For as long as humans have walked the Earth, people have taken drugs for everything from religious ceremonies to medical purposes, and sometimes simply for their intoxicating effects. Despite their long history of use, mind-altering substances have arguably never been as controversial as they have been in recent history.
To begin, let’s take a look at the history of prohibition in the U.S.A. While the “war on drugs” did not officially begin until the early 1970’s, the United States’ history of prohibition began back in the 1870’s, when the first anti-opium laws were implemented as a means of targeting Chinese immigrants. Next, was cocaine throughout much of the south in the early 1900’s, followed by marijuana throughout the Mid and South-West between 1910 and 1920. These substances were not made illegal for their potential to cause harm, but rather due to the groups associated with the particular substances. Opium was made illegal due to its’ association with Chinese immigrants, cocaine for its’ association with black men, and marijuana for Mexican immigrants (Drugpolicy.org).
Another, better-known example of prohibition in the United States was the prohibition of alcohol from 1920 to 1933. Despite being intended to solve social
problems, reduce crime and corruption, and also lower taxes, this so-called “noble experiment” is known historically as a monumental failure. Not only did making alcohol illegal fail to reduce crime and corruption, it actually made these problems worse. While illegalization of alcohol did cause the rate of alcohol consumption to drop at first, this trend was short lived. Soon after being made illegal, criminal organizations stepped in to fill the void that was left by eliminating the legal supply of alcohol, while the demand remained. This new black market was used to fuel a huge increase in organized crime and resulted in the criminal justice system being stretched beyond capacity, contrary to the original intention of reducing the strain on the system.
Despite the obvious consequences of alcohol prohibition in the past, the United States decided to give the prohibition of mind-altering substances another go when President Nixon declared the “war on drugs” back in 1971. In order to wage this new war, Nixon increased the size and scope of the Federal drug control agencies. Similar to earlier efforts to criminalize substances, the “war on drugs” had less to do with the dangers associated with certain types of substances, than the association between drug use and a particular group, which in this case was the rebellious youth.
While Nixon may have started the war on drugs, it was Ronald Regan that escalated it to a whole new level. Throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s, America was experiencing ”drug hysteria”. During this time drug use was considered to be one of the most important issues by a large portion of Americans. During his presidency, Ronald Regan added fuel to the fire in the form of the “just say no” campaign and implementing “zero tolerance” laws in regards to drug use. As a result of these new policies, the number of people behind bars for non-violent drug offenses increased from 50,000 in 1980, to over 400,000 in 1997 (Drugpolicy.org).
Despite persisting over four decades, the war on drugs has not been successful. In addition to failing to lower the rates of drug use, there have also been many unintended consequences stemming from these policies. One of these unintended consequences is the increasing distrust between the police and the community. The war on drugs has turned American law enforcement away from community policing, and more towards militarization. This has made it more difficult for police to conduct investigations since in many areas the residents will not help the police. In particular, many minority groups feel particularly targeted by the police. Despite using drugs at the same rate as whites, blacks and Hispanic individuals are disproportionately arrested for non-violent drug crimes (Drugpolicy.org).
Another consequence of the war on drugs is the increase in crime. Just like with alcohol prohibition, there is still a demand for the illegal drugs despite the legal supply being cut-off. This led not only to the emergence of various criminal groups and a thriving black-market but also to more dangerous drugs due to lack of quality control. While this may be the result of a United States policy, the backlash is not contained within the borders of the country. Throughout South America, numerous drug gangs and cartels have grown increasingly powerful and wealthy through the drug trade. For example, in Mexico, the drug cartels have grown powerful enough to influence the government. While the already astronomical murder rate in Mexico continues to rise, there is less than a 5% chance that a murderer will be brought to justice. This is largely due to the corrupting effect that drug money has had on the police and government in Mexico.
In addition to being ineffective, the war on drugs is also very hypocritical. Despite claiming to be against drugs, more Americans than ever before rely on prescription drugs than ever before. This has resulted in a massive increase in prescription drug-related emergency room visits and even deaths. The rate for opioid analgesic poisoning deaths nearly quadrupled from 1.4 per 100,000 in 1999 to 5.4 per 100,000 in 2011.
While there is still a long way to go, the United States has recently taken some steps towards ending the war on drugs. Over the past few years, twenty-one states have legalized marijuana in some form, and four states along with the District of Columbia have even legalized marijuana for recreational use. Since marijuana arrests account for nearly half of all of the people arrested for non-violent drug crimes, this has not only made marijuana advocates happy but has also helped reduce the massive overcrowding in prisons within those states. In addition to benefiting the States that have legalized marijuana, the decriminalization of marijuana has also helped weaken the Mexican cartels, and many other criminal organizations that have begun to lose a large portion of their market to legal operations with better products and quality control.
While the war on drugs may not have been a success, it is undeniable that something must be done to deal with individuals addicted to drugs. Although the draconian policies of the war on drugs have not been effective in solving the problems associated with drug use, there are other possible policy solutions that may be more effective. Rather than sticking with the strategy of punishing drug users by locking them away in prison, evidence supports the notion that rehabilitation programs would be more successful at reducing the recidivism rate of drug offenders.
In addition to shifting the focus from punishing drug users towards treating the underlying causes of their addictions through effective rehabilitation programs, lifting the bans on researching many currently prohibited substances may prove useful in not only gaining a better understanding of these substances and their effects. In some cases, research has even found that some illegal drugs actually have very positive medical applications when used properly, possibly even being used to combat addictions to other substances. For example, studies have found evidence that marijuana may potentially be able to help counter the opioid epidemic in this country. Research published in a 2014 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association asserts that the states that have legalized marijuana have seen a 24.8% drop in overdoses, leading to 1,729 fewer deaths in 2010 alone. Although it is arguable that marijuana was not the main contributing factor in the decrease in deaths, other research has found a significant correlation between a number of dispensaries in an area, and decreased rates of opiate use.
Marijuana is not the only illicit drug that has been shown to have potential beneficial effects. Despite also being considered Schedule I substances, and therefore are not supposed to possess any medical uses, drugs such as MDMA, ibogaine, and LSD have been shown to be effective in treating disorders such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and even combat addictions to drugs such as heroin.
While making all substances at least legal to research would be a good start to finding a better solution to dealing with drug problems, some countries have had relative success with even more extreme policies. For example, Portugal decriminalized all drugs over fourteen years ago. Not only did this arguably radical policy not result in chaos, it actually managed to successful reduce the rates of drug use over time.
In conclusion, the war on drugs has cost massive amounts of money and has only managed to make the problems it was supposed to solve worse. From creating black markets that fund criminal enterprise, to overcrowding the criminal justice system and even harming the public’s relationship with law-enforcement while disproportionately targeting minorities. In theory, this policy may seem like it had good intentions, but time has shown that despite what it was intended to do, the war on drugs has proven to be ineffective, causing much more harm than good.
By, Frank Bursese