The Failed War on Drugs

The “War on Drugs” began, at least symbolically, in 1971. At a White House Press Conference on June 17th, President Richard Nixon stood in front of a crowd of reporters and declared that “America’s public enemy number one, in the United States, is drug abuse.” Since 1971, the U.S. has spent over 1 trillion dollars in an effort to fight drug trade and abuse to little avail. Despite the fact that U.S. spending on curbing drug abuse has increased from under $1 billion per year to $20 billion per year, the drug addiction rate has remained at the same level: around 1.3 percent. Overall, “The War on Drugs” has been a complete failure and has had the latent function of perpetuating race inequality in the United States and political instability in developing Latin American nations.

The enforcement of harsh drug policy in the United States has proliferated poor policing policies, increased the incarceration of nonviolent offenders, and imprisoned a disproportionate number of African-Americans (particularly men). In the first thirty years of the war on drugs, the incarcerated population increased nearly 600 percent though the entire U.S. population only increased about 130 percent. The massive increase in the prison population and spending on law enforcement has largely been the result of the War on Drugs and not dramatic increases in crime rates. In federal prisons, 55 percent of prisoners are imprisoned for drug offenses while 21 percent of those in state prisons are imprisoned for drug offenses.

Consequently, our state prisons are a reflection of our drug policies. Over the ten year span between 1985 and 1995, the number of African-Americans serving time in state prisons for drug offenses increased approximately 700 percent. Importantly, approximately 12 percent of drug offenses in federal and state prisons are marijuana convictions. Moreover, focusing police efforts on enforcing archaic drug policy results in the misappropriation of resources which could be used to solve serious violent crimes. Though perhaps a spurious correlation, it remains interesting that the massive increase in spending on the war on drugs coincided with a 25 percent drop in the clearance rate of homicide investigations.

The time to change drug policy in the United States is now. It is important to understand that drug policy affects not only those involved in the drug trade, but the general population as well. In low-income neighborhoods, the war on drugs results in single-parent households, lives of innocent people dominated by gangs, and deaths from HIV and impure drugs. Similar to the absurd and completely ineffective notion of “abstinence-only” education, the “Just Say No” mentality of the war on drugs fails to recognize an obvious fact: drug abuse, like extra-marital sex, will continue no matter what policy is enforced. Acceptance of this simple fact is an important first step in leading to the adoption of a creative, common-sense drug policy that focuses on treatment instead of enforcement.

The U.S. government should look to countries like Portugal and Switzerland, which have engaged in counter-intuitive programs that have been, particularly in the case of Switzerland, relatively effective in diminishing addiction rates. Through a prescription heroin program, Switzerland supervises 1500 addicts, providing them with unadulterated heroin, needles, and necessary treatment. In 1991, the Zurich Program for Addiction Research declared the program to be a success in improving the “health and living situation of the patients” and “redu(cing) crime.”

Regardless of where you stand on the future of U.S. drug policy, it is impossible to deny the fact that the War on Drugs is a costly, embarrassing failure. It is of paramount importance that the United States reform its drug policy; whether the United States follows a specific model like that of Portuguese mass decriminalization–the results of which are debated–is irrelevant; more important is that it changes its ridiculous policy in some way.

Simon Carroll