In 2011, the United States alone plans to spend $15.6 billion on the war on drugs and 75% of that will be spend solely on enforcement of the drug laws rather than treatment or prevention. State and local governments will spend another 25 billion. And those are low estimates by most standards. In the last 40 years, the United States has spent $1 trillion dollars on the war on drugs. While the costs increase, the flow of drugs continues unabated.
Addiction as Disease
Imagine if scientists could develop a safe vaccine that would produce a long lasting immunity against cocaine, heroin and other opiates- even nicotine. Researchers believe that they may have found a means of doing exactly that.
The strategy involves combining bits of a cold virus with a a chemical that is very similar in structure to cocaine. The human immune system is alerted to an infectious agent (the virus) but also learns to "see" the cocaine as an intruder as well. The immune system is trained to recognize cocaine in the same way it identifies the virus so that whenever cocaine enters the system, antibodies are produced and the drug molecules are surrounded by antibodies and prevented from ever reaching the brain, breaking the cycle of addiction.Experiments with lab mice has been successful and clinical trials involving human patients are planned. The vaccine effect lasted for at least 13 weeks, the longest time point evaluated.
"Our very dramatic data shows that we can protect mice against the effects of cocaine, and we think this approach could be very promising in fighting addiction in humans," says the study's lead investigator, Dr. Ronald G. Crystal, chairman and professor of genetic medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College.
"The human immune system doesn't naturally tag cocaine as something to be destroyed -- just like all small-molecule drugs are not eliminated by antibodies," he says. "We have engineered this response so that it is against the cocaine mimic."
The vaccine needs to be tested in humans, of course, says Dr. Crystal, but he predicts that if it works, it will function best in people who are already addicted to cocaine and who are trying to stop using the drug. "The vaccine may help them kick the habit because if they use cocaine, an immune response will destroy the drug before it reaches the brain's pleasure center.
"An approach that works is desperately needed for cocaine addiction, which is an intransigent problem worldwide," he adds. "There are no therapies now."
A New Strategy
The costs of addictions, in economic, social and personal, are staggering and the effects catastrophic, crippling to all nations, both developed and developing. It is also the source of so many other problems, such as crime and HIV.
If the present strategy in dealing with addiction and drug abuse were working, then we could possibly justify the expense, and the sacrifice to our personal liberties that enforcement of drug laws requires. Yet, these measures are NOT working.
Additionally, the profits from illegal drug trade help finance organized crime and terrorist organizations. According to the United Nations, drug trafficking is a $400 billion per year industry, equaling 8% of the world's trade. By empowering organized criminals with enormous profits, prohibition stimulates violence, corrupts governments at all levels, and erodes community order.
In the face of a growing number of deaths and cases of HIV linked to drug abuse, the Portuguese government in 2001 tried a new tack to get a handle on the problem—it decriminalized the use and possession of heroin, cocaine, marijuana, LSD and other illicit street drugs. The theory: focusing on treatment and prevention instead of jailing users would decrease the number of deaths and infections.
Five years later, the number of deaths from street drug overdoses dropped from around 400 to 290 annually, and the number of new HIV cases caused by using dirty needles to inject heroin, cocaine and other illegal substances plummeted from nearly 1,400 in 2000 to about 400 in 2006, according to a report released recently by the Cato Institute, a Washington, D.C, libertarian think tank. http://goo.gl/4ELm
Also, the potential revenue collected by taxing legalized marijuana- a far less addictive substance- is estimated at $ 8.7 billion and could effectively pay for a vaccination program for the harder drugs like cocaine, heroin and other more dangerous substances. Furthermore, such a program would save criminal justice expenditure or re-allocating this expenditure to more important priorities, like education.
Treating addiction as a health matter instead of as a criminal offense is a much more humane practical and effective way of dealing with the escalating drug problem.