War on Drugs
“The War on Drugs is a phrase used to refer to a government-led initiative that aims to stop illegal drug use, distribution, and trade by dramatically increasing prison sentences for both drug dealers and users.”1 This movement started in the 70s; however, drug prohibition and taxation has happened in America for a long time before then, which we saw through the smoking opium exclusion act in 1909, the Harrison Act, and the Marijuana tax act of 1937. Nevertheless, the War on Drugs officially started when ‘’U.S. Pres. Richard Nixon declared drug abuse to be “public enemy number one” and increased federal funding for drug-control agencies and drug-treatment efforts’’.2
This was minimal compared to the initiatives Reagon started when he became president. Since he focused on incarceration, the rates of people in jail for nonviolent drug crimes heavily increased. ‘’Nixon went on to create the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in 1973. This agency is a special police force committed to targeting illegal drug use and smuggling in the United States.’’3 Another component of this was the Anti-Drug Abuse Act which established the minimum sentencing amount for drug-related crimes. However, this act allowed for 1 gram of crack to be punished at the same rate as 100 grams of powdered cocaine, and since crack was used more predominantly by black users, this led to claims that the war on drugs was racist and set up to lock away people of color.
- Racism/Xenophobia: The drug war in the ’70s was intentionally created to systematically imprison black people for drug crimes and to associate African Americans with crack cocaine. Crack in black communities began to rise during Reagan’s term in office, and crack cocaine was transitioned into intercity communities instead of factories. Crack is simple and accessible enough that local drug dealers can do it on a smaller scale. This introduction of crack cocaine in black communities happened at the same time as the drug wars, and this allowed criminalization to occur seamlessly.” During a 1994 interview, President Nixon’s domestic policy chief, John Ehrlichman”..was quoted as 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.”4 Latino communities were also targeted due to the massive amount of drugs that would be transported through the border, and the criminalization of drugs was also done strategically to deport Latino immigrants.
- Anti-Leftism: Many young liberals were against the Vietnam war because they felt it was unjust and organized protests against it. The U.S. government vehemently opposed this because they wanted their citizens to support the war and ‘’drugs became symbols of youthful rebellion, social upheaval, and political dissent.”5 They knew that if they illegalized drugs, they would be able to arrest the rebellious young generation with different beliefs. ‘’This is further proven in the quote by John Ehrlichman, in which he talked about disrupting the hippie communities and associating them with marijuana.’’6
- Decrease drug use: While there were many racist and classist intentions behind the drug war, another cause was simply a vast population of people doing harmful drugs. This worried the government, and they wanted to stop more people from getting addicted.
- Overflow of jails/overwhelming the courts: Since so many people have been put in jail for using and selling drugs, there has been a dilemma of too many people in jails and not enough room. ‘’Thousands of low-level drug offenders have been sentenced to life imprisonment with no chance of parole as a result of their sentencing”.7 A tied consequence with the overflow of jails is that since so many are going to prison, the courts are also overwhelmed with cases of drug crimes. The substantial increase in drug-related crimes only aids the overpopulated prisons and has been a significant effect of the drug war.
- Stigma against addicts: The information from the government about how people who do drugs are criminals has caused a stigma against people with drug addictions. Drug addiction is a disease that hurts the people who are addicted; when we criminalize something so emotionally taxing, it causes society to associate these people as villains. ‘’Incarceration stigma is expressed through a punishment rather than rehabilitation approach to drug use, a view of drug users as “criminals,” zero tolerance for any use (or relapse), and a disdain for therapeutic interventions or compassion for those with drug addiction’’.8 This kind of mindset removes all compassion and humanity to recognize drug abusers as people that are struggling.
- The disproportionate amount of people of color in jail: African Americans and people of Latino descent are disproportionately in jail for drug-related crimes and take up a massive part of the prison population. ‘’Despite the fact that Whites, African Americans, and Latinos all use illicit drugs at similar rates, 45 percent of all convicted drug offenders in state prison are black compared to 28 percent that are white and 20 percent that are Hispanic, according to the Sentencing Project’’.9 This has led to mass destruction in black households because kids are left without mothers and fathers to care for them, leading to high rates in foster homes. Also, once in jail, finding jobs or education is challenging. ‘’Under The Higher Education Act (HEA) of 1998, any drug conviction blocks or delays all federal educational assistance, including loans and even work-study programs. Given that 55% of those convicted of drug offenses are black and that this law will not affect the wealthy who do not need financial aid, the HEA plainly targets low-income people of color.’’10 The drug war has successfully criminalized people of color because of minor changes, leading to ruin in many disenfranchised communities.
- Billions of dollars wasted: ‘’Governments at all levels spend about $100 billion a year on law enforcement and criminal justice programs to combat the drug problem and about $35 billion is directly related to drug law enforcement’’. ‘’About one-third of inmates would not be in prison if it were no longer a crime to possess or traffic in illicit drugs.’’11 So, instead of spending this money on more drug prevention programs or rehabilitation, we are wasting billions on not even successful methods.
- Military methods by police/aggression: ‘’The federal government helped militarize local and state police departments in an attempt to better equip them in the fight against drugs. The Pentagon’s 1033 program, which gives surplus military-grade equipment to police, was created in the 1990s as part of President George HW Bush’s escalation of the war on drugs’’.12 This militarization of the police has allowed officers to be equipped with more weapons that can be abused if given to the wrong cop. These increases in police power have led to unjust property seizing, and the intensity of their equipment can be seen in the military weapons they used at protests in the past. Since police can sell and make a profit off of their seized, this has led to much corruption where officers will seize property for the smallest suspicions. ‘’The libertarian Cato Institute has also criticized the war on drugs for decades, because anti-drug efforts gave cover to a huge expansion of law enforcement’s surveillance capabilities, including wiretaps and U.S. mail searches’’.13 The war on drugs has changed the power the police have over their citizens and has led to corruption.
- The black market for illicit drugs: Since drugs cannot be sold out in the open legally, there are many unsafe ways people sell drugs while avoiding the government. A significant benefit of the prohibition of drugs is the Mexican Cartel. ‘’According to the U.S. State Department’s International Narcotics Control Strategy Report (INCSR) covering 2016, Mexico is a major producer of heroin, marijuana, and methamphetamine destined for the United States’’.14 This contributes to the crime rates because since people cannot handle drug disputes in courts, they often have to resort to violence. The drugs from these criminal organizations are also often dirty since they cannot be regulated.
- Clean needles programs: Currently with the laws against drug use, there is a significant problem with people sharing sexual diseases through shared needles. ‘’In New York City, more than 60 percent of intravenous drug users are HIV positive’’.15 This is a major health concern and the implementation of certain clean needles organizations can help this concern. ‘’Syringe access services provide people with sterile injection equipment to reduce the incidence of syringe sharing—a risky practice linked to transmission of bloodborne infections’’.16 While this does not solve the drug issue in our country completely, it does make things a bit safer.
- Decriminalization: The decriminalization of drugs would allow people to get help without being scared of being thrown in jail. This would decrease the stigma around drug use, free up the courts, and less money would be spent on jail costs.The money that we used to spend on the criminalization of drugs can be switched into money for rehabilitation resources. ‘’In a meta-analysis of 66 incarceration-based treatment evaluations, therapeutic community and counseling approaches were respectively 1.4 and 1.5 times more likely to reduce reoffending.”17 In addition, decriminalization allows people not to be arrested for drug possession while still putting people who participate in illegal trade and trafficking in prison.
- Legalization: Another solution is outright legalization, but we can do this while still having regulations and taxes on drug use. Legalization would eliminate the black markets selling drugs because people would not have to resort to more sketchy ways to receive drugs. This option does pose the threat of people having too easy access to drugs and that more people will end up addicted. However there is no solution that solves all the problems concerning high drug use.” There are always choices,” Keith Humphreys, a drug policy expert at Stanford University, explained.” There is no framework available in which there’s not harm somehow. We’ve got freedom, pleasure, health, crime, and public safety. You can push on one and two of those — maybe even three with different drugs — but you can’t get rid of all of them. You have to pay the piper somewhere.” Furthermore, the legalization of drugs can be paired with prevention programs so we can help addicts while also halting some of the profit cartels and other illegal organizations make.
- LEAD (Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion): This is another helpful solution to helping out drug addicts on their journeys to become sober.’’ Through LEAD, law enforcement officers are empowered to redirect individuals with substance use disorders to social services, rather than making low-level arrests.’’18 Through LEAD, clients can receive rehab, but they are not forced to; they can also get managers who can guide them. ‘’On average, individuals diverted through LEAD were 58 percent less likely than nonparticipants to be rearrested and spent 39 fewer days in jail per year.’’19
While there is no way to reduce drug use altogether, we can take methods to make drug use safer and minimize the number of people addicted to drugs. The drug war was created based on racist and classist intentions but aimed to minimize drug use. Today we can try to reduce drug use but at the same time work to not criminalize people for their diseases. The war on drugs has had adverse effects on countless communities and federal funding. However, the solutions to this can come from legalization, decriminalization, and other initiatives that can go along with those two actions.
1 History.com Editors. (2017, May 31). War on drugs. History.com. Retrieved July 25, 2022, from https://www.history.com/topics/crime/the-war-on-drugs
2 Augustyn, A. (2016, August 19). War on drugs. Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved July 25, 2022, from https://www.britannica.com/topic/war-on-drugs
3 History.com Editors. (2017, May 31). War on drugs. History.com. Retrieved July 25, 2022, from https://www.history.com/topics/crime/the-war-on-drugs
4 History.com Editors. (2017, May 31). War on drugs. History.com. Retrieved July 25, 2022, from https://www.history.com/topics/crime/the-war-on-drugs
5 A history of the Drug War. Drug Policy Alliance. (n.d.). Retrieved July 25, 2022, from https://drugpolicy.org/issues/brief-history-drug-war
6 A history of the Drug War. Drug Policy Alliance. (n.d.). Retrieved July 25, 2022, from https://drugpolicy.org/issues/brief-history-drug-war
7 The unintended negative consequences of the ‘War on Drugs’: Mass … penalreform.org. (2013, March). Retrieved July 26, 2022, from https://cdn.penalreform.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/PRI_war-on-drugs-briefing_March-2013.pdf
8 van Olphen, J., Eliason, M. J., Freudenberg, N., & Barnes, M. (2009, May 8). Nowhere to go: How stigma limits the options of female drug users after release from jail – substance abuse treatment, prevention, and policy. BioMed Central. Retrieved July 25, 2022, from https://substanceabusepolicy.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1747-597X-4-10
9 The ‘war on drugs’ has failed, Commission says. The Leadership Conference Education Fund. (2019, March 15). Retrieved July 25, 2022, from https://civilrights.org/edfund/resource/the-war-on-drugs-has-failed-commission-says/
10 The Drug War is the new Jim Crow. American Civil Liberties Union. (2001, July). Retrieved July 25, 2022, from https://www.aclu.org/other/drug-war-new-jim-crow
11 Legalizing drugs. Legalizing Drugs | Office of Justice Programs. (1996). Retrieved July 25, 2022, from https://www.ojp.gov/ncjrs/virtual-library/abstracts/legalizing-drugs
12 Lopez, G. (2016, May 8). The War on Drugs, explained. Vox. Retrieved July 25, 2022, from https://www.vox.com/2016/5/8/18089368/war-on-drugs-marijuana-cocaine-heroin-meth
13 Lopez, G. (2016, May 8). The War on Drugs, explained. Vox. Retrieved July 25, 2022, from https://www.vox.com/2016/5/8/18089368/war-on-drugs-marijuana-cocaine-heroin-meth
14 Beittel J. (2017). Mexico: Organized Crime and Drug Trafficking Organization Congressional Research Service – https://fas.org/sgp/crs/row/R41576.pdf
15 Against drug prohibition. American Civil Liberties Union. (n.d.). Retrieved July 25, 2022, from https://www.aclu.org/other/against-drug-prohibition
16 Manager, T. W. S. M., Woodcome, T., Manager, S. M., Gordon Director, P., Gordon, P., Director, Director, J. P. S., Parshall, J., Director, S., Pearl, B., Solomon, D., Chung, E., Figgatt, S., Maxwell, C., Olinsky, B., Rowland-Shea, J., Coffey, M., & Rasheed, Z. (2021, October 29). Ending the war on drugs. Center for American Progress. Retrieved July 25, 2022, from https://www.americanprogress.org/article/ending-war-drugs/
17 Chandler, R. K., Fletcher, B. W., & Volkow, N. D. (2009, January 14). Treating drug abuse and addiction in the criminal justice system: Improving Public Health and Safety. JAMA. Retrieved July 25, 2022, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2681083/
18 Manager, T. W. S. M., Woodcome, T., Manager, S. M., Gordon Director, P., Gordon, P., Director, Director, J. P. S., Parshall, J., Director, S., Pearl, B., Solomon, D., Chung, E., Figgatt, S., Maxwell, C., Olinsky, B., Rowland-Shea, J., Coffey, M., & Rasheed, Z. (2021, October 29). Ending the war on drugs. Center for American Progress. Retrieved July 25, 2022, from https://www.americanprogress.org/article/ending-war-drugs/
19 Manager, T. W. S. M., Woodcome, T., Manager, S. M., Gordon Director, P., Gordon, P., Director, Director, J. P. S., Parshall, J., Director, S., Pearl, B., Solomon, D., Chung, E., Figgatt, S., Maxwell, C., Olinsky, B., Rowland-Shea, J., Coffey, M., & Rasheed, Z. (2021, October 29). Ending the war on drugs. Center for American Progress. Retrieved July 25, 2022, from https://www.americanprogress.org/article/ending-war-drugs/