Drug User Accountability

"Drug User Accountability" 


September 1996

The illegal or harmful use of psychoactive drugs is a major threat to all world communities and to future generations.  Drug Watch International is a volunteer drug prevention network of experts from a wide range of professions whose mission is to help assure a healthier and safer world through drug prevention.

Lie: A drug policy focusing on interdiction of large scale drug dealing and trafficking, but tolerating individual drug use, would be successful.

Truth: Violence caused by the sale of illegal drugs pales in comparison to the violence caused by drug users.  The drug supply system exists solely to bring drugs to the user.  Drug users are responsible for their actions and must be held accountable.  Research indicates that drug control policies are most successful when they focus on all aspects of the problem: the supply side, the demand side and the environmental factors which encourage both.

Lie:  Drug use is a "victimless" crime, and therefore, an individual has the right to use drugs.

Truth:  Drug use is not a "victimless" crime.  Drug users endanger the safety and well being of society.  They commit crimes under the influence of drugs and are responsible for most crimes of violence.  They cause automobile crashes, create unhealthy conditions, endanger work sites, produce drug-impaired babies and destroy families.

Lie: Society cannot arrest all drug users because our jails are already crammed with more violent criminals.

Truth: Research shows that social norms and user accountability laws are key factors in preventing drug use and decreasing problem behavior.  Strong sanctions need not include jail in order to deter use.  Example:  In 1990, the U.S. Congress passed legislation which encouraged states to revoke driver's licenses of convicted drug users.  In the U.S. 90% of those arrested for drug crimes do not go to prison.  A person is more likely to receive a prison sentence for a federal gambling, tax law, regulatory, immigration, or public order offense than for simple possession of crack, heroin or other dangerous drugs.

Lie: Individual drug use is permitted in many European countries and has caused no problems.

Truth: Switzerland attempted to control drug use by allowing drugs to be used in two specified park areas.  The problem grew into a grotesque public menace that endangered users and non-users alike.  These "needle parks" closed because drug use exploded there, and large numbers of stupefied addicts created a war zone of crime, murders and violence.  The Netherlands has tolerated individual drug use and has subsequently seen marijuana use among students increase by 250%.  Contrary to drug culture propaganda, drug use is not legal or accepted in England.  That government supports prevention, education, and treatment.  It opposes legalization, and has actually toughened laws governing drug use.

Lie:  Marijuana users can control their use.  Softening penalties for marijuana possession will not increase use.

Truth:  A 1994 Council on Drug Abuse Student Survey of students, ages 12 to 18, in 7 random schools in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, showed very disturbing results.  Twenty-one percent of those surveyed "agreed" or "strongly agreed" with the statement:  "If the legal restrictions were removed, I would begin to use - or use more."  Superintendent Denis Edmonds, officer in charge of the South Australian Drugs Task-force stated in a 1995 Reader's Digest article that trafficking offenses in South Australia have doubled since marijuana was decriminalized in 1987.   Since 1992, a rehabilitation centre in Canberra, Australia, has recorded a 40 percent increase in problematic marijuana use.  In Alaska, when marijuana was decriminalized, high school marijuana use was double that of the rest of the U.S.


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Drug users, like any other member of society, must be held accountable for their actions. Illicit drug use must bring swift and cost effective consequences that will benefit the user and society at large. Every segment of society must send the message that drug use and drug use behavior will not be tolerated. Drug user accountability must be a cornerstone of national and international drug policy.


The U.S. Experience:  Throughout the 1970's, United States drug policy exhibited tolerance for drug users and focused enforcement on heroin traffickers.  Marijuana was decriminalized in 11 states; drug addicts were viewed as victims; and cocaine decriminalization was proposed. The largest increase of youth using drugs in the history of the U.S., and perhaps in the world, followed this permissive attitude by government and society.

In 1979, approximately 24 million Americans had tried an illicit drug, and one in ten high school seniors was using marijuana every day of the week. Drug incarceration rates reached an all time low and crime and drug-related social problems threatened the health and well being of all citizens.  In the early 1980's, non-drug users became acutely aware of the negative impact that drug use was having on their families and communities. The public and law enforcement applied pressure to hold drug users accountable for their illegal drug use and their role in facilitating the illegal drug trade after a decade of lenient drug policy.

Zero tolerance of drug use led to a dramatic shift in attitudes and to major declines in drug use.  In 1992, a child was half as likely to use illegal drugs as his or her counterpart from 15 years previous, and adults were even less likely to use.  Social intolerance to drug use resulted in 12.6 million fewer Americans using drugs.  Drug user accountability had been applied by law enforcement, schools, families, workplaces, and the media.  Drug legalization advocates initiated a sophisticated public relations campaign aimed at weakening the public's aversion towards illegal drug use.  Drug user lobbyists and organizations and other drug apologists assailed user accountability measures as infringement of one's "personal right" to use drugs, exaggerated the cost of user accountability policies, and ignored the benefit of 12.6 million fewer drug users.

In the early 1990s, the drug issue began to lose national focus, and thus momentum.  Once again, anti-drug messages and social attitudes started to soften, the media and music began to re-glamorize drug use, and drug use among school children began to climb (teen marijuana use doubling over a three year span), after a 12 year decline.


Drug use is not a victimless crime.  Drug users place non-drug-users at risk and cause considerable societal harm.  Drug users harass and disrupt the public peace, commit crimes under the influence of drugs, cause accidents, and create unhealthy conditions.  They destroy families and take rights and freedom from law-abiding citizens.  Recreational drug users, as well as hard-core users, are the foundation of the international drug cartel trade and the source of funds for drug kingpins and terrorists. The drug trade exists solely because drug users keep it alive.  Drug users who are not yet addicted are perhaps the most culpable for their drug use.

Holding drug users accountable early in their drug use pattern can prevent abuse and addiction problems.  For those already addicted, swift and certain negative consequences for drug use can modify drug use behavior and lead to recovery through treatment or individual initiative.  Research clearly indicates that social norms and user accountability laws are key factors in preventing drug use and decreasing problem behavior.  In the justice system, user accountability need not rely on lengthy prison incarceration, but on a broad continuum of responses such as community service, asset forfeiture, tough mandatory fines, civil liabilities for all damages, drug abstinence enforced through frequent drug testing of offenders with immediate, progressive consequences, loss of federal and state benefits, loss of driving and other license privileges, automobile impoundment, and restitution payments.

In the workplace, programs must protect employers and non-drug using employees.   Workplaces should communicate clear rules and consequences.  In the community, schools, and homes clear anti-drug norms and values must be stated and applied.  Tough, but fair, user accountability sanctions should be enacted.  Drug user accountability should be a cornerstone of drug strategy.  Directing policies, funding, and energies towards effectively reducing the demand for drugs is true compassion for the drug user and is in the best interest of society.