Failed War On Drugs In American History

America’s history with drugs can be traced back to the 1800’s when opium surged in popularity following the American Civil War. Drugs were an integral part of American life with heroin being used medicinally to treat respiratory illnesses and cocaine being an ingredient in Coca-Cola. With this came the realization that psychotropic drugs carry with them a great likelihood of addiction and thus action was taken, in response to an opium and cocaine epidemic the government cracked down on opium dens and importation, America experienced a paradigm shift, no longer were drugs legitimate medicine to aches and pains. At the turn of the 20th century, the Journal of the American Medical Association published an editorial stating, “Negroes in the South are reported as being addicted to a new form of vice–that of ‘cocaine sniffing’ or the ‘coke habit.’” Chinese immigrants were blamed for the rise of opium use in the US. America’s war on drugs began in 1930 when the Treasury Department created what would later become the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics headed by Harry J Anslinger until 1962. During this 32 year period America’s drug policy would change drastically with drugs becoming increasingly criminalized. Despite the government’s efforts to prevent drug use in the 1940s and 1950s, drug use surged in the 1960s due to a combination of the rise of the counterculture and returning soldiers from the Vietnam War who had developed habits of using marijuana and heroin. The War on Drugs was formally declared by the Nixon administration in June of 1971 when Richard Nixon declared drugs “public enemy number one,”.

Rehabilitation efforts are effective means of combating the drug problem. Much like the US, Portugal was suffering a drug crisis prior to the turn of the century, a large percentage of the population had become addicted to hard drugs and half of the prison population was made up of drug users, in response Rui Pereira, a former constitutional court judge decided to take matters into his own hands and proposed a new approach to the drug problem. In 2001, the paradigm in Portugal shifted, drug laws went from penalizing people for possession of small amounts of drugs to giving warnings, small fines, or being told to appear before a doctor, lawyer, and a social worker about treatment, harm reduction, and services available to them in an effort to prevent discouragement from seeking treatment and removing the stigma from drug addiction. 10 years later, the number of addicts shrank by half overdose deaths plummeted to a mere 30 a year nationwide. 90% of public money spent fighting drugs in Portugal is channeled towards harm reduction, treatment, and rehabilitation and only 10% is spent on law enforcement.

When trying to solve a problem we often think of tackling the source as the solution however, as history has taught us, tackling the supply of drugs does nothing but worsen the situation. In June of 1971 Nixon addressed Congress saying, “as long as there is a demand, there will be those willing to take the risks of meeting the demand (Sharp, 1994, p.27).” Despite hitting the nail on the head of the issue, Nixon would set the precedent for drug policy launching a massive interdiction effort in Mexico with the aim of tackling the supply side of marijuana. A decade later, Reagan echoed Nixon’s idea that fighting the supply side of the war was an exercise in futility when he said, “It’s far more effective if you take the customers away than if you try to take the drugs away from those who want to be customers.” However, following suit once again, Reagan ignored his own advice. The annual funding for eradication and interdiction increased from an average of $437 million during the Carter administration to a whopping $1.4 billion during Reagan’s first term. Additionally, funding for drug education, prevention, and rehabilitation programs were reduced from $386 million to $362 million. (Rosenberger, 1996, p. 26). Reagan’s efforts to tackle the demand side were enforced by a “zero tolerance” program where punitive measures against users were emphasized. The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 changed the system of federal supervised release from a rehabilitative system into a punitive system. With the bill came new mandatory minimum sentences for drugs with a minimum sentence of 5 years without parole for possession of 5 grams of crack cocaine while it mandated the same for possession of 500 grams of powder cocaine even though they’re virtually the same drug. In the streets of America, an ounce of pure cocaine can go for several thousands of dollars, yet to produce it costs less than $20. Such a high profit margin is enough incentive for a criminal to not only assume all the risks involved but also adapt and figure out new ways to avoid detection, if we’ve learned anything from the era of prohibition it’s as long as there’s a demand there will be a supply, all prohibition does is make things more dangerous since they have to exist in the underworld.

Reagan era drug laws have fueled mass incarceration costing the US billions of dollars every year and disparaging minority communities throughout the US. Minimum sentencing laws have contributed greatly to the rise in incarceration of minority groups. Research shows that prosecutors are twice as likely to pursue a mandatory minimum sentence for a black individual when compared to a white individual for the same charge. Throughout the 1990s, marijuana possession arrests accounted for a 79% growth in drug arrests, and in 2005, approximately 40% of all drug arrests were for marijuana possession yet the majority of small-scale drug offenders have no previous records of violence or high-level drug selling. There is no evidence to suggest that punitive measures deter the use of drugs. Such methods ignore the social cultural and economic factors that contribute to drug use. There is a direct correlation between poverty and drug use. The majority of drug users belong to vulnerable, impoverished, and socially excluded groups. A staggering percentage of drug users are people who struggle with unemployment, poor skills, low income, poor housing, and bad health and family environments (Martina). Rather than deterring drug users from reusing, punitive measures thrust users back into the cycle of poverty. A person stigmatized with a criminal record will have a difficult time finding a job, housing, and education prospects, further marginalizing them from society. The war on drugs has been incredibly expensive and the goals it hoped to achieve haven’t been met. Since 1971, the war on drugs has cost the United States an estimated $1 trillion. In 2015, the federal government spent an estimated $9.2 million every day to incarcerate people charged with drug-related offenses — that’s more than $3.3 billion annually. Despite these efforts drug use has done nothing but rise.

If history has taught us anything it’s that when there’s a demand there will always be a supply, the US government’s approach to fighting the drug problem has consistently failed to reduce the number of users and fatalities, increased the number of incarcerations especially among minority groups, and incentivized suppliers to find more cunning ways to get their products delivered. We tend to forget why people use drugs in the first place, as humans we react to our environment, and when our environments are bleak we turn to something that takes the pain away. There is a direct correlation between drug use and poverty, when people feel trapped they turn to drugs to help ease the pain. Why should we punish those who are just trying to make their lives a little easier? In following Portugal’s footsteps of decriminalization, the US government would be able to reallocate resources towards rehabilitation, harm reduction, education, and poverty programs which would significantly reduce the number of users and in turn reduce the supply thus solving a more than a century old problem.


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