Schumer’s $100 Million Cure For The Heroin ‘Epidemic’ Is Snake Oil (Forbes)

By JACOB SULLUM | June 6, 2014

Chuck Schumer (Image: Office of Chuck Schumer)

Chuck Schumer (Image: Office of Chuck Schumer)

Last week Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) asked for “an emergency $100 million surge” in federal funding to “to quickly combat the fact that New York City has become the hotbed for the East Coast heroin trade.” Schumer declared that “heroin trafficking and usage are at epidemic levels,” adding that “seizures of heroin in New York City in 2014 have already surpassed those of any previous year since 1991, which demonstrates an alarming trend that we must nip in the bud.”

Depending on how you define epidemic, you may or may not agree with Schumer’s description of the problem. But it is abundantly clear from a century of efforts to suppress the heroin trade that his solution—more spending on supply-side measures such as seizing heroin and prosecuting heroin dealers—is doomed to fail.

Since 2002 the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) has asked a nationally representative sample of Americans who are 12 or older whether they  have used heroin in the previous month. According to that survey, the number of past-month users rose from 166,000 in 2002 to 335,000 in 2012. That’s an increase of about 100 percent over a decade, which looks big. But it’s a lot smaller than the increase of more than 200 percent detected by the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse (NHSDA), the predecessor to NSDUH, between 1993 and 1996. And as a percentage of the population, the number of past-month users is still very small: 0.3 percent in 2012, up from 0.2 percent in 2002.  For drug warriors like Chuck Schumer, any increase in drug use (real or imagined) qualifies as an  epidemic. But if epidemic refers to a phenomenon that is pervasive or at least widespread, heroin use does not qualify and never has.

One important caveat about those survey numbers: Both NSDUH and NHSDA miss a substantial number of heavy heroin users. Exactly how many is anybody’s guess. According to an estimate by Beau Kilmer and other researchers at the RAND Corporation, there might have been as many as 1 million daily heroin users in 2010. Such estimates are highly uncertain because they rely on indirect evidence and many debatable assumptions. But even if Kilmer and his colleagues are in the right ballpark, heroin addicts still represent less than 0.5 percent of the population 12 and older, which helps put Schumer’s “epidemic” in perspective.

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