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Is a Dip in Cocaine Use a War on Drugs Victory?

Washington remains optimistic about the war on drugs based on dips in the importation of cocaine. But even the “good news” derived from comparisons with Europe is distressing.

When The New York Times ran a review last summer of a book about legalizing coke, Tom Feiling's Cocaine Nation, the head of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy wrote an old-fashioned letter to the editor.

The review "correctly states that the Obama administration has moved beyond 'war on drugs' rhetoric to a comprehensive public health and public safety approach ... to reduce drug use and its consequences," Gil Kerlikowske wrote. "What is not mentioned is the fact that since 2007, cocaine use has decreased sharply in the United States, while in Europe it has risen."

This remark suggests that something the U.S. has done recently modified cocaine use among Americans, while European policy has slipped. But Reason magazine pointed out that Kerlikowske exaggerated the statistics. "Sharply" was not the word for the decrease in America, except maybe among teenagers, and the striking rises in Europe were restricted to the U.K. and Spain.

It's probably true that cocaine use has eased over the last few years. Trends have headed downward since the 1980s, when cocaine was fashionable among both rich and poor, as well as readily available in big cities. The Justice Department's own World Drug Report in 2010 said that every indicator on cocaine since 2006 — from seizures at the border to drug tests at the office — has pointed to a shrinking market.

EUROPEAN DISPATCHMichael Scott Moore complements his standing feature in Miller-McCune magazine with frequent posts on the policy challenges and solutions popping up on the other side of the pond.

Michael Scott Moore complements his standing feature in Miller-McCune magazine with frequent posts on the policy challenges and solutions popping up on the other side of the pond.

The U.N. agreed. "The decline has been particularly pronounced since 2006," it noted in a reaction to the report last year, "likely due to pressure on supply related to law enforcement interventions in Colombia and Mexico." The violence escalated in Mexico after President Felipe Calderón cracked down on cartels in 2006, which probably disrupted some cocaine-transit routes. Antonio Maria Costa from the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime argues that the violence also escalated because gangs were fighting over a shrinking U.S. market.

Which doesn't mean the gangs are losing the war, as Kerlikowske admits and anyone in Mexico will tell you. Cocaine is just one component of the Mexican drug trade; North American markets for heroin, meth and marijuana are booming.

But the European statistics are even more revealing. First, the sharp rise in recent cocaine use among young adults in the U.K. and Spain around 2000 has an obvious reason: They were becoming (and still are) major import hubs for Europe. Cocaine became easy to find, and cheap, in London and Madrid.

Second, the European average overall is still far below America's. The fraction of Europeans who say they've tried cocaine in their lifetimes — in spite of more laissez-faire European laws — hovers around 4 percent. America leads the world in this statistic, at 16.2 percent.

Third, and most interesting, are the European nations near the bottom of the recent-usage chart. Greece, Finland and France could not have more wildly different approaches to drug control. Finland has kept everything strictly criminalized except alcohol; France has kept things criminalized on paper, but memos within the Ministry of Justice have encouraged prosecutors not to prosecute. The French in essence have unspoken decriminalization, with compulsory treatment for addicts.

Greece makes a firm distinction between "recreational" users and "addicts." Recreational users receive weak punishments, fines or a few months in jail; addicts have to go to rehab.

What all three nations have in common is a system of addiction treatment covered by national health schemes. Drug use is cultural, of course, and there may be many reasons why coke use is so low in (say) Scandinavia. But statistics for cocaine in particular respond to addiction treatment - demand for cocaine drops staggeringly, and unsurprisingly, when addicts are rehabilitated.

The U.S., with its limited system of drug courts, is just starting to learn this lesson. These courts need to be expanded. And if Gil Kerlikowske (or his boss, the president) wants to be serious about minimizing drug use in the U.S., he might consider signing something like the Frankfurt Resolution, a statement signed by a number of European cities in 1990.

The resolution declared the war on drugs a failure — 20 years ago! — and noted that "for many drug users, dependence is a transitional phase of crisis in their personal history that can be overcome by a process of maturing out of drug dependence. Drug policy should not impede this process but must rather offer assistance and support. ... It is necessary to lay stress on harm reduction, and repressive forms of intervention must be reduced to the absolute necessary minimum."

"Harm reduction" is shorthand in Europe for de-escalating the drug war. It's a term known in Seattle, where Gil Kerlikowske served as chief of police, and it would be nice to hear the phrase become current in Washington, too.

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