It’s been 47 years since President Nixon launched his infamous “war on drugs” political strategy, and so far it’s done little to help America’s drug crisis. Not only has the war on drugs been ineffective, it has been incredibly expensive, costing over a trillion of taxpayer dollars. Almost all of the American presidents since Nixon have adopted the war on drugs, and have maintained the racially-charged policies used for dealing with narcotics. America can’t fix the drug issue by approaching it with a warlike strategy. Instead, we need to treat drug usage as a social issue if we truly want change, offer treatment instead of incarceration, and decriminalize all narcotics.
Nixon’s war on drugs was nothing more than a thinly-veiled attack on minority groups. One of Nixon’s top aides, Joseph Ehrlichman, admitted that the Nixon administration actively created the war on drugs as a political strategy against minorities, and manipulated the public mindset to support their position.
“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.” Ehrlichman admitted in a 1994 interview with Harper’s Magazine. “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.”
One alarming example of the racist backdrop with the war on drugs is the sentencing difference between the use of powder cocaine and crack cocaine. Despite being the same drug, the sentencing disparity was about 100:1, unfairly targeting crack-cocaine usage due to common racial stereotypes. Because of this disparity, and policies like it, black people have served around the same sentence for nonviolent drug crimes as white people have for violent drug crimes.
When Ronald Reagan was elected in 1981, he took the war on drugs and ran with it. Right before his first term began, in 1980, around 40,000 people were incarcerated for nonviolent drug-related offences. At the end of the twentieth century, this figure multiplied over eight times, to a staggering 400,000 people incarcerated for similar crimes in the year 1997. During Reagan’s term, a zero-tolerance policy on narcotics was implemented, causing the prison population to skyrocket. President Clinton also adopted the policy of mass incarceration, despite running on a pro-treatment rather than pro-incarceration platform. Clinton refused to sign a bill that would make clean needles accessible, contributing to a rise of HIV/AIDS rates.
Over the course of the war on drugs, the prison population grew by about 900%, with a disproportionate amount being minorities. In 2017, almost half of those imprisoned were imprisoned due to drug charges, but despite this, drug usage among Americans remains stagnant. Even into the twenty-first century, presidents continued these ineffective policies.
The policies of incarceration are clearly ineffective, yet George Bush continued to maintain the war on drugs into the 21st century. During his term, drug law enforcement utilized paramilitary-style drug raids, often for nonviolent narcotic-related misdemeanors. President Obama, however, did end some of the major facets of the war on drugs, such as reducing the crack-cocaine disparities, yet he didn’t end the strategy entirely. Despite fifty years of failure, our presidents continue to use the unfair, unsuccessful, and outdated policies of the war on drugs.
The war on drugs will never work. The US government as a whole has spent around 1.5 trillion in taxpayer dollars in an attempt to make America free of drugs, but drug usage has remained about the same. America will probably never be drug-free. Our government, and our country as a whole, needs to adopt a different mindset. The ever-present issue of narcotics is is not something that can or should be treated like a war, but rather should be treated as a social issue. By incarcerating drug offenders, we are not solving the issue, but adding to the problem.
There are other solutions besides mass-incarceration. In fact, what will help to solve the problem is virtually the opposite. We need to decriminalize all narcotic usage, no matter who is using or what they are using. Instead, we need to offer treatment and rehabilitation for drug users. We can look towards other countries’ efforts to reduce drug usage as evidence of this. Portugal, for example, decriminalized possession and consumption of all illicit narcotics. While this may seem radical, it is actually working. In 2015, there were 3 overdose deaths per 1,000,000 citizens. HIV rates went down from 104.2 cases per million to 4.2 cases per million. Drug usage as a whole also went down substantially.
However, the change in drug usage cannot be contributed to one decriminalization law. Portugal as a whole has experienced a change in mindset towards drugs and users, allowing for many new treatment opportunities to emerge, such as rehabilitation, housing, therapy, and employment. Portugal stopped looking down on drug users, and even the Portuguese equivalent for the word junkie, dogrados, has become seen as derogatory.
America needs to change how we approach drugs. The war on drugs is ineffective, unfair to many, and does more harm than it does help. By decriminalizing drug usage and changing the public mindset, we can actually solve America’s drug problem, ending five decades of failure.