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Critical Analysis of the Effectiveness of the War on Drugs

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The War on Drugs, which is a term that was coined by the media, began on June 18, 1971 after President Nixon gave a speech about domestic and international drug reform to Congress. Which was once considered to be a drug reform movement went on to become a segway to mass incarceration that ultimately increased incarceration rates in black and brown communities of America. From the day that War on Drugs was created until present day, incarceration rates have rose to a whopping 500 percent. President Nixon provided poor leadership in the case of the War on Drugs because it unfairly targeted black and brown communities and led to high levels of incarceration.

President Nixon described drugs as “public enemy number one” considering the fact that there was a large number of drug abusers during the time period. Due to his distaste of drugs, along with most of the country, President Nixon set out to end recreational drug use. The overall agenda for the War on Drugs was to do the following: increase penalties for drug use, enforce higher policing for areas with high levels of drug trade, and prevent more drugs from entering the United States. Prior to the War on Drugs, President Nixon enforced the Controlled Substances Act which ultimately called for the regulation of certain substances.

President Nixon was described as an ambitious and paranoid with “an amazing triumph of will and intelligence” (Reeves, Page 1). His story, which is often described as one of rags to riches, ultimately set the tone for the entire presidency. Reeves goes onto explain how President Nixon had memorized entire speeches, working alone from notes, then throwing away the paper. President Nixon’s inward look on himself played a large role in his Presidency, but most important – his policies. Reeves states “he believed in pragmatic, activist governance, because he was persuaded that Americans preferred action, good or bad, to inaction” (Reeves, 14).

On June 17, 1971 President Nixon gave an address to Congress which completely outlined how he planned on implementing new ways to combat drug abuse in the United States as well as how to keep it from reaching the United States in the first place. First, President Nixon explains the amount of money that would be used in order to sustain the new methods for combating drug abuse. President Nixon states, “I intend to take every step necessary to deal with this emergency, including asking the Congress for an amendment to my 1972 budget to provide an additional $155 million to carry out these steps. This will provide a total of $371 million for programs to control drug abuse in America” (Papers on the President: Special Message to the Congress on Drug Abuse Prevention and Control). A large sum of money was asked by Nixon from Congress in order to implement said plan, but he does go into how he planned on implementing the various programs.

The first thing that President Nixon wanted to address was how to go about rehabilitation for drug addicts. He goes on to explain how to rules of supply and demand play a key role in the purchasing of drugs and how drug use ultimately will lead to crime considering the fact that drug users will not have a steady wave of income and they will need a way to purchase the drugs. He ultimately explains how crime and drug addiction go hand and hand when it comes to the purchasing of drugs by stating, “The cost of supplying a narcotic habit can run from $30 a day to $100 a day. This is $210 to $700 a week, or $10,000 a year to over $36,000 a year”(Papers on the President: Special Message to the Congress on Drug Abuse Prevention and Control).

He goes onto explain how he wants to attack the supply side of the drug import through the appropriation of funds to the departments that really need it. Foreign importers played a large in the presidents desire to push for harsher sentencing because he felt that if they were not able to import the drugs, Americans would be better off. At the time America had the largest amount of heroin users in all of the world. Nixon pleads for Congress to ultimately make the right decision so that money can be allocated to the proper channels in order to begin the programs needed to ensure that drug abuse decreases.

The President wanted, what he explained as, a coordinated federal response meaning he wanted for each sector – local, federal, and state government to work together in order to help those that truly needed it. One thing Nixon explains is that not only did drug abuse affect the families, friends, and others surrounding the abuser, but it also affects those in professions such as government, medical assistance and rehabilitation. Nixon also highlights this piece of the overall pie when he illustrates the way in which drug abuse comes to the light. He says, “Most of what we think we know is extrapolated from those few States and cities where the dimensions of the problem have forced closer attention, including the maintenance of statistics” (Papers on the President: Special Message to the Congress on Drug Abuse Prevention and Control). Nixon ultimately shows that many believed that drug abuse was a class issue, when in reality things were just falling under the cracks because of the fact that many were only paying attention to the big issues.

President Nixon wanted nothing more than to include the American people in this policy change because he wanted the people to see that this policy would do far more good for drug abusers. Reeves explains that Nixon wanted, “to position the issue so that the American people can understand it” (Reeves, Page 38). Nixon wanted Americans to see that this would be a policy that would leave the country better off than he found it. He constantly wanted to ensure that the American people saw the work that he was doing and ultimately they agreed with it. The only issue is that more often than not the American people did not truly see all that was happening.

Incarceration rates have increased dramatically in the past 40 years since the beginning of the War on Drugs in America. What began as President Nixon wanting to simply decrease the drug circulation in American streets led to a 500 percent increase from the beginning of the War on Drugs. While presidents after Nixon have carried on the War on Dru gs or modified it in the case of President Bill Clinton with his three strikes rule, Nixon created this issue that so many black and brown people have fell victim to. After the implementation of the War on Drugs, journalist Lauren Carroll explains, “In 1980, about 41,000 people were incarcerated for drug crimes, according to the Sentencing Project. In 2014, that number was about 488,400 — a 1,000 percent increase” (Politifact, Online). Carroll goes onto talk about the major effect that these policies have had on minorities.

58 percent of sentenced inmates were either African Americans or Hispanics that were incarcerated for small drug offenses. Due to the War on Drugs, and policies that would follow, many first time drug offenders are given higher sentencing rates because of the things that were implemented within the War on Drugs. With that being said, President Nixon implemented the policies that would continue to imprison minorities in poor communities simply because of the lack of resources presented to them. Nixon stated that he wanted to implement methods of rehabilitation for the user, but nothing was said about the person selling the drugs that was ultimately a product of their environment.

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The War on Drugs also led to major racial disparities in the judicial system. More than 80 percent of drug related incarcerations were from possessions alone and not necessarily intentions to sell. The original goal of the War on Drugs was to rehabilitate as well as make harsher sentencing for those selling drugs, but this did so much more harm than good seeing as rehabilitation was only offered to certain people and not all people. Many minorities were pushed aside when it came to things such as rehabilitation simply because that wasn’t the main goal of the War on Drugs wasn’t rehabilitation it was harsher sentencing (Drug War, Mass Incarceration, and Race).

In order to really decide whether or not the War on Drugs was truly effective every angle of it has to be looked. First and foremost, the amount of money that was spent on these policies exceeded what many would’ve ever thought to guess it would cost. Domestically, 33 billion dollars was spent on campaigning alone for the Just Say No Campaign that was initiated by First Lady Reagan. 20 billion dollars was spent domestically to drug cartels and 49 billion dollars for the southern border and law enforcement. Lastly, 121 million dollars was spent on incarcerating non-violent, low possession criminals (Laguna Treatment, online).

Despite the large amounts of money spent on drugs, there was no real effect on decreasing drug use as a whole. While it did ensure that people, not all that were selling drugs, were incarcerated, it did not ensure the actual rehabilitation for those that truly needed it, especially the abuser. More money was spent campaigning for the War on Drugs and not on helping the people that truly needed it. As Betsey Pearl explains, “Nationwide, communities face an unprecedented rise in substance misuse fatalities. A record 63,600 overdose deaths were recorded in 2016, two-thirds of which involved opioids” (Ending the War on Drugs, Online). Overall, the War on Drugs was not successful because it did not solve the issue that it was supposed to solve in fact it has done more harm than good.

Mr. President, here are some sure fire ways to improve the war on drugs to where it works for all citizens and not a select few. First and foremost, there should be less campaigning and marketing the War on Drugs and more time improving the policies attached and making it possible for all citizens to benefit. You can continue to use Twitter and it will be more cost effective to do this rather than initiating a full on campaign. Like President Nixon said citizens would rather see action than inaction. The War on Drugs should be just that, a war on drugs, not one on citizens in low income neighborhoods. It’s also important to create a judicial system that helps those citizens with creating a path towards a legal income.

Second, there should be more rehabilitation. When these policies were introduced rehabilitation was supposed to be the number one goal and yet, it has continued to slip down the priority list. Many of the people with drug abuse issues need help, not jail time which is another reason why incarcerations have increased. Rehabilitation should also be offered to drug abusers as well as the people around them so that the environment that they re-enter into is better than the one that they were pulled out of. Sure it will cost money, but so did the initial War on Drugs.

Third, make marijuana legal in all states. Since the War on Drugs has began, 11 states have legalized marijuana which has led to the following: another source of revenue for the state, lower incarceration rates, and the overall decriminalization. Vox German Lopez explains “The spread of marijuana legalization has led to a reimagining of US drug policy and how, exactly, it should change as people seek alternatives to punitive criminal justice policies that have led to more incarceration and a black market that supports violent criminal enterprises” (Vox, Online). With that being said the legalization, or decriminalization, of marijuana has done more good than the War on Drugs ever imagined to.

If those do not work, you can always to scrap the War on Drugs and create something that does not harm the people it’s supposed to protect. Mr. President, it is imperative that if you choose to end the entire system that is the War on Drugs you should start from the ground up when it comes to rehabilitation and make sure that each sector is touched. First, start with the thousands of black and brown people imprisoned on petty crime charges, So many of them have gone unnoticed because of a lack to obtain legal services, the inability to escape their outside environment and the lack of resources available when they are released.

Next, you must look at the overall amount of people that have died from drug abuse since the creation of the War on Drugs and how it has done little to change these outcomes. Mr. President you must know that if you are not careful history is bound to repeat itself and introducing laws and ideas such as building a wall does just that. The idea that building a wall will help solve America’s issues ultimately leads to things such as over policing like the War on Drugs did. The War on Drugs left little room for explanation of persons involved, instead they were seen as predators and ultimately sentenced harshly and unfairly.

The War on Drugs was initially created to push drugs out of the country and rehabilitate users in America. Through President Nixon’s initial guidance, it ultimately did the opposite. Since 1971 a large number of people, 600 thousand plus, have died from drugs and there has been a 500 percent increase in incarceration for small drug possessions. If we are simply looking at the overall goals, President Nixon failed in implementing the War on Drugs because it never did what it was intended to do. Instead it led to mass incarceration of black and brown, mostly men, the separation of families and drug overdoses because of the lack of resources available.

It is important that the current administration understands that while they may not be able to do it overnight, it is extremely possible to fix the issues caused by the War on Drugs. As previously stated, 11 states have already began the work to decriminalize marijuana which leads to the release of many brown and black people. With the various resources that are now available, it is imperative that current administration takes advantage of them and use them for the good of the country. While it is no doubt that President Nixon was only trying to do what he felt was best for the country, it ended up doing the exact opposite and that’s a mistake that America can not afford to make again.

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Critical Analysis of the Effectiveness of the War on Drugs. (2022, December 27). Edubirdie. Retrieved September 24, 2023, from
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