After a decade and a half of skyrocketing drug arrests and imprisonment rates at a cost of billions of dollars, California now suffers the highest rates of drug abuse deaths in our history. With that being said, there has been no discernible impact on crime rates observed in California during that time. This finding confirms a recent United States Department of Justice Drug Policy Study that concluded:
This leads to a revolving door scenario in which drug-involved offenders appear repeatedly before the courts. One study found 60 percent of opiate-dependent Federal parolees were incarcerated again within 6 months of release. Virtually all were for narcotic related crimes at an incarceration cost of more than $27,000 per person, per year.
Because of California’s perse population and unique location, the drug situation in California is complicated. The majority of drugs are smuggled from Mexico, but marijuana and methamphetamine are locally produced in large quantities. San Diego and its neighboring counties remain the major source of transfer of drugs smuggled from Mexico. The cocaine brought in via Mexico is originally from Columbia but the Mexican traffickers control the cross border smuggling.
California-based law enforcement agencies primarily seize Mexico black tar heroin throughout the state and Mexican brown tar heroin to a lesser extent. Mexican black tar heroin is usually smuggled into the U.S. in amounts of five pounds or less, but occasionally law enforcement seizes larger amounts. In addition, Southeast Asian, Southwest Asian, and Colombian heroin seizures periodically occur throughout the state. The increased availability of high purity heroin that can be snorted allows a new, younger population to use heroin without a syringe and needle.
Methamphetamine is the primary drug threat in California. Mexican organizations continue to dominate the production and distribution of high-quality meth, while a secondary trafficking group operates small, unsophisticated laboratories. Clandestine laboratories can be found in any of the following locations:
As the supply of pseudoephedrine from Canada has diminished after successful law enforcement operations, there has been a noticeable increase in pseudoephedrine and ephedrine seized that originated from China.
Mexican trafficking organizations, working closely with Colombian suppliers, dominate the wholesale cocaine trade. However, the Mexican traffickers continue to specialize in cross-border cocaine transportation by air, land and sea. Based on consistent seizures by U.S. Customs personnel (BICE), the majority of the cocaine destined for the U.S. continues to enter the country by land conveyance through the Ports of Entry along the California and Mexico border.
Los Angeles based gangs dominate the street level distribution of crack cocaine throughout the Los Angeles and San Diego metropolitan areas. Cocaine bought by the gangs is “rocked” or converted into crack cocaine in the Los Angeles area and then sold locally or distributed to other cities in California and nationally.
After Sept 11, 2001, there has been a greater screening of inpiduals and vehicles at the border crossing. This has led to more ingenious methods of drug smuggling including underground tunnels and sophisticated hidden compartments in vehicles. The majority of drugs arrive in Los Angeles which is the distribution center for most other US states. Despite the increased airport security and surveillance, at the airport, heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine use is endemic in San Francisco, Oakland and Sacramento.
Due to the discrepancy in national laws between the U.S. and Mexico, the prolific “border pharmacies” within walking distance across the border in Tijuana and other Mexican border towns remain the primary source of controlled substances in the San Diego metropolitan area. Doctor shopping and prescription forgery are the primary methods of prescription drug abuse in the Los Angeles and San Francisco metropolitan areas.
Current investigations indicate that persion of Hydrocodone products such as Vicodin, and Oxycodone products such as OxyContin, continues to be a problem in California. Primary methods of persion being reported are illegal sale and distribution by health care professionals and workers, “doctor shopping” (going to a number of doctors to obtain prescriptions for a controlled pharmaceutical), forged prescriptions, employee theft, pharmacy and in-transit theft, and the Internet. Fentanyl, Benzodiazepines and Codeine were also identified as being among the most commonly abused and perted pharmaceuticals in California.
To counter the Drug Smuggling, numerous state and federal agencies have been established in response to the overwhelming problem of drug-related violent crime in towns and cities across the nation. Numerous Mobile Enforcement teams have been established and these are located throughout the state.
Besides the state enforcement agencies, the DEA has also targeted drug organizations operating in California. During the past two decades California has experienced a 25-fold increase in the number of drug offenders sentenced to state prison. As a result of this increase California led the nation in drug offender incarceration with a rate of 115 per 100,000 of the population (more than twice than national average).
This unparalleled imprisonment increase is partially attributable to rising drug arrests. These escalating drug arrests have resulted in tougher sentencing laws that have increased the pool of prison-eligible offenders and promoted incarceration as a primary response to illicit drug use.
California's uniquely harsher approach to drug crime is founded on deterrence and incapacitation theory. Deterrence and incapacitation theory promotes increased arrests, prosecutions, and prison sentences as the primary means to dissuade drug use and reduce street crime by removing the drug-involved offender from the community.
Although California laws are established by the state legislature, arrest, prosecution and sentencing decisions are county functions. Because California counties pursued drug policy enforcement in sharply different ways, wide variations exist on how laws are implemented at the county level. Most county police and district attorney offices vigorously pursued new harsh enforcement statutes and significantly increased drug arrests and imprisonment for all forms of drug offenses including misdemeanors.
However, some counties like San Francisco, increased drug arrests and prosecutions for dealers and manufacturers but minimized severe penalties for drug possession. Although, overall, crime in California is down in the last decade, data show that stricter drug enforcement is not associated with declines in crime rates or drug use.
Over the past decade, drug policy reform in California produced some of the nation's most progressive laws, including initiatives that allow for medical marijuana and drug treatment instead of incarceration. The Drug Policy Alliance’s four:
Continue to be instrumental in the success of many of California’s drug policy reforms.
One of the Alliance's main efforts in California is reducing the number of nonviolent drug offenders in the state’s jails and prisons. California embarked on the largest expansion of a state prison system in United States history during the 1980s, increasing the number of incarcerated drug offenders from 2,000 in 1980 to almost 45,000 in 1999 a 25-fold increase in just 20 years.
In the past four years, California state lawmakers improved pain management practices for doctors and patients, enabled drug treatment participants to seal records of their convictions and extended the University of California's Medical Marijuana Research Program.
Justice Department research also concluded that drug treatment is effective even with the most hardened addicts. Studies show that concerted efforts towards treatment can reduce drug use and drug related crime by over 40 percent.
Given the continued emphasis in California on law enforcement strategies despite the dearth of evidence showing effectiveness, future drug policy research should examine the political basis of current approaches. Questions to examine are whether current policies are better designed to accommodate vested interest groups and political agendas than to serve as a reasonable solution to the legitimate social issue of drug abuse.