On June 17th of 1971, President Nixon began America’s longest and costliest war, a blemish in the history of America; the war on drugs. Nixon convinced America’s citizens that “America’s public enemy number one in the United States is drug abuse. In order to fight and defeat this enemy, it is necessary to wage a new, all-out offensive” (Sharp). This all-out offensive was instilled in our minds through propaganda and blatant lies, that were dismissed as a preventive measure. Anslinger, the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, said that, “marijuana caused some people to ‘fly into a delirious rage and many [to] commit violent crimes’” or that it caused “bizarre cases of insanity, murder, and sex crimes” (qtd. in stanford). The claims being made were, in fact, so bizarre, that many people began to not believe their own government’s ‘warnings’. This was not all, as John Ehrlichman, Nixon’s own council, revealed in 1994, “The real public enemy wasn’t really drugs or drug abuse. Rather the real enemies of the Nixon administration were the anti-war left and blacks, and the War on Drugs was designed as an evil, deceptive and sinister policy to wage war on those two groups” (qtd. in Perry). The discriminatory enforcement of these laws has resulted in profound racial and ethnic disparities. For instance, black people make up 13 percent of the total U.S. population and use drugs at a similar rate as other ethnic groups. Yet, black people comprise 29 percent of people arrested for drug possession (Drug Policy Alliance). Furthermore, author Dan Baum, author and reporter for The Atlantic, spoke with Ehrlichman, who had some sickening truth to spill:
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. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did. (qtd. in DPA).
This is an honest confession from a man who, after public disgrace, no longer had anything left to protect. This is a war plagued with dishonesty and deception; there are Federal and state policies that are designed to be “tough” on people that sell or use illegal drugs. After nearly 50 years and over a trillion dollars spent (Stanford), close to none of their stated aims have been met. But that is okay, right? Because drugs are bad, drugs cause injustice, drugs cause violence, drugs are America’s biggest threat, right? One step, one billion spent, one death, one otherwise law-abiding citizen’s life ruined after another, but that is okay, right? With so many moral issues up for discussion in 2019, there is no world that this should be okay in.
What exactly has the war on drugs accomplished then? Well, for starters, More than 70,200 Americans died from drug overdoses in 2017, including illicit drugs and prescription opioids—which is a 2-fold increase in a decade. Not only this, but drug overdose deaths rose from 8,048 in 1999 to 47,600 in 2017 (drugabuse.gov). While this is impressive in its own right, the war on drugs has been so successful that, in the United States, the number of overdose deaths has reached such a staggering level that life expectancy has fallen, by four months, for the first time since the Second World War (NASEM). Clearly, the war on drugs — the goals of which were to eliminate illicit drug use, deaths, and sale — is worth the effort. This effort is so impressive, in fact, that each year, United States law enforcement makes more than 1.5 million drug arrests — of which more than 80% are for possession only not sale and involve no violent offense. This figure results in more arrests than all violent crimes combined (DPA). Furthermore, the people that are convicted of drug possession face a plethora of additional consequences: loss of federal financial aid, loss of the right to vote, eviction from public housing, denial of public assistance, and disqualification from a wide range of occupational licenses. In 2013, 8.6% of Americans (an estimated 22.7 million) needed treatment for a problem related to drugs, but only 0.9% (an estimated 2.5 million) people received treatment. (drugabuse.gov). Only under 10.5% of Americans who needed help with substance abuse were able to be helped or were able to reach out for help. These staggering figures show how much fear and lack of funding the American government has provided. Something needs to be done about the “drug” epidemic in America, and the first step is to end the war on drugs.
But what can be done to end America’s biggest problem? Well several countries have addressed this problem, with results to back up their decision: decriminalization. Take for instance Portugal — a prime example of a country that has had high success in decriminalizing illicit substances — in the face of a rising drug and HIV epidemic, Portugal made the decision to decriminalize all drugs in the country. This decision came to life nearly 20 years ago (2001), providing us with a lot of feedback and statistics on how the decriminalization affects the country. Rather than treating personal drug use as a crime, the country began to address this as a public health concern instead. Instead of throwing a heroin user into a jail cell to go through the horrific withdrawal effects alone, the public health administration would take over and provide the user with treatment to get through the withdrawals safely. Instead of treating drug users as criminals, Portugal treats them as people. But how has the new legality of previously illicit substances affected the country? Contrary to some people’s beliefs, the country had not spiraled out of control. In fact, independent research has shown promising outcomes: Addiction, drug overdose and HIV/AIDS rates have all decreased. Data indicates that the decriminalization has had zero adverse effects on drug use rates in Portugal. On top of this, the drug use rates in Portugal, in numerous categories, are among the lowest in the European Union. This is especially the case when compared to states with strict criminalization policies. Their decision does not absolve all drug crime; those trafficking are still considered criminals. 17 years after their decision, there has been a significant decrease in HIV infection and drug-related crime (Ferreira). Not only this, but between 1999 and 2003, there was an overall fall of drug-related deaths by 59% (Ferreira). Data shows that, judged by nearly every metric, the decriminalization framework has been an emphatic success.
Decriminalization, if implemented in America could reach similar, if not greater, results than Portugal. The reasoning behind this is because America is in, arguably, a much larger crisis than Portugal was. Decriminalization would drastically reduce the number of people incarcerated or arrested. This, in turn, would allow people to avoid the life altering burden of a criminal record and reverse the overcrowding of our prisons. Secondly, with revised law enforcement structure, our resources could be redirected to more serious and violent crime. Our country spends so much money each year fighting drugs, that we would save 51 billion dollars a year if the war on drugs was to cease. Along the same vein, the United States has spent more than a trillion dollars (since the 1970s) attempting to dismantle drug cartels in Latin America (CITATION NEEDED). This money could be put to far better use in law enforcement or even in assisting the constantly amassing debt America is currently in (roughly 22 million as of 2019). On top of this, with the decriminalization of illicit substances, we can create a climate in which people who experience problematic drug use can feel safe and incentivised to seek help/treatment. Carl L. Hart, a Neuroscientist and head of the department of psychology at Columbia University, tells, Equal Times, that, “Our drug policies are a bigger problem than the drugs themselves, because they forbid drugs that people will take anyway, which drives consumption underground” (CITATION NEEDED). What Hart says here is absolutely true, and we have proof of this in America’s own history: prohibition. Hart then continues by saying, “We should treat drugs like we treat alcohol. A reasonable approach would be to make drugs legally available and the state should be in charge of regulating them and making sure they are of a certain quality” (CITATION NEEDED). During prohibition, the consumption and sale of alcohol was banned nationwide. The result of this was very similar to what is going on now with other illicit substances. With the ban on alcohol, people did not actually stop drinking alcohol — what a surprise. Instead, the purity of alcohol plummeted, resulting in far more health risks and risk of death; Gangs and gang violence saw a drastic rise, stemming from the illegal sale of alcohol; and the consumption of alcohol stayed relatively the same. Despite prohibition being regarded as a fail on all accounts, the war on drugs was deemed a good idea. The purpose of studying history is to not make the same mistake twice, yet here we are.