The War on Drugs – A Dismal Failure

“Not criminalizing drugs doesn’t mean we approve of it,” says Nancy Gertner, a judge for the U.S. District Court in Boston, Massachusetts, in her speech to a panel of judges at the 1998 Voluntary Committee of Lawyers (VCL) sponsored by the Partnership for Responsible Drug Information (PRDI). She continues:

Not criminalizing drugs doesn’t mean we approve of it, any more than not criminalizing tobacco means that we approve of cigarette smoking or not criminalizing alcohol means we approve of it. Just because something isn’t criminal doesn’t mean it isn’t right. And yet that’s the way this debate has been cast: If you are against criminalization, you are encouraging use.

So I’m not saying drugs are a good thing. I’m not saying that while I’m a judge I’m going to ignore the law as it is . . . I took an oath and I have to fulfill that oath . . . I have to look at what Congress intended, however much I disagree with it.

The war on drugs has been expensive in both dollars and lives and has many collateral consequences not easily quantified by basic statistical analysis. The human cost of this expensive war is seldom reviewed. Users of illegal drugs are forced to associate with a level of criminal they would not otherwise associate with. Non-violent, low-level dealers and addicts are forced into mandatory incarceration while violent king-pins and large-scale black market traffickers go free;  organized crime grows stronger and continues to corrupt the judicial system while securing larger and larger profits for crime bosses (J. Gray 31). The war on drugs has failed to reduce crime and recidivism in the United States;  this war must end and a new era of tolerant harm-reduction be ushered in if this nation is to once again take its place at the forefront of the truly progressive world powers.

This war began long before 1971 when President Nixon declared the beginning of the war on drugs. The roots of prohibition of narcotic substances trace all the way back to the late 1800s. During that time, laws were passed to protect consumers from snake-oil salesmen selling concoctions containing high doses of cocaine, morphine, and heroine. While it did not prohibit the sale of narcotics, The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 forced manufacturers to label their products with information regarding the content and concentration of narcotic substances, leading to a reduction in distribution. It was the morally fuelled Harrison Narcotic Act of 1914 that sealed the fate for narcotics in the U.S.  This law, coupled with Webb v. United States, a landmark Supreme Court case that limited the physicians’ distribution of pharmaceuticals to curb withdrawals from narcotic usage, marked the beginning of an era of prohibition that continues to this day (J. Gray 21-23).

During the 1920s and early 1930s, the prohibition of alcohol led to increased crime, corruption, violence, and death. It was during this time that the federal incarceration rate made its first major spike from 3,000 to 12,000. It was also during this time that federal spending on law enforcement rose more than 600% (Boaz 6). The 1930s saw the proliferation of sensationalistic news reports and propaganda films such as Reefer Madness which led to the adoption of the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937. This law did not actually criminalize the substance itself; it simply placed an exorbitant tax of $100.00 per ounce to deter any but the wealthiest of users from legally possessing the substance. Obviously, the failure to pay the tax would result in a federal charge and subsequent incarceration. These early federal laws were followed by a string of increasingly stringent laws curtailing the sale and distribution of narcotic substances. First, in 1951, The Boggs Act followed closely in 1956 with the Narcotic Control act, later in 1970 with the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act, again in 1984 with the Crime Control Act, once again in 1986 with the Anti-Drug Abuse act which was expanded in 1988 and followed by the Crime Bill of 1994 (J. Gray 26-27).

Politicians are quick to justify these excessive laws and their equally excessive price tags with the substantial decline of the number of Americans who used illicit drugs during the mid-1980s. Interestingly enough, though, research indicates that the decline began earlier than the implementation of the legislation and really just curbed usage by middle-class white Americans who did not substantially contribute to the overall drug problem in the first place (Nadelman 25). Money plays a tremendous role in this legislation. “It’s the money stupid,” proclaims Joseph McNamera. “ After 35 years as a police officer in 3 of the country’s largest cities, that is my message to the righteous politicians who obstinately proclaim that a war on drugs will lead to a drug free America.” Large profits resulting from drug sales make the temptation for corruption more tangible than ever before. Hepatitis and AIDS, due to dirty needle usage, are more prevalent in America than in any other industrialized nation on earth. More civil liberties have been lost and more opportunities for introduction into the drug trade have been introduced in the last twenty years of this war than at any other time in history. Governments the world over are being threatened and undermined by insurgents fueled with drug money. It would be difficult to have failed any worse (J. Gray 2).

Figure 1. The dynamics of drug crime and criminal justice measures

Judge James Gray proposes a cycle representing the current system (see Figure 1). This cycle very articulately illustrates the problems inherent in the escalation of the war on drugs. This cycle is perpetuated everyday on the streets of cities all across the nation.  The cycle begins with an increase in public pressure to curb the drugs and violence. This is followed by an increase in associated police activity which results in a short-term drop in the overall drug supply. This short lived drop is followed by a demand-induced raise in prices and associated market-driven production effort. All of these activities serve to produce even more crime, victims and fear than they were originally intended to reduce. The final result is a higher incarcerated population, less public safety and more drug use than before (72-73).

The laws in their current state do not work. The prohibition and criminalization of narcotic substances does not reduce crime and recidivism. For the cause of this issue, former police chief Joseph McNamera claims simple economics:

About $500 worth of heroin or cocaine from a source country will bring in as much as $100,000 on the streets of an American city. All the cops, armies, prisons and executions in the world cannot impede a market with that kind of tax-free profit margin. It is the illegality that permits the obscene mark-up, enriching drug traffickers, distributors, crooked cops, lawyers, judges, politicians, bankers and businessmen (35).

Economics are not the only factor to aid in the development of such a corrosive market. Without a desire for an altered state of consciousness, there would be no need for these mind altering substances. People in the United States today lack hope for a brighter future. There is a deep underlying need for a higher level of fulfillment than most people experience in their day to day lives. When people seeking this unattainable level of natural fulfillment, they seek other means (Morell).

A simple solution will not be found. Recognizing that the underlying personal issues surrounding drug usage will not go away with the drugs or the drug laws is the first step to bringing about real lasting change in this arena. Next, a realization that removing the profit motive from the supply of these substances is the only real way to curb illegal distribution, crime, and the deadly violence associated with it. When these two conditions are met, “an enlightened and caring society should act as managers of this complex problem, take an honest view of the true costs of Drug Prohibition, and seek a drug policy that would maximize the benefits and minimize the harms. (J. Gray 149)“

Several models for successful drug policy exist throughout the world. All of the policies and their implementation begin with education. When asked about drugs and their usage during his 2000 presidential campaign, Steve Forbes said, “Drugs are wrong because they destroy the body, enslave the soul and take away people’s freedom to think and choose for themselves.” This is the kind of moral platitude rooted in hype, opinion and superstition that keeps people ignorant to the truth about drugs. While it is true that some drugs, over time, can lead to degenerative health issues and even some mental health issues, the vast majority of drug users never reach these depths. Reactions to illicit drugs could be spoken about honestly in the same manner as the side-effects from alcohol or other pharmaceuticals. Drugs affect different people in different ways. Reactions to alcohol, which is legal, vary widely. Some people experience euphoria while drinking others, find it makes them stupid. Still others find that they get sad, or happy, or outgoing, or introspective, or loud, or quiet. The variety of experience is vast. Instead of treating drugs as a moral blight a beginning could be made with a conversation based in truth and actual experience (Sullum 11).

Education is a great beginning but solutions must be proposed and vetted if there is to be a real and lasting change in drug policies. Treatment is a viable option to incarceration. Treatment may not cure all cases but it certainly reduces the abuse of drugs (Gertner).  The  RAND Corporation reported in 1994, that drug treatment is seven times less expensive than local police, eleven times less expensive than border patrols, and twenty times less expensive than international drug eradication campaigns. (Rydell). With savings like those reported here, lawmakers have a difficult time justifying their expensive War on Drugs. These same lawmakers, especially conservatives opposing the expansion of large, central government, cannot, after taking a close look at their own policy and the growth of federal bureaucracy, determine that it is feasible to continue down the path of prohibition and strict federal mandates for the states (Nadelman 26).

Treatment has the potential to save lives and reverse the effects of long-term drug use. Treatment’s efficacy though, relies on the participant’s desire to recover from addiction. For those not seeking recovery from addiction, other options will be necessary. Medicalization of hard drugs coupled with de-criminalization for the cultivation, sale and possession of softer drugs completely removes the profit motive from the drug trade. One very simple and cost-effective form of medicalization is a needle exchange program. Found by many conclusive studies to reduce the spread of deadly infectious diseases like AIDS and hepatitis, these programs also provide a venue for the dissemination of educational materials and bring intravenous drug users closer to the professionals that can provide treatment when they are ready for it (J. Gray 191).

Potentially the most successful example of medicalization was popularized in Liverpool, England by Dr. John Marks during the 1980s and early 1990s. Dr. Mark’s program resulted in the crime rate in the local area plummeting by 90%, new reports of HIV and AIDS dropping to zero, homelessness among addicts virtually eradicated, and found people leaving the welfare rolls and gaining sustainable employment. This program funded by the government utilized a specially licensed psychiatrist to prescribe cocaine, and heroine to addicts after a review by a board consisting of the psychiatrist, a social worker, and a registered nurse. The board would encourage treatment and present options for rehabilitation. If the participant was found willing to participate and to be a good candidate for treatment, that option was exercised. If not, the prescriptions of maintenance doses of the drugs were prescribed and the drug user continued about their lives. The program was free and available to the addict provided they attended regular meetings with the team and remained arrest free. The results were astonishing. People recovered from their addictions at a higher rate than any previously recorded, crime dropped dramatically and neighborhoods were safer.  This sort of tolerant harm-reduction has a real possibility to change people’s lives and foster a community of recovered individuals seeking more fulfilling avenues for the generation of the hope that is lacking in the face of addiction. Unfortunately, despite all of the evidence of success, this program was disbanded in 1995 in the face of pressure from the US Embassy after an appearance on the American television show 60 minutes by Dr. Mark (M. Gray 153-70).

Decriminalization of drugs has had a terrible reputation in this country. People still consider drug use a moral dilemma and legislate their morality by enacting laws to prohibit the behavior they view as wrong. Decriminalization has no bearing on the moral status of drug use, it simply makes the production, sales, and use of drugs not a criminal activity. In America, people are free to choose their moral stance as they see fit, as long as it does not infringe upon the rights of another. This is well established in our constitution (Gertner).

Decriminalization of drugs is commonly referred to as “legalization” in many circles. Legalization is a loose term, one that is usually associated with a free market approach to the sales and distribution of drugs. Under this definition of legalization, a person would be able to pick up some cocaine at the local grocery store along with his milk and bread on his way home from work much the same as he would purchase aspirin or cough syrup. The free market model of legalization has many flaws, it allows for advertising and promotion of the product leading to glamorization and eventually to wider misuse than the present state of affairs (M. Gray 212). A more effective model has been put in place by Portugal where the sale of drugs is still illegal but the possession and use of drugs has been legalized. While there has been little influence on the level of drug use in the country, there has been an overall reduction in health related issues and death associated with drug use. The CATO Institute in Washington DC reports, “Judged by virtually every metric, the Portuguese decriminalization framework has been a resounding success”. Taking into account the recent (2001) institution of these laws, is evidence that they work (Wilson).

The only barrier to this stance of tolerant harm-reduction is again, the moral standard imposed by well-meaning politicians seeking re-election and the lobbyists who fund their campaigns. In her address to the VCL, Nancy Gertner had a few words to share on this subject:

The war on drugs provides politicians with something to say that offends nobody, requires them to do nothing difficult, allows them to postpone, perhaps indefinitely, the more urgent questions about the nation’s schools, housing, employment opportunities for young black men, the condition to which drug addiction speaks as a symptom not a cause. They remain safe in the knowledge that they might as well me denouncing Satan and so they can direct the voices of pre-recorded blame at metaphors and apparitions, wars and battles.

The war on drugs as it stands is an abject failure and cannot be won in any traditional sense. Presently, there are more readily available drugs in our communities than ever before. The revenue from the sales of these drugs goes untaxed and funneled through the hands of criminals who stand ready to do whatever it takes to protect their revenue stream. The roots of drug abuse and addiction continue unchecked and looked down upon from a moral hilltop by well-meaning conservatives. It is time to reverse this Nation’s stance on drug policy and birth a new future of tolerant harm-reduction. During his address to the Citizen’s Commission on U.S. Drug Policy, Henry Bellafonte shared some of his personal opinions:

Having grown up in Harlem during the Great Depression, I knew that the real roots of drug abuse and addiction had more to do with poverty, alienation and despair than crimes of malice. Most of the violence associated with drugs stems from our policies of prohibition – just as the notorious gangsters of my youth derived their wealth through bootlegging alcohol. Together we must find a more compassionate and effective drug control policy. As President Jimmy Carter said in 1977, “Penalties against possession of a drug should not be more damaging to an individual than the use of the drug itself.”

Works Cited

Boaz, David. “Lessons From the Failure of Prohibition.” Los Angeles Daily Journal 23 Dec. 1993. Web. 7 Sep. 2010.

Gertner, Nancy. “Is the Drug War Forever?” VCL Forum. Boston, MA. 29 Jan. 1998. Address.

Gray, James. Why Our Drug Laws Have Failed And What We Can Do About It. Philidelphia:Temple UP, 2001. Print.

Gray, Michael. Drug Crazy: How We Got Into This Mess and How We Can Get Out. New York: Random House, 1998. Print.

McNamera, Joseph. “Law Enforcement Cannot Win The War On Drugs.” The War on Drugs: Opposing Viewpoints. Ed. Bruno Leone et al. San Diego: Greenhaven, 1998. Print.

Morell, Carolyn. “Radicalizing Recovery: Addiction, Spirituality, and Politics.” Social Work 41.3 (1996): 306-312. Academic Search Elite. EBSCO. Web. 28 July 2010.

Nadelman, Ethan. “The War On Drugs Is A Failure.” The War on Drugs: Opposing Viewpoints. Ed. Bruno Leone et al. San Diego: Greenhaven, 1998. Print.

Peterson, Robert. “Law Enforcement Is Winning The War on Drugs.” The War on Drugs: Opposing Viewpoints. Ed. Bruno Leone et al. San Diego: Greenhaven, 1998. Print.

Rydell, C. Peter, and Susan S. Everingham. Controlling Cocaine: Supply Versus Demand Programs. Office of National Drug Control Policy Conf. 1994. Web. 12 Sep. 2010

Sullum, Jacob. Saying Yes: In Defense of Drug Use. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 2003. Print.

Wilson, Clare. “Legalise drugs. (Cover story).” New Scientist 203.2725 (2009): 32-33. Academic Search Elite. EBSCO. Web. 15 Sept. 2010.

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