Drug abuse and addiction are major problems in the United States and abroad. Several governmental and non-governmental organizations have attempted to provide solutions to this epidemic with changes in policy and policing, such as the War on Drugs. However, creating new, harsher policies and increasing the policing of drug trades, sales, and use does not make for a safer, drug-free nation. In many ways, the War on Drugs actually made the drug epidemic worse while also leading to several other serious consequences for the American people.
History of the War on Drugs
The War on Drugs unofficially began back in June of 1971 under the leadership of President Richard Nixon. During an address to the United States Congress, President Nixon declared drug abuse as “public enemy number one” and described how the U.S. would take steps he felt necessary to eliminate drug abuse in the country. While many of the policies Nixon employed at the time were existing U.S. drug prohibition policies from 1914, he did help to increase the overall presence and size of federal drug control agencies.
In the next decade, President Ronald Reagan doubled down on the War on Drugs. During his administration, President Reagan signed the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984. This act expanded penalties on the possession of cannabis and established federal mandatory minimum sentences for drug-related crimes.
Strategy of the War on Drugs
The overall strategy for the War on Drugs in the United States and much of the rest of the world followed two main goals:
- Eliminate drug supplies and suppliers
- Criminalize drug-related offenses
The U.S. truly saw the drug epidemic as a war. Because of this, they wanted to eliminate the threat of drugs to the U.S. population. To do so, federal drug control agencies targeted drug suppliers. They believed if there was a limited drug supply it would disrupt the availability of drugs and therefore increase drug prices. With fewer drugs available at higher prices, they believed that people would stop consuming them.
The second part of the U.S.’s strategy for the War on Drugs was to criminalize drug-related crimes and offenses. This follows what President Reagan enacted by signing the Comprehensive Crime Control Act. This means that anyone found possessing drugs, even minor amounts unintended for sale, would face criminal charges. These charges would then be followed up with mandatory minimum sentences. These sentences would force those arrested for drug possession to serve certain amounts of time in prison – even if they were non-violent offenders without a record. Those behind this strategy believed harsh penalties like these for drug-related crimes and drug possession would deter Americans from using them.
Why the War on Drugs Failed
Part of the reason the War on Drugs has been ineffective is because of the U.S. government’s insistence on disrupting drug supplies and suppliers. While the logic of disrupting available supplies often works in other markets, it does not work with drugs. Drugs and the drug trade do not abide by the same supply and demand rules.
If a person is fully addicted to a drug – so much so that not consuming it causes them physical and mental discomfort and pain – they will do whatever it takes to consume that drug, regardless of how scarce it is or how expensive it is. Because of this, some people living with a drug addiction will turn to crime in order to find the means to obtain drugs.
Additionally, disruptions in drug supply chains never end the supply entirely. In most cases, eliminating one supplier creates an opportunity for other suppliers to expand and fulfill the demand for drugs in the U.S. and elsewhere. This is known as the balloon effect.
The War on Drugs also advocated for a prohibition, completely outlawing all drugs and punishing any drug-related use and crimes. However, as the prohibition of alcohol from the 1920s demonstrated, prohibition does not eliminate the use of a dangerous substance. In many ways, it makes consumption of the substance worse. Like alcohol prohibition, users began to consume drugs that had greater effects in smaller doses like crack cocaine and methamphetamine.
Consequences of the War on Drugs
The War on Drugs not only failed the American people but did not successfully eliminate the drug epidemic, but it also led to several detrimental consequences in American society, including:
Stronger, More Deadly Drugs
As previously noted, when a substance is harder to obtain, users will seek the most bang for their buck. So, instead of getting less harmful drugs, users will opt for more powerful substances, which are almost always more dangerous and addictive. Sadly, this can lead to a number of negative effects, specifically a higher likelihood for Americans with drug addictions to overdose.
Racially Biased Justice System
Criminalizing drugs and drug-related crimes had a particularly harmful effect on people of color in the United States, who are already victims of over-policing. Although users of all ethnicities use drugs at similar rates, 45% of convicted drug offenders are black. Only 28% of convicted drug offenders are white, and 20% are Hispanic.
Since 1970, the population of incarcerated people in the United States has grown by 500% – with around 2 million people incarcerated today. A significant factor in this growth has been the War on Drugs and the mandatory minimum sentences for drug-related offenses, which has largely affected poorer Americans of color whose offenses were non-violent.
How to Effectively Combat Drug Epidemics
Drug epidemics are serious problems for any society. However, there are more effective ways to combat them than by declaring war on them. The first step should be to change many of the state and federal policies adopted during the War on Drugs, specifically the policies that led to mass incarceration. The second step is to focus on treatment rather than incarceration. Openly treating individuals with drug addictions is a much more cost-effective option than incarceration. It creates trust and invests in Americans and their futures rather than ruining their lives.
Searching for Effective Drug Addiction Treatment?
Despite the failures of the War on Drugs, rehab facilities across the United States are still available to give people with drug addictions the help they deserve. If you or a loved one are living with drug addiction, contact us today for assistance! At Oasis Recovery, our team of caring addiction specialists offer numerous treatments and therapies to help a person overcome their drug addiction. While it may seem hopeless at times, recovery is possible!