The History and Failure of the War on Drugs
Drug use and addiction have a notable impact on a person’s life and can negatively impact a person’s family, career, and personal relationships. With treatment centers doing their best to help, a focused effort has been combating drug addiction for decades. One such effort was the War on Drugs, a United States government plan to reduce drug use among citizens through harsher legal enforcement. These enforcement measures included increased policing, harsher penalties for drug use, and longer prison sentences for dealers.
The History of the War on Drugs
Drug use in the United States has a long history, and the associated laws to combat it are equally long. The earliest drug laws in the United States go back to the late 1800s, and the federal government passed various laws and acts throughout the coming decades. As it is currently understood, the War on Drugs started under President Richard Nixon after passing the Controlled Substances Act in 1970. As part of his declaration of drugs being public enemy number one, Nixon also created the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in 1973. The DEA is focused entirely on illegal drug use, trafficking, and sales. Currently, the agency has over $2 billion and employs 5,000 agents.
The 1980s saw the War on Drugs continue under President Reagan, and many of the associated laws already in use were further expanded and enhanced. This focus on drug offenses is reflected in government reports that show an increase in incarceration rates. In 1986, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act was passed. It included mandatory sentencing for specific types of drug-related crimes. The Anti-Drug Abuse Act is one of the most heavily criticized aspects of the war on drugs, with uneven sentencing for crack (viewed as a primarily “black drug”) versus cocaine (popular among white users) being a famous point of criticism. The sentencing guidelines had a 100 to 1 ratio where possession of five grams of crack would carry the same prison sentence as five hundred grams of cocaine.
Over time, the support for the War on Drugs has waned, with public support dropping. Many states, between 2009 and 2013, reduced drug penalties and sentencing. In 2010, the federal government passed the Fair Sentencing Act to correct the above-noted discrepancy between crack and cocaine sentencing. Further softening on the War on Drugs rhetoric could be seen when states across the country began legalizing marijuana use for recreational and medical purposes. California was the first state to legalize medical marijuana in 1996 and Colorado and Washington state first legalized recreational use in 2012.
In the decades since its inception, there has been heavy criticism directed towards the War on Drugs. These complaints include the increased incarceration rates, the increase in the number of prisoners in jail due to nonviolent offenses, uneven sentencing guidelines often based on the drug type and race, and suggestions of a racist component in terms of who was targeted by law enforcement. Various studies show that instead of reducing crime, the strict sentencing guidelines created more criminals and undermined many of the communities most strictly targeted by law enforcement. Long sentences for non-violent offenses made it difficult for those released to find work and weakened their bonds with family and their broader community.
Did the War on Drugs Fail?
With many decades of hindsight, the general view is that the War on Drugs did not accomplish its stated goals of creating a safer society with reduced crime and addiction. What is notable is the broad scope of the condemnation, with the Office of Justice reporting it as a failed policy and this view being reflected by institutions and think tanks across the political spectrum. While data points and areas of focus may differ, the viewpoint that the War on Drugs is a policy failure sees a wide range of support.
Taking the view that the War on Drugs has failed, the next consideration is finding a proper solution to drug addiction, trafficking, and sales. An area often noted when reviewing the over one trillion dollars spent on fighting drug use in the last 50 years is how the money was used. Most of these government funds went towards law enforcement, which left very little for drug treatment programs. This lack of focus on the underlying causes of drug use has had the side effect of creating a lucrative black market for illegal drug sales. Alternative solutions point toward changing the focus of drug enforcement to the treatment of addiction. A greater focus on treating addiction reduces drug use and relapses, which in turn reduces the market size for drug dealers. Another element under consideration is regulating drugs instead of making them illegal. A focus on regulation allows for more precise treatment of drug users in treating their addiction and also harms the illegal drug black market.
Sunshinebehavioralhealth.com - Drug Rehab in Huntington Beach, CA
History.com - The War on Drugs
Britannica.com - War on Drugs
Wikkipedia.org - Uniform State Narcotic Drug Act
Bjs.ojp.gov - Drug Law Violators, 1980 - 86
ACLU.org - Cracks in the System: 20 Years of the Unjust Federal Crack Cocaine Law
Pewtrusts.org - More Imprisonment Does Not Reduce State Drug Problems
Ojp.gov - Social Consequences of the War on Drugs: The Legacy of Failed Policy
Pewresearch.org - Feds may be rethinking the drug war, but states have been leading the way
CNBC.com - America has spent over a trillion dollars fighting the war on drugs. 50 years later, drug use in the U.S. is climbing again.