On June 17, 1971, President Richard Nixon declared drugs “public enemy number one.” The media dubbed this policy: The War on Drugs.
Several decades and trillions of dollars later, the war has done little to eradicate drugs, but has succeeded in birthing drug cartels and turning America into a penal colony.
Here we discuss:
- The roots of the war on drugs
- The results
The Ugly Roots of the War on Drugs
In an interview with Harper’s Magazine, a senior advisor to President Nixon revealed that the War on Drugs began as a way to target black communities and anti-war protestors.
“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,” said John Ehrlichman, Nixon’s domestic-policy and a co-conspirator in the Watergate Scandal.
Some drug warriors insist that the war on drugs failed because the measures weren’t harsh enough. So claims anti-drug fanatic Peter Hitchens in The War We Never Fought: The British Establishment’s Surrender to Drugs.
But if the war was never fought, then how did America become the world leader in incarceration?
The war on drugs was started by Nixon and escalated by Reagan, with harsher sentences being imposed for drug use. The Unites States now accounts for 22% of the world’s prison population despite being only 4% of the global population. At least 16% of those imprisoned are drug users, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
The Rise of Cartels
It appears that the lessons of the Prohibition era, which led to the rise of the mafia, haven't been learned. The demand for drugs will be supplied, by illicit means if necessary.
In Mexico, this led to the rise of violent drug cartels, which are more powerful than the government. Public decapitations are the order of the day. As many as 80,000 have died in gang wars, and thousands have gone missing.
This situation has in turn prompted a migrant crisis, as many flee to Mexico to escape the violence. Ironically, the same politicians who call for harsher measures in the war on drugs are also some of the worst when it comes to anti-immigrant rhetoric, decrying the crisis that their own policies have created.
Even if the cartels were defeated, the trafficking would simply reemerge elsewhere. This is what’s called the “balloon effect.” Attempts to disrupt supply in some South American countries only caused the trade to flourish in others.
According to the Drug Policy Alliance, the war on drugs costs the United States over $51 billion a year; funds that could be invested in healthcare or infrastructure, which would probably do more to reduce drug use than any legislative measures.
Drug Use Is a Symptom
Drugs are a means of dealing with pain; therefore, it’s the pain that needs to be addressed, not the drugs.
Aside from that, many people engage in drug use purely for recreational purposes. What of it? You may as well criminalize alcohol or gambling. The idea of legislating what people can put in their bodies is inherently authoritarian.
Only a portion of drug users suffer from addiction (which many drug warriors refuse to even acknowledge as an illness). This obviously needs to be treated, like gambling or alcoholism.
“Most of what we hate and fear about drugs—the violence, the overdoses, the criminality—derives from prohibition, not drugs,” writes Dan Baum in Harper’s Magazine.
Drug warriors like to use Japan as an example of a supposedly successful anti-drug policy. Japan, they argue, has adopted harsh measures and thereby reduced drug use.
What they neglect to mention is that Japan is suffering from a mental health crisis. The country recorded a suicide mortality rate of 18.5 per 100,000 people in 2016, second only to South Korea in the Western Pacific region and almost double the annual global average of 10.6 per 100,000 people. Clearly reducing drug use hasn’t produced a healthier society.
Decriminalization of Drugs
Drug warriors also prefer to ignore the success that Portugal has had since decriminalizing drug use in 2001. The country has seen a dramatic reduction in overdoses, HIV infection, and drug-related crime.
According to The Guardian, HIV infection plummeted from an all-time high in 2000 of 104.2 new cases per million to 4.2 cases per million in 2015.
Another example of progressive drug policy is Holland’s harm reduction, which focuses on preventing drug-related deaths rather than drug use. This includes needle exchange locations to reduce the sharing of needles, and access to methadone—a drug used in the treatment of addiction.
Drugs vs. Depression
Not only did the War on Drugs lead to an escalation in violence; it brought an abrupt halt to promising research into the effectiveness of drugs in fighting mental illness.
Thankfully, the de-escalation of the War on Drugs has allowed research to resume, and the powerful benefits of psychedelics are being revealed.
Researchers in Canada and the United States showed that psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy could be more effective in treating alcoholism than existing treatments.
Further studies in Menlo Park, California indicate that LSD improves cognitive functioning and problem-solving.
Ketamine, once classified as a party drug, is proving a miracle cure for many who suffer from severe depression.
The Answer: Decriminalize Drugs
In fact, I would go even further: Legalize and regulate them.
Of course, many deem legalization too extreme for the time being, but it’s only a matter of time before decriminalization is recognized as the way forward.
“Not if I have anything to say about it,” insist the drug warriors, but they’re swimming upstream. You can’t fight progress. It may take a while, but ultimately, common sense prevails.
Baum, Dan. Legalize It All: How to win the war on drugs. Harper's Magazine.
Lopez, German. 2016, May 8. The war on drugs, explained. Vox.
Wang, Selena. Wright, Rebecca. Wakatsuki, Yoko. 2020, November 30. In Japan, more people died from suicide last month than from Covid in all of 2020. CNN
Ferreira, Susana. 2017, December 5. Portugal’s radical drugs policy is working. Why hasn’t the world copied it? The Guardian.
Lattin, Don. 2017, January 3. The War on Drugs Halted Research Into the Potential Benefits of Psychedelics. Slate
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.