After 40 years and countless billions spent, 82 percent of Americans feel the long-running war on drugs has failed.

Somehow, with just a little more money and the same tactics, Gov. Paul LePage thinks he can turn things around.

Tuesday, the governor proposed doubling down on that failed war, which is largely a law-enforcement approach to what most experts and many in law enforcement have now conceded is really a social, educational and heath care challenge.

LePage will ask the Legislature for an additional $3 million to fund more drug enforcement agents, prosecutors and judges in order to put more drug offenders behind bars.

There is nearly a century old record showing this approach does not work.

The crackdown comes after the governor has twice reduced funding for drug treatment programs, which studies have shown to be seven times more cost-effective than drug punishment.

LePage is a businessman, so he should understand the basic economic problem with his approach.

The goal of prosecution is to cut down on the supply of drugs and make them more difficult to obtain. Like any product, reducing the supply forces prices higher. When prices go higher, more suppliers are encouraged to enter the drug supply business.

In other words, the harder we bear down on enforcement, the more lucrative it becomes for dealers from here to Mexico to get into the illicit drug trade, thus ultimately requiring even more enforcement and incarceration.

It’s not a solution; it’s a spinning wheel.

The U.S. now spends $40 billion a year waging the war on drugs. This includes incarceration, prosecution, police work, border control and interdiction overseas.

The drug trade is lucrative, especially for the people at the top who have set up a massive logistics and sales network to move their product.

The profit in this business is driven by its very illegality and the economic opportunity it creates up and down the supply chain.

While Gov. LePage acknowledges that drug addiction treatment is important, he has also sought to cut Maine’s substance abuse programs by $4 million in 2011. Fortunately, the Legislature stopped him.

In January, one of the governor’s initiatives eliminated Medicaid health care coverage for 19,000 childless adults. While these people are generally healthy and cost the state little, many of them did lose access to drug treatment programs as a result.

In January, the state also put a two-year limit on Medicare recipients who receive methadone to treat their heroin addictions, despite contrary advice from experts.

Evidence from other states show it costs more than $1,100 a week to imprison a drug offender, while weekly treatment averages $123.

Whenever we discuss the U.S. drug problem, it is worth considering the entire problem. Cigarettes kill and will continue to kill more Americans each year than more than all illegal drugs, vehicular accidents, homicides and suicides combined.

Meanwhile, more than half of the people in U.S. prisons were using alcohol when they committed their crimes.

Yet, we now treat both of those forms of addiction as medical rather than law-enforcement challenges.

But Gov. LePage is a hammer kind of person: if it looks like a nail, his first urge is to pound harder rather than try something else.

What Maine and other states need are new approaches. While Gov. LePage promised more “war” in his State of the State speech, governors in both New Hampshire and Vermont chose to emphasize drug education and treatment.

The Legislature should take a hard look at whether there are better ways to tackle this problem than putting more people in jail.

After 40 years of war, it’s abundantly clear this tactic has not worked.

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The opinions expressed in this column reflect the views of the ownership and the editorial board.

News coverage: LePage wants to add 22 positions to fight drug trafficking in Maine


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