President Nixon declared a “war on drugs” in 1971. Weapons in the war included no-knock warrants and mandatory sentences for violations of drug laws. Nixon moved marijuana into Schedule I of the federal Controlled Substances Schedules, a category reserved for highly addictive drugs that have no medical value. When the commission he appointed to review the federal treatment of marijuana recommended that possession of the drug for personal use should be decriminalized, Nixon ignored the recommendation. Such was the birth of the nation’s modern drug policy.
MORE THAN THREE DECADES OF WAR
After a lull in the public’s interest in the drug war, the Reagan administration sparked new hysteria over crime in general and drug crimes in particular. Media outlets portrayed crack cocaine as one of the nation’s most serious problems, inevitably linking the stories to images of African American drug dealers. Any politician who advocated a sensible drug policy was labeled “soft on crime” and voted out of office.
Drug warriors of the 1980s and 1990s were responsible for draconian sentencing laws that included longer maximum sentences, mandatory minimum sentences, the abolition of federal parole, and limitations on the discretion of judges to impose fair sentences. The Drug Enforcement Administration, the FBI, and even the IRS received large influxes of federal funds to fight the drug war, often to the exclusion of more serious crime. Federal grants to state and local law enforcement agencies produced similarly warped priorities.
CASUALTIES OF THE DRUG WAR
The war on drugs has produced alarming results. They include:
- 5 million arrests for nonviolent drug charges in 2013 alone
- more than 600,000 arrests for simple possession of marijuana in 2013
- the highest incarceration rate in the world
- nearly half of all federal prisoners are serving a drug sentence
- more than 200,000 students have lost financial aid due to drug convictions
- more than $51 billion spent each year to fight the war on drugs
The drug war has produced overcrowded prisons and bloated state budgets while diverting tax dollars from worthwhile programs. The United States spends more on prisons than it does on schools. The law enforcement approach to drug abuse has resulted in broken families, impoverished children raised by single parents, and the inability of drug offenders to find significant employment after they finish their sentences.
The war is wage disproportionately on the poor and on racial and ethnic minorities. More than 58 percent of the defendants sentenced to state prison or jail in 2011 for a drug offense were African-American or Hispanic. Blacks are no more likely than whites to commit drug crimes, but they are arrested for drug crimes at rates 3 to 5 times higher than arrest rates for whites.
THE WAR HAS BEEN LOST
Has spending all that money and locking up so many people for so many years had an impact on drug use? High school students use illicit drugs today at the same rate as in 1970, while hospital admissions for drug overdoses have increased steadily since the 1970s.
Despite the war on drugs, the United States has the highest level of drug use in the world. Countries like the Netherlands that take a more lenient approach to drug use tend to have fewer drug users than countries that take a more stringent approach.
A PEACEFUL AND HUMANE ALTERNATIVE TO WAR
It is time to acknowledge the failure of the drug war and to adopt a more sensible approach to drug policy. First, we need to acknowledge that not all illicit drugs have the same impact on public health. States and local governments are increasingly recognizing that marijuana has medical benefits and that, as a recreational drug, it is much less harmful than alcohol. The trend of decriminalizing marijuana while regulating its sale to minors should continue.
Second, drug abuse should be recognized as a public health problem. Lawmakers should reject the notion that the criminal justice system can effectively address a public health problem.
Drug policy should focus on prevention and treatment. A key component of a humane drug policy is education designed to protect children from addictive drugs. Unlike Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” initiative, drug education should recognize that kids are smart. They know when adults are telling them lies. Trying to convince children that smoking marijuana will eventually turn them into heroin addicts causes kids to reject everything that drug educators tell them. Education that is fact-based rather than fear-based is more likely to persuade kids to make intelligent decisions about drugs.
The tax dollars that are now spent on enforcement of drug laws and incarceration of drug offenders should be channeled to treatment programs. A public health problem can best be managed by public health authorities, not by police and jailers. Spending money where it will have the greatest impact is the sensible alternative to the failed war on drugs.