Problems and Potential Solutions to the War on Drugs

Updated on May 10, 2019


“You want to know what this was really all about. The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar 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.” This is a quote from Tom Ehrlichman, a top aid to Richard Nixon during his presidency.

Perhaps unsurprisingly given the quote above, over time, many federal drug laws have unfairly targeted minorities, especially in relation to sentencing and mandatory minimums. Mandatory minimum sentences have unfairly and disproportionately incarcerated too many minorities for too long. The drug war has helped fill our prisons, and it's one of the leading contributors to the prison overpopulation problem. From examining the inception and the execution of the American drug war, it is obvious that it has been a failure. The best option that we have as a nation to overcome the drug problems plaguing our society is not to incarcerate more Americans, but to help them. The regulation and decriminalization of drugs will make our country safer, wealthier, and free of the racial and political biases that birthed the war on drugs.



Racism and Mandatory Minimums

The US drug war has produced drastically different outcomes among different racial groups. Communities of color, especially those living in poverty, have been proven to be unfairly targeted and sentenced differently than middle-class, white Americans. One of America’s biggest problems in sentencing for drug offenses is the concept of mandatory minimums. Mandatory minimum sentencing laws force judges to deliver fixed sentences to individuals convicted of a crime, regardless of the circumstances. Mandatory minimums were introduced during the drug war and therefore targeted minority communities. That's why it isn't surprising that people of color account for 70 percent of defendants facing mandatory minimum sentences. Prosecutors are also twice as likely to pursue a mandatory minimum sentence against a black defendant versus a white defendant, once again showing a huge racial disparity.

Financial Aid and Public Housing

If you receive financial aid, I hope you’ve heard about the 1998 amendments to the Higher Education Act of 1965. This amendment makes it possible to be refused financial aid for post-secondary education if you have been convicted of a misdemeanor or felony drug charge. In 2005 the law as amended to only apply to those who were convicted during the time they were receiving financial aid. Even with the country moving towards legalization, a simple possession of marijuana charge may be required to be reported to potential employers. A drug offense is also enough to get the offender and their entire family kicked out of public housing.


The drug war has cost the United States an estimated $1 trillion since 1971, and half of the people incarcerated in federal prisons are serving time for drug crimes.

Lack of Effectiveness

Overdose rates have never been higher in the US and drug use across the board is just as high as before the war on drugs was implemented. Incarceration has been shown to be one of the least effective methods for reducing crime.


Potential Solutions

After studying decades of empirical evidence from around the world, the Drug Policy Alliance found that decriminalization has been proven to drastically reduce addiction, overdoses, and the spread of HIV/AIDS. The Drug Policy Alliance is a non-profit organization whose mission is “to advance those policies and attitudes that best reduce the harms of both drug use and drug prohibition, and to promote the sovereignty of individuals over their minds and bodies”.

Portugal is a great example of a country that has decriminalized drugs to a positive effect. In Portugal today, no one is arrested or incarcerated for drug possession, many more people are receiving treatment than before, and rates of addiction, HIV/AIDS, and drug overdoses have been greatly reduced.

The decriminalization of many illegal drugs would also help to abolish the institutional racism associated with our court systems and give people of color a better chance at economic equality. The money saved by not incarcerating as many individuals for drug crimes can be invested in impoverished communities to help avoid drug addiction in a more proactive way. Increased access to clean needles and increased availability of naloxone (a drug that works to reverse opioid overdoses) are two steps that can help the opioid epidemic without even changing the law.

Some may argue that illegal drugs should stay that way for the betterment of society. People of this belief generally assume that new legality of formerly illegal drugs will lead to increased usage rates and addiction. Another argument is that decriminalizing drugs will lead to increased non-drug related crime. According to the National Academy of Science, legal access to drugs does not necessarily lead to increased use. It is also likely that general crime would go down instead of up. This is due to the number of crimes currently committed by addicts to support their habits.



If the United States successfully decriminalizes drug possession, we will begin to see positive changes in public health and safety, reductions in overdose and addiction rates, and less institutional racism and economic inequality for minorities. More families will be together instead of separated by prison walls, more young people will grow up knowing the actual dangers of drugs, and our economy will improve through regulating drugs and cutting prison costs.


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