One of the strongest implications of what we now know about the causes of endemic drug abuse is that the criminal-justice system’s effect on the drug crisis will inevitably be limited. That shouldn’t surprise us in the 1990s; it has, after all, been a central argument of drug research since the 1950s. Today, as the drug problem has worsened, the limits of the law are if anything even clearer. But that does not mean that the justice system has no role to play in a more effective strategy against drugs. Drugs will always be a “law-enforcement problem” in part, and the real job is to define what we want the police and the courts to accomplish.
We will never, for reasons that will shortly become clear, punish our way out of the drug crisis. We can, however, use the criminal justice system, in small but significant ways, to improve the prospects of drug users who are now caught in an endless loop of court, jail, and street. And we can use law enforcement, in small but significant ways, to help strengthen the ability of drug-ridden communities to defend themselves against violence, fear, and demoralization. Today the criminal-justice system does very little of the first and not enough of the second. But doing these things well will require far-reaching changes in our priorities. Above all, we will have to shift from an approach in which discouraging drug use through punishment and fear takes central place to one that emphasizes three very different...
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