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Study: more than half of adult male arrestees test positive for at least one drug

New data show that the majority of adult male arrestees in 10 American cities test positive for at least one illicit drug.

This blog post was originally published on The Huffington Post

One month ago today, we released the Obama Administration’s 2012 National Drug Control Strategy, a drug policy grounded in sound research from the world’s preeminent drug abuse researchers.  This policy marks a departure from the debate I’ve seen develop during the past few years, which has lurched between two extreme views. On one side are those who suggest that drug legalization is the “silver bullet” solution to our nation’s drug problem.  On the other are those who still believe that the “War on Drugs,” law-enforcement-only strategy is the way forward. Our policies reject both these extremes in favor of a “third way” to approach drug control.

The foundation of this “third way” approach is peer-reviewed, scientific research that provides us insight into the disease of addiction and a roadmap on how to prevent and treat it. The “third way” approach deals in facts—not dogma—and relies on research—not ideology.

Here are what the facts show.  Drug use and related crime strain the resources of this country.  The latest evidence comes from the 2011 Arrestee Drug Abuse Monitoring Annual Report (ADAM II), released today, which tests for drugs in adult males arrested for a wide variety of crimes in 10 sites across the country. This study found a majority of adult males arrested for crimes tested positive for an illegal drug at the time of their arrest.  In fact, positive drug tests among arrestees ranged from 64 percent in Atlanta, GA, to 81 percent in Sacramento, CA.

These data were obtained from individuals booked for all types of crimes, from misdemeanors to felonies, and not just those arrested on drug charges.  The ADAM program tests only for drugs marijuana, cocaine, opiates (including heroin and prescription pain relievers), amphetamines/methamphetamine, Darvon, PCP, benzodiazepines, methadone, and barbiturates—not alcohol. 

This report highlights the urgent need for institutions at the federal, state, and local level to come together to support proven reforms that work to break the vicious cycle of drug use, crime, incarceration and re-arrest.  It’s a cycle my colleagues and I are committed to breaking because we care about the health and safety of our fellow citizens, our healthcare system, and our economy.

Too often, the caustic debate over drug policy in America leaves out some revolutionary and innovative programs taking hold in communities across America. I was pleased to see the Wall Street Journal recently brought attention to some of these programs in an essay by drug policy experts, who argued that there is no quick fix to the complex issue of drug abuse and addiction. These experts pointed to the success of programs such as Drug Market Interventions, which close down open-air drug markets through community-based strategies and offer drug offenders a second chance. Other successful initiatives like Hawaii’s Project Hope probation program, which dramatically reduces probation violations through swift, predictable sanctions, represent the future of a progressive drug control strategy. These programs are part of the President’s drug policy Strategy because they have demonstrated records of success not only in dissipating criminal activity, but in actively building community and reducing incarceration rates.

Although today’s data show a high rate of arrestees testing positive for illicit drugs, over the long term, we are actually seeing declines in drug use rates among the general population.  Over the past 30 years, the overall rate of current drug use in America has dropped by roughly one third. And more recently, the rates of current cocaine and meth use have dropped by 40 percent and 52 percent, respectively, and the number of cocaine overdoses has dropped by 42 percent. 

The 2011 ADAM II findings are clear evidence of the link between drugs and crime. Too often, underlying substance use disorders are the driving force behind criminal activity. It is imperative, then, that we address our nation’s drug problem not just as a criminal justice issue but as a public health issue. We cannot arrest our way out of the drug problem. What we need are evidence-based reforms that break the cycle of drug use and crime, reduce recidivism, and make our communities healthier and safer.

To read the ADAM II report, see an at-a-glance fact sheet on the findings, or view an interactive map reflecting the data by geographic region or drug type, please visit this page on our website.