heymann hope it will provide a more solid framework for recommendations about future policy and push forward research that can open new horizons in thinking about how to reduce drug abuse and its related problems.

“We focused on identifying new approaches that are beyond ideology,” Heymann says. “They may be radical in their novelty, but that’s what we think is required.”

Although Falco, who celebrated her 50th reunion this year, has stayed connected to Radcliffe in the years since graduation—first as a Radcliffe trustee and later as a Harvard overseer—the Exploratory Seminar was a homecoming of sorts.

“Radcliffe was a haven for my classmates within the larger University,” Falco says. “And it continues to be a haven for excellence today. The seminar embodies the best of Radcliffe—it was an opportunity to participate in transformative discussions that can shape the world going forward.”

About the future of drug policy, Falco remains optimistic. In another decade, when she celebrates her 60th reunion, she would like to be able to talk about new, more effective strategies—which may very well have begun at Radcliffe.

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