Menace to Society: Drug Threatdown 2011

The United States government’s recent “National Drug Threat Assessment 2011” targets international trafficking organizations even while it identifies domestic prescription pharmaceuticals as having the most destructive health consequences.

suzanna.reiss 9/22/2011

The United States Justice Department has a National Drug Intelligence Center that, among other things, recently issued its “National Drug Threat Assessment 2011”.

There are many notable revelations in this report.  

402To mention a few: The report’s structure itself is remarkable. It begins with a section entitled the “Impact of Drugs on Society” that clearly values economic factors over human health and well being, even while it confines its impact assessment exclusively to the United States. According to the report, the problem is measured by “lost productivity” (by drug users’ confinement in prisons and hospitals, or incapacitation, including from “drug-related homicide”), the expense of maintaining the “criminal justice system” and “drug-related healthcare costs,” which apparently include the expense of emergency services, drug-treatment programs, and research. The social costs, in so far as they are measured, only refer to the United States. There is no mention of the human costs that the production, delivery, and policing of these valuable commodities continue to cause in communities in Mexico, through Central America, across the Andes deep into South America, and beyond the hemsiphere.

At first glance the report seems to chart a clear line between foreign threats and domestic vulnerabilities. “Mexican,” “Colombian,” “Ethnic Asian,” “Dominican,” “Cuban,” and “West African” international trafficking organizations are the targets of this “threat assessment” as the report purports to chart the flow and availability of cocaine, heroin, marijuana, MDMA, and methamphetamine into different communities across the United States.

At the same time, the largest drug menace in the United States today, if measured in terms of public health, is connected to none of these drugs. The “threat assessment” focuses on foreign traffickers, but it acknowledges up front that it is primarily prescription drugs, not foreign imported illicit drugs that are the American consumers’ most popular choice today for illicit, reckless consumption. More than a third of the estimated total current illicit drug users in the United States today are consuming what law enforcement refer to as “CPD’s,” or controlled prescription drugs. 403Prescription Drug Take-Back Event, Arizona, DEA.Pharmaceutical manufactured prescription drugs are widely and apparently increasingly being consumed by “non-medical” users and are, according to police accounts, second only behind marijuana as drugs of “abuse.” It is noteworthy that prescription drugs, according to the report, are the leading cause of drug-induced death: “According to the latest data available, the number of prescription overdose deaths exceeds the number of cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine deaths combined.”

Of course, if you take incarceration rates into account as a measure of public health, and not merely “lost productivity” the distortions become even more extreme.  The latest Federal Bureau of Narcotics statistics on drug arrests show people targeted for arrest are being booked for primarily marijuana possession. Bookings for possession—as opposed to sale or manufacturing—account for more than 80% of the total.

The threat assessment is honest, if misleading. One should follow both the money and the drugs. According to the report’s logic of drug control, drugs pose a threat not because someone might consume them, or even die from consuming them. They pose a threat if the profits from their distribution and sale accrue to people, organizations, so-called “gangs,” or governments that challenge U.S. government interests—especially if they can be labeled “foreign.” And "foreign" drugs also serve as the primary justification for the mass incarceration of poor and minority communities in the United States.


406[Federal Bureau of Investigation]Read more of Suzanna Reiss' blog, Traffick Jam, or see also her article, "Challenging prohibition & Pharmaceutical Power: From Coca to Marijuana," July 17, 2011, and "A Crime or a Cure?," June 2, 2011.

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