The Siren Song of Mandatory Minimum Drug Laws

Post Date: July 8, 2013

The proposed expansion of Medicaid was one of the most controversial issues in Florida’s 2013 legislative session. As part of the implementation of Obamacare, Florida had the option of expanding the number of people covered under Medicaid. Under the proposed plan, the federal government would underwrite the cost of expansion completely for the first three years, and cover 90% of the cost thereafter. Republican leaders in the legislature were split on the plan. Governor Scott favored it, while Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford opposed it.

In his CPAC speech, Speaker Weatherford called Medicaid expansion “cartel federalism,” and argued that

States are being lured, and I would argue coerced, into expanding programs like Medicaid and passing regulations not through federal mandate, but with the promise of free money. They’re trying to buy us off, one by one. But I am not buying it, Florida will not buy it, and America should not buy it.

In this Tampa Bay Times op-ed, Speaker Weatherford outlined the crux of his opposition to Medicaid expansion:

While the federal government promises to absorb the cost for the first several years, I am not confident it will be able to sustain that commitment in the long term. Given the track record of the federal government, which hasn’t balanced a budget in years, I believe Florida will have to make hard choices that would potentially put future funding for our schools, public safety, and protection of our beaches and springs at risk and could mean increased taxes on hard-working Florida families.

In other words, Speaker Weatherford simply doesn’t believe the promises of the federal government that it will cover the costs of Medicaid expansion. Instead, he believes the federal government’s offer is a siren song that will “lure” Florida into accepting what will turn out to be a raw deal for Florida taxpayers.

Mandatory minimum drug laws are another siren song, and Speaker Weatherford should reject them for the same reasons he rejects Medicaid expansion. Proponents of mandatory minimums make sweeping promises: they deter drug trafficking and drug abuse, they promote uniformity in sentencing, and they lower crime rates. Speaker Weatherford and the legislature shouldn’t “buy” any of those promises, because after fourteen years the evidence is in. Mandatory minimum drug laws have failed Florida and left taxpayers on the hook.

Mandatory minimums haven’t deterred drug trafficking or drug abuse.

  • Between FY 2000-01 and FY 2010-11, Florida saw a fourteen-fold increase in the number of prison admissions for opiate “trafficking” (4-14 grams).
  • Prison admissions for opiate trafficking quadrupled between FY 2006-07 and FY 2010-11.
  • In FY 2011, prison admissions for drug offenses were twice what they were in 1996.
  • Between 2003 and 2009, Florida’s prescription drug overdose rate increased 84.2%. Oxycodone overdoses increased 264.6%.

Mandatory minimums haven’t reduced the crime rate.

Though Florida’s crime rate is at a 42-year low, there is no evidence mandatory minimum drug laws is to credit for the drop in crime. In fact, the crime rate had fallen consistently for a decade prior to the imposition of mandatory minimum drug laws in 1999. That includes a 26% drop in the crime rate between 1993 and 1999, when Florida relied on sentencing guidelines, not mandatory minimums, to punish drug trafficking. (Incidentally, the crime rate rose 11% between 1979 and 1993, when Florida had mandatory minimum drug laws.)

Mandatory minimums incarcerate mostly low-level drug offenders, not “kingpins.” 

Of the 1,200 offenders admitted to prison for opiate “trafficking” in fiscal year 2010-11, the Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability (OPPAGA) found that:

  • 35% were arrested for possession of painkillers or prescription fraud, not selling pills.
  • 50% were arrested for possession or sale of fewer than 30 pills.
  • 25% were arrested for possession or sale of fewer than 15 pills.
  • 74% had not previously been admitted to prison.
  • 65% were identified as needing substance abuse treatment.
  • 61% were identified as being a “low risk for recidivism.”

Like many other big government programs, mandatory minimums have failed to deliver on the promises made by their proponents. They have failed to deter drug trafficking, and failed to deter drug abuse. Meanwhile, arbitrary enforcement of mandatory minimums has created the unintended consequence of filling Florida’s prisons with low-level drug offenders.

And for all of that failure, Florida taxpayers spend nearly $100 million annually.

I don’t know whether Speaker Weatherford was right to reject Medicaid expansion. Given the fiscal track record of the federal government, he makes a fair argument. I do know, however, that after a fourteen-year experiment with mandatory minimum drug laws, all of the evidence proves they have failed. Florida was lured into imposing mandatory minimums by the lofty promises of well-meaning reformers. But just as Speaker Weatherford fears that the federal government’s Medicaid promises ring hollow, the promises of the proponents of mandatory minimums have proven to be a siren song. In recognition of that utterly incontrovertible fact, respect for public safety, for taxpayers, and for principles of good government requires reform of mandatory minimum drug laws.

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