The United States needs to end the failed War on Drugs
In June of 1971, President Richard Nixon made drug abuse “public enemy number one.” This effectively began the infamous and decades-long War on Drugs. Since then, the War on Drugs has increased the severity of drug abuse laws, which authorities have subsequently enforced as harshly as possible.
While Nixon’s true intentions behind the War on Drugs are debatable, the results are clear. The War on Drugs has failed to produce any long-term victories in combating drug abuse. Now more than ever, the United States should end the War on Drugs and treat drug abuse as a matter of public health as opposed to a matter of public safety.
The wrong solution
The War on Drugs has failed to understand addiction and to treat humans with dignity. The criminality of drug abuse has resulted in mass incarceration in the United States for many non-violent drug offenders. In fact, according to an FBI report, approximately 1.63 million arrests were made for drug law violations. A drug-related arrest occurs every 20 seconds.
Even more startling, one-fifth of those incarcerated, about 456,000 individuals, are in jail for a drug charge. Locking up individuals for using drugs is woefully ineffective, and it’s easy to see why.
Any physician, drug expert or scientifically competent person will tell you that drugs change the body physiologically. Those who take drugs need those drugs. Due to the drug dependency, removing the drug is extremely difficult and unlikely.
A study conducted by the National Center for Biotechnology Information found that drug treatment programs in prisons can work with the following features: “A competent and committed staff, the support of correctional authorities, adequate resources, a comprehensive, intensive course of therapy aimed at affecting the lifestyle of clients beyond their substance abuse problem, and continuity of care after inmates are paroled.”
However, most prisons lack the adequate resources and the necessary essentials to help recovering drug abusers. Not only does this hinder their role in actively treating or preventing future drug use, but time in prison increases the mortality from an overdose.
The expectation that external societal pressure, like prison, will stop an internal physiological demand is nonsense. Thus, we require a better solution to illicit drug use than simply filling up prisons.
Concerned but incorrect
This issue, however, does not come without controversy. Proponents of the War on Drugs argue that the decriminalization of certain drugs would cause societal chaos and further encourage the youth to experiment and abuse drugs.
These arguments, while justified and rooted in concern, fall flat in recognizing a couple of realities. First, decriminalizing certain drugs is not synonymous with encouraging their use. Instead, this step symbolizes a government realistically addressing a growing problem that is not getting better.
Secondly, others believe that decriminalizing drugs will permanently open the floodgates and eliminate the possibility of a drug-free community. This concern, in particular, is based on an ideal that was never achievable. People hoped the War on Drugs would create drug-free communities. But 40 years later, the truth is becoming exceedingly clear. Drugs are not going anywhere, and the sooner we learn to coexist and provide a more robust rehabilitative environment, the better.
For too long the United States’ strategy has quelled the supply of drugs as best as possible and punished the demand. Our country needs to seek a new strategy so we can stop funding a perpetually ongoing war that hurts its citizens more than it helps.
For a particularly bold strategy, look at Portugal as a case study. In 2001, after descending into a particularly abysmal drug crisis, Portugal decided to decriminalize all drugs. Those caught were given warnings, fines or referrals to a commission composed of doctors and social workers to seek support services and treatment, instead of mandatory minimums and other harsh prison sentences.
The results of Portugal’s experiment were astounding. Portugal experienced dramatic drops in drug use, HIV and hepatitis infection rates, overdose deaths, drug-related crime and incarceration rates.
We should pursue more tolerant laws and further invest in drug rehabilitation, treatment and education.
The War on Drugs has done very little good. But it has left us with an invaluable lesson that we can hopefully use to combat other burgeoning issues, such as the opioid crisis.
Propped up by Big Pharma and money-assuaged physicians, legal forms of opioids, which the War on Drugs does not target, are causing an unprecedented number of overdose deaths. In fact, in 2016, 42,249 Americans died as the result of an opioid overdose.
Not only are opioids routinely prescribed as a pain killer for all sorts of maladies, but the rate of misuse is already alarmingly high. Approximately 21-29 percent of patients who are prescribed opioids for their chronic pain reportedly misuse them to some extent.
The War on Drugs has also been an economic nightmare. Since its inception, the United States has spent upward of one trillion dollars funding this drug-busting machine. Our money and efforts are better spent elsewhere, like combating the ongoing opioid epidemic in more effective ways.
The War on Drugs, waged over 40 years ago, began as a solution to an imminent drug problem. Unfortunately, this war has devolved into an even bigger problem itself. With over a trillion dollars spent, the only result is to give drug users a choice: death by overdose or prison.
There is no doubt in my mind the War on Drugs will be seen as one of the greatest failures of our time. The only question that remains now is whether or not we act soon enough for us to realize it.
Opinion columnist Ryan Nowrouzi is a biomedical sciences junior and can be reached at [email protected]