Rethinking the War on Drugs

The War on Drugs was originally created to combat dangerous and uncharted territory. Between drug use and the illegal drug trade a new problem erupted on the streets of America. President Nixon declared the war against substances in 1971, then increased federal funding for drug related agencies and imposed harsh and mandatory sentences for drug crimes.

Forty eight years later we have enough empirical evidence to know works and what needs to change. Every year, upwards of 47 billion dollars is spent on the war on drugs. In 2017, 1,632,921 people were arrested for drug crimes and 85.4% of those arrests were for possession. Billions of dollars are given to drug task forces to find drugs and incarcerating people who have them.

So many people were on the wrong side of the law, that private prisons were built to house inmates. Mandatory sentences mean more money for the privatized prison system. The largest operator, CoreCivic raked in 1.7 billion dollars of revenue in 2017. The government pays these operators $23,000 per inmate, yearly.

It can be concluded over the last forty years that mass incarceration has not helped curb the drug problem but exacerbated it. The main goal has always been to enforce punishment. When the opioid epidemic sent shockwaves through communities, it forced the government to re-evaluate how Americans ended up here. In 2017, just over 70,000 people died of drug related overdoses. Overdoses are such a regular occurrence that Narcan, an opioid overdose antidote, is now available over the counter at your local pharmacy.

The National Drug Control Budget requested to increase funding for 2018, up to 27.8 billion for drug control efforts. The budget addresses everything from prevention to law enforcement.

A large number of funds allocated under the law enforcement umbrella go toward smuggling, trafficking and possession. A mere 5% is given to prevention efforts and that’s where the real work should begin. Psychological trauma is strongly linked to drug use. In a study conducted in 2010, doctors found that participants who had a traumatic life experience such physical, sexual abuse or neglect in childhood were at higher risks for psychiatric disorders and drug use. Trauma of any kind can also lead to PTSD and data suggests that 55-60% of those suffering from it can develop some form of substance dependency. While that doesn’t account for all instances of usage like hereditary predisposition and experimentation, it can offer insights into prevention options.

The enforcement route comes with its own battles: the main being adequate rehabilitation, criminal records and recidivism. Figuring out how to deal with people who have gone through the system is just as important as preventing them from getting there in the first place. Once rehabilitation has occurred, re-entry into society poses its own challenges. The stigma surrounding a drug user can hinder someone from getting back on their feet. When all the doors for housing, employment and prosperity are closed it reopens the door for recidivism.

The answer to concluding the War on Drugs is multi-faceted. Decriminalization has been brought to the table in many states for marijuana as they have reaped the benefits of legalizing it. Advocates have called for the government to mirror Portugal’s Drug Policy and decriminalize all drugs and focus on prevention and treatment. The cartels are operating at higher levels, prisons are filled to the brim and 130 people die a day from overdosing; something needs to change.

The first step to finding a solution is treating drug use as a public health problem and not a public nuisance. Using drugs does contain the element of personal responsibility and a person who needs help should be able to get to resources without obstacles and fear. Changing the way this problem is perceived helps change how society responds as a whole. It creates a space for innovative plans for prevention and treatment. Billions of dollars in tax payer funds are better suited to a plan that hasn’t had a chance to fail.