In 1971, President Richard M. Nixon announced a war on drugs to punish those who manufacture, sell and use illicit drugs. More than 40 years later, we’re still at war. And we’re losing badly.
Since the war on drugs began, we’ve spent more than $1 trillion to intercept drug smugglers; to arrest, prosecute and incarcerate drug dealers and users. What have we accomplished? We have broken the lives of users and small-time dealers. We have destroyed families and communities. And we have increased the price of illicit drugs. Meanwhile, the smugglers and dealers have simply found new ways to skirt the law. They have created new drugs. They have created new ways to manufacture, distribute and market them. And they have become progressively more violent.
As for the users, they have shown they will do anything necessary to afford their drug of choice. They have resorted to theft, burglary, mugging, prostitution and more. These people have choked our justice system and filled our prisons. Indeed, approximately 70 percent of all prisoners are clinically determined to be addicts, yet only 11 percent are treated for addiction.
Placed in the general prison population, many addicts are forced to become violent in order to survive. Once they’re back on the street, they often go back to using. And because they can’t find jobs, they resort to the techniques of violence and intimidation that they learned as inmates. 66 percent commit another serious crime within 3 years of being released from prison.
The war on drugs has been especially cruel for African-Americans. Although they make up just 14 percent of our nation’s drug users, they represent 56 percent of those incarcerated for drug crimes.
Of course, there have been some benefits to society. The war on drugs has created a new private prison industry that profits from the arrests. It has created more jobs for law enforcement and prison guards, more construction jobs to build new and bigger prisons, more jobs for probation officers and workers in halfway houses, and more jobs in Emergency Rooms.
According to the new documentary, The House I Live In, the war on drugs has resulted in 45 million arrests. Of the 2.3 million people who are currently incarcerated in America, one-quarter are being held for non-violent drug offenses. And, although the U.S. has 5 percent of the world’s population, our nation holds 25 percent of the world’s prisoners.
Obviously, it’s long past time to end America’s longest war. But that doesn’t mean we have to accept rampant drug abuse. Instead of legalizing drugs, we can decriminalize and regulate their use in much the same way we regulate pharmaceuticals. (This approach has worked in other countries. It can work here.) With access to cheaper drugs, users will no longer have to resort to crime in order to buy them. Some of the money spent on the drug war can be redirected to create more treatment programs and education programs to keep people from abusing drugs.
We can’t win the war on drugs. But we don’t have to let the drug cartels win!