The War on Drugs: America’s Number One Public Enemy.

Of all of the initiatives in history, few have been analyzed and criticized as much as the war on drugs. Throughout history, motives, means and viability of this “war” have been called into question as to the true value of this war for citizens of the United States and the world. Policy has changed throughout time, but one aspect remains clear: this is an incredibly difficult, devastating problem to solve.


Throughout the 20th century, it was a slippery slope from attempting to implement policies, operations and missions to save the American people from the violence and harm that come from drugs, to the exorbitant amount of resources used creating, what many people argue, are completely adverse results for the American public.

Back in 1971, Richard Nixon began the movement to combat the importation of drugs via military intervention in countries like Colombia and Mexico through his “war on drugs”. Nixon claimed “America’s public enemy number one in the United States is drug abuse. In order to fight and defeat this enemy, it is necessary to wage a new, all-out offensive.” What was meant by an “all-out” offensive? To Nixon, this meant fighting the war on all fronts, supply and demand, domestic and international and across all age and race ranges. This lead to the creation of the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) in 1973 whose main mission at that time was to cut off the supply of marijuana from Mexico to the United States, or “Operation Intercept”.

Ford looked to reduce demand with increased enforcement efforts and mandatory sentencing guidelines. Carter focused on attacking supply, meaning most funds going to interdiction and eradication programs. Carter endorsed lenient laws for marijuana use, although he opposed legalization. Cocaine was glamorized in the media, leading to increasingly violent events for the American public.

Reagan tried to cut demand with various initiatives focused on “getting tough” on drugs. His “zero tolerance” program, where punitive measures against users were emphasized, put accountability of drug use into the hands of the drug users. Through this idea of accountability, Nancy Reagan launched a new initiative in 1984 dubbed “Just Say No” which became the center of the Reagan administration’s anti-drug campaign. Reagan also attempted to reduce demand by offering users rehabilitation programs. Unfortunately drug use skyrocketed during his presidency, creating users in need of rehabilitation far outpacing the supply of such programs. Reagan signed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which appropriated $1.7 billion to fight the drug crisis, $97 million to build new prisons, $200 million for drug education and $241 million for treatment along with creating a mandatory minimum penalty for drug offenses.

George HW Bush re-declared his own “war on drugs” after the cold war, with is focus continuing Reagan’s approach being tough on drug dealers and users. 70% of his spending went to enforcement, and 30% to treatment and prevention. He also moved the fight to the states, pushing the states to enact harsher policies for people convicted of drug crimes. Under Bush, the first regional drug task force, the South Florida Drug Task Force, was formed to combat the increasing violence to citizens by combining agents from the DEA, Customs, FBI, ATF, IRS, Army and Navy.   Although drug use did decline somewhat during the Bush years in the middle and upper classes, overall the expensive policies saw little meaningful progress “defeating” drugs, and served to exacerbate the real challenges of over crowding in prisons and the increasing impact of the drug war on poorer communities.

Clinton first ran with a focus on treatment instead of incarceration (due to the number of people in jail for nonviolent drug law offenses increasing from 50,000 in 1980 to more than 400,000 in 1997) but went back to the Carter’s strategy of cutting off supply. He increased spending an extra $1 billion dollars to double rehabilitation spending and focus on eradication programs and law enforcement. At the end of his presidency, Clinton interviewed with Rolling Stone stating, “We really need a re-examination of our entire policy on imprisonment” of people who use drugs, and that marijuana use “should be decriminalized.”

George W Bush focused on marijuana consumption, advocating for a campaign that would promote student drug testing. Bush also introduced around 40,000 paramilitary-style SWAT raids on Americans every year, focusing on nonviolent drug law offenses.

Go here for a more complete timeline of the War on Drugs.


Which Drugs Are Regulated or Banned? 

The US decides which drugs to regulate or ban using the drug scheduling system outlined in the Controlled Substances Act. Under this act, there are five categories that weigh drug’s medical value and abuse potential. Below is a table detailing this scheduling system:


Where the War is Now 

The federal government supplies funds, legal flexibility and special equipment to crack down on illicit drugs. Part of this “legal flexibility” has to do with Civil Asset Forfeiture, or allowing police to go after drug dealing organizations by cutting off their access to cash and product. The police then use the drug dealers’ “ill-gotten gains” for combat through funding more anti-drug operations.

Michael Bloomberg and President Barack Obama have both spoke about their experiences with marijuana. Obama has advocated for “ending the War on Drugs and starting the War on Addiction” through different reforms like reducing the inconsistency between crack/powder cocaine sentencing, ending the ban on federal access programs for syringes and supporting state medical laws.

In 2015, President Barack Obama commuted the sentences of 46 drug offenders as part of his attempt to reform the criminal justice system. Most of these prisoners would have finished their sentences if they were sentenced under current sentencing guidelines, but policies were much harsher in the 80s. Obama stated, “I am granting your application because you have demonstrated the potential to turn your life around. Now it is up to you to make the most of this opportunity.” Obama has furthered his commitment to fighting the war on addiction by sitting with families who have lost loved ones to heroin and introducing a proposal to allocate $133 million for expanding access to drug treatment and prevention programs.

The legalization of medicinal and recreational marijuana has helped cut off the demand to the dangerous cartels in Mexico. This is a graph detailing decreasing profits from marijuana operations for Mexican drug cartels – showcasing steady decline as medicinal and recreational marijuana are legalized.

Cartels Profits

With the public opinion in states like Colorado, Washington, Alaska, Oregon and Washington DC shifting to favor reforms that expand upon a “health-based” approach and the decriminalization of some drugs, there is more and more potential for better policies to truly help the American public.

The Bills

Almost all of the different legislation introduced this year across the United States follows one of two trends: decreasing drug punishment and increasing addiction help.

In California, SB 966 would put an end to some of the unjust, extreme sentences that have resulted in people suffering from substance use being sentenced to over 10 years in prison. Indiana differs in this ideology, introducing HB 1235 which would reverse recent reforms by increasing penalties and instituting severe mandatory minimum sentences for people with nonviolent, low-level drug offenses. Maine followed Indiana’s suite and proposed LD 1554 to make possession of 30 milligrams (often less than one single pill) or more of prescription opioids and any amount of certain other drugs into felony offenses.

New York’s A 1275 enhances the assisted outpatient treatment program; eliminates the expiration and repeals Kendra’s Law (effectively giving parents the ability to go directly to a family court judge and petition for their child to be ordered into drug treatment without involving the police). To provide better, safer treatment, Maryland introduced two bills; HB 1212 which would permit the establishment of safer drug use facilities which provides a hygienic and safe space for drug users to consume pre-obtained drugs under the supervision of trained staff and HB 1267 that would allow the administering pharmaceutical-grade heroin to a small and previously consistently unresponsive group of chronic heroin users under medical supervision in a specialized clinic. Finally, the US introduced the Budgeting for Opioid Addiction Treatment Act which will create a permanent funding stream that will provide and expand access to substance abuse treatment.

Delaware introduced two bills; HB 239 that would hold drug dealers responsible for overdose deaths in Delaware by creating a new crime, “drug dealing—resulting in death,” a Class B felony punishable by two to 25 years in prison and SB 174 which would create a Drug Overdose Fatality Review Commission to examine the circumstances of deaths resulting from prescription opioid, fentanyl and heroin overdoses and make recommendations to the state as to how to prevent them. Ohio, also attempting to combat growing occurrences of fatal drug overdoses, introduced HB 110 or the 9-1-1 Good Samaritan Law (Michigan introduced a similar bill). Representative Robert Sprague stated, “The 9-1-1 Good Samaritan Law is an important part of a larger package of legislative initiatives to address Ohio’s addiction epidemic, and I appreciate everyone’s contributions to pass this bill into law. It is our hope that this bill will urge individuals to seek help and save lives.”

US HR 1538, or the CARERS Act, Amends the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) stating control and enforcement provisions relating to marijuana will not apply to any person acting in compliance with state law relating to the production, possession, distribution, dispensation, administration, laboratory testing, or delivery of medical marijuana. The US also introduced HR 3518, “Stop Civil Asset Forfeiture Funding for Marijuana Suppression Act”, to prohibit the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) from using money acquired through civil asset forfeiture to fight the drug war against marijuana.

To combat access to prescription drugs, California SB 482 which prevents a practice called “doctor shopping,” when patients go to multiple doctors to maximize the number of prescription pain killers they can receive.


I think that throughout history, each person tried to the best of their ability with the information they knew, to combat this issue fiercely. In my opinion, this like many other issues our world faces, needs to have a modernized approach. Cutting off the supply makes logical sense, but history has shown this to be a costly and ultimately mostly ineffective strategy.

This article brings up a great point pertaining to the demand aspect of drug trade stating, “Every effort the U S government has made at interdiction since Operation Intercept has at most resulted in a reorganization of the international drug trade.  Heavily monitored drug routes have been rerouted.  Drugs enter the United States through land, sea, and air.  Closing our borders to drug smugglers is an impossibility as long as the demand exists.”

Where there is a will, there will always be a way. I believe Obama is correct to now focus on treating addiction. Treat the will, and the ways will fall away. It is heartening to see so many states embracing such policies as well. Time will tell if we’ve finally found the right way to win this “war”.

Living Wage or Minimum Wage? Profits or People?

Minimum wage has been a topic gaining traction over the last several years, with campaigns like the Fight for $15 helping create awareness. Proponents of raising the minimum wage say it needs to be a livable wage (a wage high enough to maintain a normal standard of living), which many of the current minimum wages are not. Opponents of the movement argue it will cripple the economy and create havoc in the market place, leaving the working class in even worse shape. So which side has more evidence supporting their argument? What approaches are individual states prepared to try?

The first U.S. minimum wage was instituted under the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. Since then, Congress has changed who is covered under it and raised the minimum wage a number of times. Minimum wage laws are put in place in order to set the lowest hourly rate an employer can legally pay their employees. Currently, the federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour, for tipped workers it’s $2.13 an hour. A number of states and municipalities have enacted higher minimum wages than the federal rate, which employers in those areas are required to pay. Minimum wage does not pertain to all companies, only those that make more than $500,000 in annual gross sales and interstate commerce employers. Because the minimum wage is not adjusted automatically for inflation, its real value in the market place falls between enacted increases.
Here is a graph of the “value” of minimum wage, taking into account inflation, since 1947.
Value of Minimum Wage

Economic Impact

There are some intuitive downsides to increasing the minimum wage; such as fewer workers hired, fewer hours of work given to workers, transferral of higher wage cost onto customers through higher prices or companies realizing lower profits to absorb the higher cost. Companies like McDonald’s and Wendy’s have announced they will be replacing cashiers with touch-screen ordering systems to cut the cost of higher minimum wage in areas around the county. Walmart is closing stores and not entering new markets in cities/states that have already passed higher minimum wage laws. Small businesses are struggling with the wage increases as well, Anie Duquette, of Williamsburg Market, stated, “We’re struggling with the new minimum wage, because people don’t understand that every time you raise the minimum wage, it also raises your workman’s comp insurance, it raises everything else too. It’s not just the minimum wage that goes up.”

The downsides seems clear enough; it’s not a surprise so many companies are acting on them. But are the downsides described above always real? Some companies, like Ikea, have seen tremendous success through raising their minimum wage. Since raising their minimum wage to $12 an hour, they have seen less turnover (meaning they are spending less on recruiting and training), more qualified job seekers in the stores and they opened two new locations (Merriam, KS and Miami, FL). Some think that higher compensation leads to more productive workers, among other benefits. It is clear that increased minimum wage increases overall wage costs to a company, but how does it affect overall profits? Figuring out the total impact of raising wages is extremely complex, since there are so many variables involved and many of them are hard to quantify.

But there are two arguments, really. One is the economic argument, about if raising minimum wage will help or hurt the economy at large. If you feel the evidence shows that raising the minimum wage would boost the economy and help workers, then it seems a pretty straight forward argument that we should do it. If you think raising the minimum wage would displace a large number of workers by hurting companies enough to force them to downsize or even put them out of business, then raising the minimum wage is a terrible idea. Obviously there is a lot of disagreement on these points. But there is another question too, a more philosophical one, which is squarely in our sights coming into this presidential election. What is the role of government in our lives and is it even possible for government to ensure everyone willing to work can make a “living wage”?

Living Wage

A recent post from a paramedic, who makes $15 an hour, went viral stating “Look, if any job is going to take up someone’s life, it deserves a living wage. If a job exists and you have to hire someone to do it, they deserve a living wage.” The concept of “living wage” is interesting. The paramedic, Jens Rushing, stated only around 12% of the people who work minimum wage jobs are teenagers, despite the impression the general public has that these jobs are mostly worked by teenagers. Here is a graphic that details the population of people who work minimum wage jobs, showcasing that most of the population who works minimum wage jobs are not under the age of 20.
Minimum Wage demographic 1Minimum Wage Demographic 2

What this means is most people in minimum wage jobs are indeed trying to make a living; they are supporting themselves and often supporting or helping support other people. On a base rate of $7.25 an hour, that is nearly impossible. Dan Emmanuel, a research analyst with the National Low Income Housing Coalition, wrote “Raising the minimum wage is a critical part of addressing the housing affordability. However, there is another part to this problem, which is the shortage of affordable housing. Specifically, there is a shortage of 7.2 million rental units affordable and available to the lowest-income households. We need to address both issues in order to tackle the affordable housing crisis.” In Pennsylvania, you need to work roughly 101 hours a week to be able to afford a modest two-bedroom apartment if you make minimum wage. Here is a graph showcasing the hours needed to work per week to afford a one-bedroom unit in states around the US.

Hours Minimum Wage Rent

Higher ends of this spectrum include 124 hours in Hawaii and 105 in Virginia, the lowest number is Puerto Rico with 44 hours and West Virginia with 49 and South Dakota and Nebraska with 50 hours per week. Each week has 168 total hours, if you lived in Hawaii you would spend 73.8% percent of your life at work to afford your rent. This is a real issue for many Americans throughout the United States.

The Bills

Not surprisingly, given the disagreement on the impact raising minimum wage has on the economy, there are bills that range from encouraging higher wages to limiting cities’ ability to raise wage if it is not state approved.

California’s SB 3 was the leader in adopting the “Fight for $15”. Through SB 3, the minimum wage will increase to $10.50 an hour on January 1, $11 an hour in January of 2018, then dollar-per-year increases would follow until 2022. The deal will affect approximately 118,000 California workers. Businesses that employ fewer than 25 workers will have an extra year to pay workers $15 an hour.

Florida’s SB 6 would set the wage at $10.31 and increase it $1 yearly until livable. Their mayor, Philip Levine, stated, “We continue to hear stories from our residents who are unable to live and work in Miami Beach because of the high costs of rent, transportation and basic living costs. But today, we start addressing this growing problem through higher wages by establishing a citywide minimum living wage.”

New York introduced A 7257 that increases minimum wage along with establishing paid family leave for New York workers. OregonNew Jersey and Minnesota all had bills aimed at raising their wages. Here is an interactive map showing various current bills around the country discussing increasing the minimum wage, studying the potential impact of raising the minimum wage, suggesting ways to calculate what the minimum wage should be, or calling on Congress to raise the federal minimum wage:

On the other side, Alabama’s HB 174 was introduced to prohibit local governmental entities from requiring minimum wage or other benefits. The Missouri Senate voted to override Gov. Jay Nixon’s veto of last year’s MO HB722 that would have forbid Kansas City and other local municipalities from increasing the minimum wage above the $7.65 an hour statewide rate. After the override, Kansas City Mayor Sly James stated, “Today is a loss for accountable, local governing. I hope when voters realize the state took away their ability to improve their cities and the lives of the people who live in them, they will use their frustration to take on the legislators who abandoned them.” Because the Senate and House voted to override the veto, the bill will become law.


The Political Gabfest podcast (starting around minute 24:00) recently brought up interesting points on the theories behind minimum wage increase, the Fair Standard Labor Act and getting more money to people who do not have advanced degrees or lower income. Discussing the trade-offs and effects of raising the minimum wage, it brings up great points to both “sides” of this debate. They speaks to the traditional presumption that you can increase your earning ability as you get older by acquiring and developing more and better sets of skills for the purpose of using them for bargaining power. Each of us must develop our own strengths to have something to leverage to make more money. But people who do not have advanced degrees are less likely to be in positions to develop these skills and use them as bargaining power, and unions have by and large disappeared and no longer serve that function for blue collar workers, how do we help them get more money? The Gabfest group brings up a very good point in my opinion: simply raising the minimum wage isn’t addressing the problem of why someone cannot have that bargaining power we are striving for. It is more (in my own words) throwing money at the problem and hoping it will get better.

Perhaps directly addressing problems like limited access to health care, shortage of affordable housing, and increasingly expensive higher education, is where we should set our focus. For example, we cannot blame fast-food chains for implementing automated systems to avoid paying the minimum wage. Their mission is to cut costs to lower cost of food, so really no matter what the minimum wage, fast food would always have been headed toward automation. In other words, raising the minimum wage might only be a temporary fix anyway. Taking on the problems caused by low wages from another angle might be more practical.

And really, as contentious as the minimum wage conversation is, maybe we might as well be discussing a minimum income instead.

Time Outlasting Crimes? Is Felony Disenfranchisement Fair?

We all know the classic saying “you do the crime, you do the time”, but what happens when you do your time and continue paying for the crime the rest of your life? Many states throughout the US have rules and regulations pertaining to many different aspects of “normal” life that impact convicted felons’ abilities to succeed in the real world. Convicted felons losing the right to vote has been getting a substantial amount of press due to the upcoming election, however there are many other rights denied to convicted felons too.

What constitutes as a felony?

A felony is a crime, typically one involving violence, regarded as more serious than a misdemeanor, and usually punishable by imprisonment for more than one year or even by death. An article from L. Gordon Crovitz details his views on how an average American commits three felonies a day because laws have become too vague and the concept of intent is disappearing (see GovTrack for a great discussion of the complications of Mens Rea and criminal intent). Here is a list of the most common felonies in the United States, including drug abuse violations, driving while intoxicated, assault and burglary. Some more outlandish felonies in the United States include: Alabama residents who commit unlawful bear exploitation if they purchase, possess, or train a bear for the purpose of bear wrestling receive a Class B felony, Michigan’s statute from 1931 making adultery a felony — punishable by a maximum of four years in prison and a $5,000 fine, and in Wyoming you can’t “cut, sever, detach, or mutilate” more than one-half of a sheep’s ear – violations are felony offenses, punishable by up to five years in prison. Although some of these felonies are a look into nonsensical aspects of our political system, what are the real issues post-conviction for felons?

What rights are taken?

First, felony disenfranchisement has received the most coverage in the news recently because of the upcoming election. Felony disenfranchisement is no longer allowing convicted felons to vote. Although most states prohibit prisoners from voting while incarcerated, many convicted felons find it difficult to vote post release. Some states in the US ban felons from voting for a certain period of time after their release, while others ban for life. Virginia governor, Terry McAuliffe, recently gave convicted felons who completed their sentence and any type of supervised release the right to vote, run for office or serve on a jury. Here is a map that details different regulations around the United States:

felon disenfranchisement sentencing-project

Although felons are permitted to hold and use a US passport, other countries have the right to deny entry or visas to the country depending on the type of felony. For example, in Canada if you have a DUI you are not permitted to enter the country.

Many of the states who require immediate background checks prior to selling guns also hold bans on felons purchasing and owning firearms. This is especially relevant if they were accused of a crime that involved a gun or was violent.

When it comes to matters of employment, it is not necessarily regulations that take away the rights of convicted felons but the lack thereof. States have an average of 123 restrictions on employment, here is a table showing states with the least/most regulations.

Job Restrictions

Private employers are permitted to conduct background checks and choose to not hire felons, common within the child care industry. States which allow this do not have regulations to protect convicted felons from this type of discrimination. Other employment limitations include barring felons convicted of a crime involving dishonesty or a breach of trust from working in the insurance industry. In unions, there is a 13-year limit after the date of a conviction or release for felons to hold positions. Specific offenses, pertaining to dishonesty, breach of trust or money laundering, prevent felons from being employed by companies that are insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.

Aside from being excluded from jury service in most states, convicted felons are also denied other public social benefits. These benefits include applying for federal or state grants, living in public housing, receiving federal cash assistance, SII or food stamps, diminishing parental rights and others. Although getting a lease, applying for a loan or filing official paperwork are not officially taken from convicted felons, the stain on their record often makes these processes difficult.

The Bills.

In the face of these increasing restrictions, some states have enacted “Ban the Box” legislation to adopt fair hiring policies, among other things. The following are a range of bills covering the different rights taken away from convicted felons in states across the US.

Alabama introduced HB 245, or Alabama Restoration of Voting Rights Act, for the automatic restoration of voting rights for convicted felons. Louisiana’s HB 598 outlines guidelines for voting stating “felons currently incarcerated, on parole or probation may not vote”. Those that meet voting requirements are only allowed to vote through an absentee ballot. Maryland’s HB 716 would require an individual who is a felon to vote only by absentee ballot aside from specified registered criminal offenders who are not felons can enter onto school property for the purpose of voting only.

In Oklahoma, HB 3097 states “it is unlawful for any person convicted of any felony in any court of this state or of another state in the United States to have in his or her possession or under his or her immediate control, or in any vehicle which the person is operating, or in which the person is riding as a passenger, or at the residence where the convicted person resides, any pistol, imitation or homemade pistol, altered air or toy pistol, machine gun, sawed-off shotgun or rifle, or any other dangerous or deadly firearm”.

Idaho proposed S 1276 which states “upon final discharge, a person convicted of any Idaho felony shall be restored the full rights of citizenship, except that for persons convicted of treason” aside from the rights to ship, transport, possess or receive a firearm following felony convictions for certain crimes.

Illinois has a bill, HB 4039, that would prohibit gun ownership in Illinois by people on the federal terrorism watch list. It would also require that permits be revoked and guns be removed from those who have been declared dangerously mentally ill, a threat to themselves or others, domestic violence offenders or convicted felons.

According to a study by Harvard sociologist Devah Pager, the presence of a criminal record reduces one’s application callback likelihood by 50% for whites and 64% for African Americans. In an attempt to mitigate this discrimination, 23 states have adopted “Ban the Box” policies. Seven states have “Ban the Box” bills this year: KansasLouisianaNorth CarolinaPennsylvaniaSouth CarolinaWashington and West Virginia. Connecticut proposed HB 5237 which would prohibit employers from asking about past criminal convictions until after a conditional offer of employment is made.

Texas introduced SB 200 which states that felons convicted on drug charges are eligible to receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits upon completion of their sentences – where a lifetime ban once stood. Eighteen other states have opted out of the ban, including Iowa, Kansas and South Dakota.

The issue with many of these restrictions for convicted felons is it creates a vicious cycle not allowing them to get their lives back on track. Through being denied the right to work, vote, travel, apply for housing or receive help, convicted felons are put in a position that doesn’t allow them to participate or thrive in our society. These restrictions not only affect people’s lives but the construction of our society. The following infographic details the demographics of our population that cannot vote – mostly African American men.

Felony Disenfranchisement

Not only can people not vote, but it is harder to find jobs to pay the rent and they are denied public benefits like low income housing so it is incredibly difficult for them to afford a reasonable, safe place to live. When faced with this situation, convicted felons may go back into criminal activities in order to make enough money to survive, thus creating this positive feedback loop in our society. We need to support our citizens and help them move forward with their lives in a safe, legal and healthy way. There are many companies that are attempting to help end recidivism (a person’s relapse into criminal behavior, often after the person receives sanctions or undergoes intervention for a previous crime) like Denver based company, Mile High Workshop. Studies have shown that the number one indicator if person will not commit another crime is whether they have a job and proper support in that job. These companies teach hard and soft skills in order to build people’s resumes, confidence and experience. This is an aspect of our society that needs to be addressed in order to move us forward and promote society as a whole.

What do you think? Should current prisoners be allowed to vote? Should people who have served their sentences be allowed to vote? To receive benefits and government support? To own a gun?