Enforcement activities include enforcement of domestic drug laws that prohibit the manufacture, sale, possession, or use of illegal drugs. They also include international efforts to reduce the supply of drugs through crop eradication and disruption of drug transport. Measured by spending, enforcement activities now constitute the major component of U.S. drug control policy; between 1981 and 1999, expenditures on enforcement increased more than tenfold. The escalation in domestic enforcement is manifest in an inventory of criminal justice processing facts: in 1998, 1.6 million people were arrested for drug offenses, 3 times as many as in 1980, and 289,000 drug offenders were incarcerated in state prisons, 12 times as many as in 1980 (23,900). The benefits and costs of current law enforcement policy and the possibility of alternative strategies continue to be the subject of heated public debate. Yet, because of a lack of investment in data and research, the nation is in no better position to evaluate the effectiveness of enforcement than it was 20 years ago, when the recent intensification of enforcement began.
The committee concludes that the nation’s ability to evaluate its enforcement activities is severely hampered by two major data deficiencies: the absence of adequate data on drug consumption and reliable data on drug prices. Current estimates of illegal drug consumption are derived from simple measures of prevalence and frequency of use. Current information on price is derived from data collected for the purpose of providing evidence in criminal trials. As this report demonstrates, these data do not suffice for evaluating enforcement policy.
Consumption data are critical to assess the responsiveness of drug use to enforcement. The committee recommends that work be started to develop methods for acquiring consumption data. Existing surveys of drug use collect information on frequencies of use but not on the quantity of drugs that users consume. Data on drug consumption are essential for understanding the operation of drug markets; the dynamics of initiation, intensification, and desistance; the response of drug users to changes in price; and the public health and economic consequences of drug use.
A second key gap in existing data is information on drug prices. It may seem that the accuracy of estimates of the prices of illegal drugs is a technical concern of importance only to a small community of researchers. But accurate drug price data are critical for measuring the success of enforcement policy, a primary aim of which is to increase the retail price