The numbers, at every turn, are alarming. In 2010, for example, the federal government spent more than $15 billion on the so-called "War on Drugs." Last year, the Clark-Vancouver Drug Task Force seized more methamphetamine than it had in the previous four years combined. And in Clark County, officials say, there are more than 10,000 adults in need of recovery services to help them escape life-altering addictions.
Yet while the fight against illicit drug use has been a source of debate for decades now, the human toll remains the most poignant aspect of the story. That was driven home this week and last in a series of articles by Columbian reporters Tyler Graf, Emily Gillespie and Patty Hastings.
Graf, in a three-part series, detailed the struggles of local residents Travis Trenda and Mandy Cooper as they attempt to escape the grip of heroin and methamphetamine addictions. And while it is tempting to leave Trenda and Cooper to tread along the margins of society, their story brings to light the fact that we all pay the cost for drugs in our community.
"Once you have a child, and you have a greater love for them, and you see them self-destruct, it's heart-wrenching," said Trenda's father, Allen. "And that's the hardest pill to swallow, that you have to leave the ball in their court."
That is the issue that American society has wrestled to a draw for most of the past century. The first federal law to address the issue was the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act of 1914. Since then, countless legislative measures and copious amounts of dollars have been used in efforts to stem the scourge, with the efficacy of such methods being open to much debate.
Just this week, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the federal government will drop harsh minimum sentences for minor, non-violent drug offenses. "Today, a vicious cycle of poverty, criminality and incarceration traps too many Americans and weakens too many communities," Holder said. "And many aspects of our criminal justice system may actually exacerbate these problems, rather than alleviate them."
In other words, while the War on Drugs remains vital, it also is in need of a dose of common sense. Voters in Washington — and Colorado — last year legalized the recreational use of marijuana, recognizing that the drug is much more akin to alcohol than, say, heroin, in its toll on society. Yes, that toll can be costly, but the efforts to fight marijuana have merely distracted from efforts to halt much more insidious substances.
Those substances — primarily heroin and meth in our communities — are a growing concern. Clark County is one of 14 counties in Washington that has been designated by the federal government as a high-intensity drug-trafficking area. And last year, the Clark-Vancouver Drug Task Force seized more than 95 pounds of meth, after seizing about 81 pounds the previous four years combined.
According to the Clark County Sheriff's Office, roughly 5,000 drug addicts in the county routinely cycle through the legal system, and a vast majority of the area's property crimes and thefts are related to drugs.
Those are merely statistics and anecdotes, which is why the stories presented recently in The Columbian carry such an impact. Travis Trenda and Mandy Cooper have nobody but themselves to blame for their addictions, but those addictions — and the struggles of thousands like them — carry a cost for the entire community.