The “War On Drugs” has failed, and we lost. We’ve spent billions of dollars annually and trillions overall, and we’ve accomplished two things: We’ve increased the street price of drugs, enriching the cartels in the process, and we’ve imprisoned millions of our own citizens, hopelessly overburdening the criminal justice system by so doing.
We have completely failed to eradicate drug use.
Some of you think I’m nuts already, and that’s fine. I’ll provide a bit of history next and you can decide afterward if the facts justify my statements.
A Bit Of History
In 1969, President Nixon declared war on drugs, but the policies leading to this were begun on the national level as far back as the US-led International Opium Convention of 1912 (and the subsequent Harrison Narcotics Tax Act) and have continued ever since.
When the Philippines were ceded to the United States following the Spanish-American War, it gradually became apparent to the new territorial government that a vast percentage of the population was addicted to opium. The previous administration had simply taxed it heavily, selling an expensive license to opium users and levying high duties on its import. This did in fact suppress use, but widespread addiction and abuse was causing serious societal problems. The new governors had high ambitions for the local population, and other solutions were sought.
It soon became apparent that, since the supply and processing of opiates and other drugs was a global industry, any approach to limiting this trade would need to be an international one in order to be effective. One conference was held in Shanghai and a second in the Hague, and the first international treaties were drafted and signed in 1912.
But public policy in the United States was already moving from restriction to criminalization. Where the treaties had adopted measures for control and regulation, America and China wanted something absolute, and they soon passed internal laws to that effect and encouraged ever greater international regulation. In the US, the restrictions soon broadened in concept, and Prohibition began in 1920.
Prohibition was and is generally seen as a failure of epic proportions, for, although domestic consumption of alcohol was approximately halved(1), crime became rampant in the inner cities. The saloon was replaced by the speakeasy and organized crime became big business. Most tellingly, the public perception of the associated laws was generally perceived as arbitrary and overly harsh; consequently, disobedience was widespread and even celebrated.(2) There was national celebration when the acts and amendment were repealed in 1933.
But domestic drug addiction had grown astronomically during Prohibition, and heroin, hashish, and opiate trade soon began funding organized crime. Violence and rampant illegality remained common through the end of the Second World War, and street distribution continued to increase for several decades. And then came the Vietnam War.
After the 1967 Opium War in Laos, the supply of high-quality easily injectable heroin improved to such an extent that the American soldiers in Vietnam could purchase large supplies for next to nothing. The disaffected troops, in large part drawn from the disenfranchised and impoverished, quickly embraced heroin (along with the already freely-available marijuana and hashish), and by the end of 1968 it was feared that the US military was quickly losing discipline and effectiveness even as the war was starting to heat up.(3)
At home, psychiatrists such as Robert DuPont rose to prominence as they trumpeted a rising heroin epidemic,(4) (5) linking it to crime. Between this and a damning Congressional report on heroin in Vietnam, Nixon was impelled to declare a “War On Drugs”, eventually naming DuPont as his Drug Czar. When enforcement policies proved less than effective, his administration refocused their priority to addiction treatment; nevertheless, the DEA was formed and given its law enforcement mandate under his watch.(5b)
During the late 1970s, the international drug trade shifted toward cocaine. Interdiction efforts prompted mass outbreaks of violence in Colombia and Mexico, and simmering conflict has since become the normal state of being in northern Mexico. The Reagan Administration focused on crack, pushing through laws with harsh mandatory minimum sentences for possession. In response to such events as the highly publicized overdose of Len Bias, ever harsher enforcement measures were regularly enacted, and America’s prison population soared from around 300,000 in the mid-70s to over 1 million by 1990, doubling again during the following decade. The overwhelming majority of prisoners (a) came from the poorest segment of the population, and (b) were convicted of drug or drug-related crimes.
Today, the United States of America, which bills itself as the “Land Of The Free”, imprisons more than 1% of its population, more than any other industrialized nation. Twice that number are on probation or some sort of house arrest. Most prisoners serve less than a third of their sentences before release, due in part to prison overcrowding, and the courts and criminal justice system as a whole have been overwhelmed for decades.(6) Meanwhile, the drug war in northern Mexico has long been one of the worlds deadliest conflicts, with direct casualties exceeding those of several civil wars, the conquest of South Ossetia, and the sporadic but continual fighting on the Korean border.
Where We Stand Today
In 2011, the Global Commission on Drug Policy released a report which began with the words, “The War On Drugs has failed.”(7) It went on to detail the ineffectiveness of incarceration in general and interdiction in specific, and it tied the criminalization of narcotics to a self-sustaining politicized process.
The Commission is nothing to ignore. A dozen former Presidents and world leaders such as Kofi Annan, former Secretary General of the United Nations, grace its ranks, and solid science underlies its conclusions.(8) In response to their findings, the industrialized nations have begun to shift their focus from elimination and punitive criminalization to control, regulation, and treatment. And, as more studies are undertaken and released, global policy continues to shift away from the combative stance of earlier times.
However, efforts at legalization or alternative approaches are meeting resistance from within the ranks of entrenched American politicians. Hillary Clinton seems to be relaxing her stance on marijuana, and Donald Trump has sounded open in the past (though he claims to have never used any drugs, not even coffee), but media polls among Senators and Congressmen show their positions to be nearly unchanged from two and three decades ago. The American voting public remains sharply divided on the issue.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Decades of constant war against drugs have produced minimal results, and so have treatment programs. Relapse among recovering drug addicts is very common, and new generations of the disenfranchised are continually discovering the same drugs their parents did — or, for variety, new and interesting ones. Addiction rates remain high, and apart from criminalization and treatment, no third direct option has appeared.
It seems that we’re trying to treat the wrong problem. The overwhelming majority of habitual drug users come from the poorest segments of society. Addiction is endemic to low-income urban ethnic enclaves and neighborhoods; street-level dealers spring from that same group, one known for lack of opportunity, hopelessness, and despair. It’s evident that drug use (for some) and dealing (for the more motivated) provide apparent paths of escape from grinding poverty and disenfranchisement.
In order to fight drug use, then, it would be logical to make it so people — especially these particular groups of people — no longer want them.
Legalization and regulation would eliminate the income streams for the majority of street-level dealers. This, combined with tandem efforts to create alternative roads of escape for the poorest groups, should end the majority of drug dealing in these areas. Regulation, combined with an increase in price, will remove many of the presently controlled substances from the reach of the poorest users, most of whom now acquire their own product in trade for services in sales or distribution.
In his 1964 speech, “A Time For Choosing”, Ronald Reagan observed that Federal programs aimed at ending juvenile delinquency cost more, per capita, than would giving those kids degrees at Harvard. The numbers have changed but the principle remains the same.
We live in one of the richest countries on Earth, in the richest society in human history. We certainly have the resources; we’ve spent trillions on drug interdiction to no apparent gain. Given that, if we can’t bring ourselves to solve the problems of poverty and disenfranchisement, we will deserve the society we create instead.
And it won’t be a pretty one.
(1) “Alcohol prohibition and cirrhosis”, Dills and Miron (2004), American Law and Economics Review
(2) From “Prohibition In Washington DC” by Garrett Peck
(3) The perception of common front-line drug use is stridently and convincingly disputed in “The Myth of the Addicted Army: Vietnam and the Modern War on Drugs”, Jeremy Kuzmarov.
(4) “Dynamics of a heroin addicition epidemic”, DuPont and Greene, Science, 1973
(5) “Profile of a heroin addiction epidemic”, DuPont, New England Journal Of Medicine, 1971
(5b) John Ehrlichman was interviewed in Harper’s Magazine in 1994; an excerpt follows. I offer no further comment or analysis:
“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the anti-war left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
(6) “Correctional Populations In The United States”, published regularly by the US Bureau Of Justice Statistics under the DOJ. Reports through 2014 were referenced.
(7) “Report: The War On Drugs Has Failed”, Time, 03 June 2011
(8) “The War On Drugs”, Global Commission on Drug Policy