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.
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.
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”.