The War on Drugs’ is a term used to describe a set of policies put in place during Richard Nixon’s presidency that focused on ending the production, distribution, and consumption of drugs and illicit substances. In 1969, President Richard Nixon formally declared a “war on drugs”, directing eradication efforts toward the source of the illegal drugs–namely Latin America, a ban of the sale of drugs, and the incarceration of anyone caught peddling or possessing–namely Blacks and Latinos. Two years later, during a press conference on June 18, 1971, Nixon declared drug abuse “public enemy number one”, bringing the term into the public eye. It is estimated that the United States spends fifty-one billion dollars annually on these initiatives and the only thing to come of them in recent years is the growth of the US’ already astounding prison population. The Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) says, “drug addiction is a disease that can be successfully prevented and treated” and goes on further to say that “making drugs more available will make it harder to keep our communities healthy and safe” (DuPont 1). The key to a healthy drug-free community is acceptance of the issue, not the rejection of it. The US needs to change its strategy for drug enforcement to better encourage treatment over incarceration. The War on Drugs is a failure because it led to mass incarceration in the U.S., the creation and fueling of powerful drug cartels, and racial disparity in sentencing for drug crimes.
In the late 1980s, President Ronald Reagan’s wife, Nancy Reagan, began the “Just Say No” campaign. The campaign focused on discouraging American youth from using drugs with the help of programs like Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) and through everything from advertisements to video games. Just Say No clubs and anti-drug programs began popping up schools all across America. In the meanwhile, Nancy Reagan traveled throughout the United States visiting drug rehabilitation centers and abuse prevention programs. At the same time, she appeared on daily talk shows and televised public service announcements. Eventually, the campaign and the phrase made their way into pop culture as well. On TV, shows like Diff’rent Strokes and Punky Brewster had one or more episodes dedicated solely to the topic. The video game scene also gave the campaign a little extra exposure with titles like NARC and Wally Bear and the No Gang. In 1985, Nancy Reagan brought the campaign overseas with the “First Ladies Conference on Drug Abuse”, an event where the first ladies of other countries were invited to the white house to talk about preventing drug abuse. The conference was a huge success and drug abuse became a global topic of discussion.
“Drugs are used by a far fewer percentage of the population than they were 30 or 40 years ago”, said Dr. Kevin A. Sabet, one of Obama’s main drug control strategists. While that may be true, these findings are minuscule when compared to the other glaring downsides of the War on Drugs as a whole. For instance, the possession and/or distribution of illegal narcotics is criminally punishable in most states. However, in some states, the punishment for possession can carry a sentence equal to distribution. In fact, in states such as Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Florida, a possession charge can wield a punishment nearly identical to a distribution charge (The Toughest Drug Laws in the U.S.”.) Ignoring race and ethnicity, the person committing the lesser crime is unjustly penalized for something they didn’t do. Practices like these are why any upsides stemming from the War on Drugs could not possibly outmatch the downsides burdening everything else.
The problem of prison overpopulation in the United States has grown at an alarming rate in recent decades. After the passage of Reagan’s Anti-Drug Abuse Act in 1986, incarceration for nonviolent offenses dramatically increased. The act, directed towards those possessing crack cocaine, imposed a mandatory five-year sentence which, according to NPR reporter Danielle Kurtzleben, “carried the same sentence as the possession of a quantity of cocaine that is 100 times larger” (“Data Show Racial Disparity in Crack Sentencing.”.) This disproportionately affected low-level street dealers and users of crack, who were more commonly poor Blacks, Latinos, and women. As a direct result of these new incarcerees, the United States reached peak prison overpopulation, effectively detaining “…almost a quarter of all of the prisoners in the world” (Hanna 42). Prison overcrowding has reached the point where the prison system is no longer sustainable without increased public funding. For example, in California each inmate “…costs the state more than $45,000 per year” and with “roughly 144,000 inmates detained in a state correctional system with a design capacity of only 83,219”, the funding required to maintain this current system outweighs any benefits associated with having such a big system in the first place (MacDonald 9). Without this influx of prisoners and the strict lockup quotas, however, these institutions could face bankruptcy, leading to the Prison Industrial Complex extended indefinitely.
The issue of racial disparities in sentencing for drug crimes dates back to Reagan’s presidency, when the first War on Drugs was officially declared. At the time, no one could tell what would come out of Reagan’s drug prohibition, but now, decades later (1994 to be exact), the answer has been revealed by Reagan’s Watergate co-conspirator, John Ehrlichman. In an interview with Harper’s Magazine writer Dan Baum, Ehrlichman had this to say about the politics of Reagan’s drug prohibition:
The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people… We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did. (Baum 1)
During the recent presidency of Barack Obama, laws for sentencing were partially amended by the Fair Sentencing Act. This is good news, but the irreparable damage caused by these laws in the 1980s has left many minorities with hefty prison sentences that cannot be amended. Additionally, the Controlled Substances Act established a minimum sentence of “five years for a first-time trafficking offense involving over five grams of crack, as opposed to 500 grams of powder cocaine” (“Data Show Racial Disparity in Crack Sentencing.”.) Crack and powder cocaine have similar effects on the body, so why are people punished differently? People aren’t punished differently for DUIs involving liquor and beer, so why the exception for crack and cocaine? Overall, more needs to be done by lawmakers in order to prevent arbitrary penalty disparity and racial disparities as a whole.
Futile attempts at attacking the producers of illegal drugs have done nothing but create and fuel powerful drug cartels both domestically and internationally. Every U.S. strategy for stopping the flow of illegal drugs into America have all centered around snuffing out the product, whether it be cocaine or heroin, at its source. Director of Texas Tech University’s Free Market Institute, Benjamin Powell, argues in his paper, The Economics Behind the U.S. Government’s Unwinnable War on Drugs, that at its core, “…a supply-side drug war acts essentially like a tax placed on drug suppliers. It increases their cost of bringing drugs to market and, thus, decreases their willingness to supply drugs” (Powell). The result of this direct relationship is higher prices with a smaller quantity supplied. One thing keeping the availability and use of illegal drugs from decreasing is the “Balloon Effect”. In summation, the “Balloon Effect” is an economic term that describes “…what happens when, given a fairly elastic supply function, temporary supply reductions lead to higher prices which in term stimulates greater supply production” (Laffiteau 1). To put it another way, when the supply of something goes down, the prices go up, which inevitably leads to more of that something being produced to accommodate the demand; an endless cycle similar to inflating a balloon that will, at some point, need to be refilled with air after deflating. Over the years, the U.S.’s attempts to reduce the supply of drugs, have “…likely inflated prices for most illegal drugs…increased the drug potency and purity…and encouraged unprecedented…violence among warring criminal drug gangs (Laffiteau 10). If the U.S. wants to make any progress that won’t result in a pyrrhic victory, it needs to adopt an alternative approach to dealing with illegal drugs by treating problems associated with drug abuse as a public health concern rather than a criminal justice issue.
The War on Drugs is a failure because it led to mass incarceration in the U.S., the creation and fueling of powerful drug cartels, and racial disparity in sentencing for drug crimes. The problem of prison overpopulation in the United States has grown at an alarming rate in recent decades. The issue of racial disparities in sentencing for drug crimes dates back to Reagan’s presidency when the first War on Drugs was officially declared. Futile attempts at attacking the producers of illegal drugs have done nothing but create and fuel powerful drug cartels both domestically and internationally. It’s time to try a different approach. If the U.S. is truly interested in winning the War on Drugs it must start treating the cause and stop spending billions of dollars reacting to and trying to treat the symptoms.