The “war on drugs” has been going on for decades, and the reality is that there has been tremendous destruction done to individuals, families, and entire communities in an effort to combat illegal drugs. The war on drugs may have meant well, but throughout the years has caused a lot of damage and has been largely ineffective.
The substances that we currently view as illegal in the U.S. and many places worldwide aren’t new. Many illegal drugs have legally been used for thousands of years in medicines, spiritual rituals, and even recreationally.
What’s happened is that we also tend to view illegal drugs as being inherently more dangerous than other substances, but that isn’t true either.
Was the War On Drugs Effective?
When looking at the original goals of the war on drugs, none have been met.
- Reduced substance abuse
- Lower drug crime rates
- Less drug cartel activity
- Eliminate drug trafficking
To date, drug addiction costs the U.S. $215 billion annually, and according to a report from the ACLU, every 25 seconds, someone gets moved into the criminal justice system because of non-violent drug-related charges, like “possession for personal use.”
In the decades since Congress passed the war on drugs, use rates haven’t gone down much. People often wonder how we got to this point and have so little to show for everything that’s gone into this so-called war.
The Beginning of the War on Drugs
In the 1960s, drugs started to be associated with rebellion and political dissent. In 1971, President Richard Nixon officially declared a war on drugs following the Anti Drug Abuse Act. As part of that “war,” there was an increased presence of federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) officers, and there were mandatory sentencing laws put in place, as well as no-knock warrants. One of Nixon’s aides later went on to say that the administration meant the war on drugs to target anti-war activists on the left, which the Nixon administration saw as their political opponents.
Later in the 1970s, many states started to decriminalize marijuana, but these efforts ended because parents began to be increasingly worried about high rates of use among young people.By the 1980s, there was a growing sense of hysteria about drugs. Ronald Reagan’s presidency ushered in higher rates of incarceration related to drug offenses; Nancy Reagan started an anti-drug campaign with the now infamous slogan “Just Say No.”
By 1989, public support showed 64% of surveyed Americans felt drugs were the country’s number one problem. The government then enacted zero-tolerance policies throughout the country, and schools tapped into federal funding and implemented the highly criticized DARE education program.
The Modern Era of The War On Drugs
Bill Clinton continued the policies of his Republican predecessors when it came to the drug war. Clinton also rejected a recommendation from the U.S. Sentencing Commission to eliminate the differences in the crack and powder cocaine sentences.
In 1994 the president passed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act; it addressed the rising crime rates that seemed to coincide with the crack-cocaine epidemic. That particular law imposed stricter prison sentences federally, and it asked states to do the same. The law funded more prisons and increased grant programs for police officers that would encourage them to make more arrests related to drugs, which was again an escalation of the war on drugs.
The passage of that law has been problematic for now-President Joe Biden, who has since said that he doesn’t support stricter drug laws.
The idea behind the war on drugs is positive, and many believe the administration meant well with this initiative. Trillions of dollars have been spent fighting this “war,” but long-term positive results seem to be non-existent.
The War on Race?
There is often a racial undertone to illicit drug laws. For example, in the 1870s, we saw the first laws against opium, which directly targeted Chinese immigrants. In the early 1900s, black men were the target of the original anti-cocaine laws, and in the 20s and 30s, there started to be marijuana laws targeting Mexican migrants. Today, we still see this lasting effect as the majority of drug enforcement policies disproportionately affect minority communities.
The Problem With Criminalizing Addiction
The war on drugs follows a punishment model for dealing with addiction and dependence on illegal drugs. The United States manages to be home to just 5% of the world’s population, yet has 25% of the world’s prisoners. It’s built on the concept of zero tolerance.
This does, along with not providing treatment opportunities, push people who struggle with addiction further into the shadows. When addiction is criminalized, rather than being open and honest about needing help, people feel they have to (quite literally) hide or lie to avoid prosecution. It becomes increasingly difficult for them to get the treatment that could save their lives and keep them out of the prison system. The United States treats addiction as a crime problem rather than a public health problem, and it’s not beneficial from what we see now.
The war on drugs became a war on mental health and the people of the United States. This war has created a stigma and acceptance of judgment surrounding people with addiction, which is just one more obstacle to receiving treatment. Once someone is part of the criminal justice system for drug use and not getting the help they need, they are taken from their family. Even once someone gets out of jail, their job prospects are limited. It’s a perpetuating cycle.
Re-Evaluating the War on Drugs
In 2014, research showed that 67% of people would prefer the government provide treatment for people who use illegal drugs instead of prosecuting them. It could be that the United States is at a turning point in how we view illegal drugs and the war on drugs. There are better options, according to many addiction professionals and policymakers.
The idea of the war on drugs is perhaps one of America’s most misguided and damaging efforts, but changes can still be made to prevent further damage. We tried treating addiction like it was a crime, and it didn’t work. Maybe now it’s time to treat it like it’s a mental health disorder?
None of this means that drugs aren’t dangerous and damaging. The reality is that addiction claims the lives of tens of thousands of people each year. What it does mean is that perhaps we should rethink drug policies and how we approach substance use disorders. In recent years the negative stigma around seeing treatment for addiction or other mental health disorders is slowly being lifted. More and more people are seeking treatment and getting help, without fear of judgment.
Opus Health treats addiction as a public health crisis, not a crime. If you, or someone you love, are struggling with addiction we can help. Call today to talk to a care coordinator.