“The War on Drugs” Must End Now
I assume you have all had some sort of experience with drugs in your lives; whether it be family, friends, loved ones, or even yourselves. We are all in understanding that these drugs are harmful and can negatively effect the one addicted, as well as everyone involved - whether from physical and emotional abuse, lies, and overall concern for their well-being. Obviously there are major issues concerning the addictive nature and effects of drugs, however there are a wide-range of negative effects stemming from how the US criminalizes drugs.
Similar to the Prohibition era, this creates a black market where there is an increases in violent crimes, there is a higher chance of misuse of the product, there are too many people being indicted for charges related to using, among many other harmful effects. With the decriminalization and regulation of drugs, the US can fix many of these issues and create a better environment for its citizens.
From The Beginning
The prohibition of drugs is a widely used approach globally, and one of the front runners for this is the US. It began officially under President Nixon in 1971, as drugs were then declared “public enemy number 1” (Nixon). Nixon realized during the early years of his presidency that drug abuse was becoming an important issue, especially for soldiers in Vietnam. The biggest concern was the rapid increase in heroin overdoses through the 1960’s. Nixon made an Executive Order to create the Special Action Office for Drug Abuse Prevention (SAODAPA) in which millions of dollars were put into the research and control of drug issues in the US (“Federalizing Medical Campaigns Against Alcoholism and Drug Abuse”). This was seen as a huge success initially, as it portrayed how the federal government understood and wanted to fix these problems in society. However, throughout the years, it hasn’t had the effects that the government and President Nixon had originally hoped for.
This “war on drugs” is now widely viewed as a failure as it has wasted billions of dollars, and illegal drugs are still available everywhere. Another issue is that this also brings about the problem of gangs and violent warfare in the drug market. As stated in an article in The Economist, (The Wars Don’t Work, Illegal Drugs), “Prohibition suits criminal gangs, which enjoy exclusive control of a global market worth roughly $300 billion annually” (The Economist). As the US wanted to prevent drug abuse, and the importation of drugs from other countries, it didn’t work in their favor.
Drugs Ruin Lives Almost as Much as Drug Charges Ruin Lives
Although the prison system in the US scares many citizens from ever doing drugs, those who do get caught are stuck with these charges for the rest of their lives. Not only does this change their lives forever, but often, it doesn’t help them recover from their addiction, or prevent any further use in the future. According to a scholarly article found in the Arizona Journal of International and Comparative Law entitled, (Marijuana & Other Drugs: Legalize or Decriminalize?), “Men with criminal records account for about 34% of the non-working men aged 25 to 54” (Smiley, Elizabeth). After being incarcerated, this criminal record intimidates employers from hiring, and many of these criminals ultimately resort back to criminal activity to survive.
Simply putting a user in prison isn’t always the best answer, as this often creates a cycle of crime and continued drug use. This addiction to drugs is often seen by doctors and scientists as a medical condition, and should be treated as such. According to the same article, “In 2013, an estimated 22.7 million Americans (8.6%) needed treatment for a problem related to drugs or alcohol, but only 2.5 million people (0.9%) received treatment at a specialty facility” (Smiley, Elizabeth). With the intimidation of being indicted for drug charges, most addicts don’t attempt to find help and are highly likely to be incarcerated, or overdose due to lack of treatment. If citizens were less afraid of being indicted on drug charges, they may be more likely to seek out treatment. Also, this would decrease the amount of those incarcerated on drug charges, and open up more space in the prison system for more violent criminals.
Not Enough Space for Drug Offenders
Despite the attempts by the US to prohibit the use of drugs, the country can’t afford to keep these prisoners indicted on drug charges in the prison system. There are much more violent crimes that should have a higher priority than misdemeanor or felony drug charges. According to another scholarly article entitled “The War on Drugs, The Politics of Crime, and Mass Incarceration in the United States” published in the Journal of Gender, Race, and Justice, volume 15, “(in 2012) felony convictions for drug offenses comprise(d) (of) approximately 34% of all felony convictions in state courts” (Schoenfield, Heather). This is much too high, and takes up beds in prison that could be used by those indicted for crimes such as rape, armed robbery, or manslaughter.
The US has the most incarcerated population, with an average of just over 2 million incarcerated per year (US Bureau of Justice Statistics). Along with opening up more room for violent criminals, cutting down on drug violations will lower the amount of tax money going towards prisons. The US would prevent budget cuts to certain categories such as healthcare, public schools, public safety, etc. Similarly, the US would be able to tax the purchasing of these drugs, as they would be sold by government regulated shops. A current example of this is Colorado and the legalization of marijuana, where it is approximated that $79 million of tax revenue comes directly from the sale of marijuana (Smiley, Elizabeth). Along with this increase in tax revenue, society will also benefit from a decrease in crime and health concerns related to prohibition.
The Black Market
As the US continues to use prohibition as a means of preventing drug use, citizens will continue to find ways to purchase through the black market. The black market is a dangerous place, where citizens looking to purchase are often robbed, killed, or sold unhealthy drugs that are too strong or are laced with harmful chemicals, other drugs, etc. With drugs being decriminalized, the government would have a safe place for citizens to purchase, safe drugs to use, as well as a safe place to use the drugs while being supervised.
Portugal was one of the first countries to decriminalize drug use, and since they began regulating drug use rather than dumping citizens into prison, they have had a decrease in heroin overdose, decrease in violent crimes related to drugs, as well as a decrease in infectious diseases spreading such as HIV (Smiley, Elizabeth). Portugal invests in educating its citizens about the harmful effects of drug use, and the US should follow suit as education can be the best weapon against drugs.
It is similar to the prohibition era of alcohol, where simply making alcohol illegal didn’t have the effect the US had hoped for, and actually brought about more crime and an underground market. As stated in the “National Bureau of Economic Research”, the prohibition era actually brought about the most homicides since the beginning of the prohibition of drugs started in the early 1970’s. This portrays a direct correlation between prohibition and violent crime. Though drugs are such a huge issue in the US, it should be the citizens’ choice to use these substances. Another issue this can potentially solve is the demand for drugs. Going back to the example of Portugal, the decriminalization of drugs actually lead to a decrease in demand (Smiley, Elizabeth). Since the US is the biggest market for drugs in the world, even the smallest decrease in demand for drugs will lead to less production internationally.
The Violent Mexican Cartels
Since violent Mexican cartels are the leading producer of drugs for the US, this decrease in demand would decrease their production. These cartels often operate by killing off their competitors and anyone that gets in their way. So, decreasing their production would lead to a decrease in violence by these cartels. Also, with the exportation of drugs into the US being legalized, assuming Mexico allows the production for sale, the cartels would have to compete by the branding of their product in a free market over competing through who has the territory to produce.
The cartels would, presumably, become less violent, and more focused on the product itself. According to the National System for Public Safety (SNSP), “more than 17,000 killings were reported in 2015” in Mexico, and “organized crime-style homicides account for 40% to 50%” (SNSP). These murders can be prevented, or at the least considerably lowered if the US stops this war on drugs. As the US is almost single-handedly responsible for the violent cartels in Mexico, it would be reasonable to prevent future crimes.
As stated by the Global Commission on Drug Policy, “the war (on drugs) has fueled crime and enriched criminals, undermined development and security, threatened public health and safety, and wasted billions of dollars while undermining economies” (Global Commission on Drug Policy: 14). With the US leading this war on drugs, they can presumably be the frontier for the decriminalization of drugs, and lead a new revelation where illegal substances are regulated and controlled rather than heavily policed against.
So, What Do We Do?
Though it is obvious that the war on drugs in the US isn’t completely working, there is no simple solution for a new policy. The Portugal example provides the best alternative, though it may not work the same in a country as large and diverse as the US. Portugal made “the use and possession of drugs an administrative offense instead of a criminal offense” (Smiley, Elizabeth). Drugs are still illegal, however instead of being placed in prison, they are tried in court and a decision is made on where to treat the citizen charged. They treat offenders like patients rather than criminals.
Let’s say that the US decides to follow Portugal’s example, the best way would be to allow each state to regulate them their own way rather than go with an overall policy for the entire country. Similar to alcohol, each state would have their own laws dedicated to drugs. For example, in Texas a minor can drink alcohol if with a parent or guardian, whereas in most other states, minors, under no circumstances, can even carry alcohol on their person (Alcohol Policy Information System). There would have to be a safe place in most counties allowing people to purchase from a government regulated seller, reducing the risk of violent crimes or unhealthy drugs. Also, depending on the state laws, there should be a government regulated area where citizens can actually use the drugs, as to prevent overdoses.
And finally, one of the most important decisions would be how harshly to regulate and tax the drugs. If they are heavily taxed or overly regulated, people will still go to the underground market to purchase from illegal sellers, rendering this solution useless. Also, it would have to take time to be implemented, and maybe start in certain states as to practice how it would work. There is no quick fix to this war on drugs, however staying the current course will keep the current, increasing results. The US has to act soon, and be an example for other countries to follow.
Iacobucci, Gareth. “Drug Users Must Be Treated as ‘Patients First,’ Says BMA.” BMJ : British Medical Journal (Online), 346 (2013):
Smiley, Elizabeth. “Marijuana & Other Drugs: Legalize or Decriminalize?.” Arizona Journal of International and Comparative Law, 33.3 (2016):
Schoenfeld, Heather. “The War on Drugs, the Politics of Crime, and Mass Incarceration in the United States.” Journal of Gender, Race, and Justice, 15 (2012): 315–689.
Vogel, Lauren. “Decriminalize Drugs and Use Public Health.” CMAJ : Canadian Medical Association Journal = Journal De L’Association Medicale Canadienne, 186.10 (2014): E356.
Chand, Kailash, and Joseph Califano. “Should Drugs Be Decriminalized?.” British Medical Journal, 335.7627 (2007): 966.
Miron, Jeffrey A. Violence and U.S. Prohibitions of Drugs and Alcohol. n.p.: 1999.
Alcohol Policy Information System, https://alcoholpolicy.niaaa.nih.gov