The term “War On Drugs,” was first used by President Richard Nixon, during a speech in 1971. In the decades that followed this turn-of-phrase, the United States has spent countless billions, while incarcerating millions upon millions of its citizens, waging the fight. But questions remain: are we winning the War on Drugs? Is it a war we can win? Is it even a war?
The first law in the United States restricting the use and distribution of certain narcotics was the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act, passed in 1914. This act regulated and taxed the sale of opiates and Coca products. Thus began the long and convoluted battle to control various substances, which has carried through the twentieth century and into today.
There was the Volstead Act, which prohibited the production, sale, and transport of “intoxicating liquors,” as set down in the Eighteenth Amendment. Passed in 1920, the Volstead Act was repealed by 1933 by the passage of the Twenty-First Amendment; and widely considered a massive failure, as well as a possible analog to the current drug prohibition.
In 1970, Congress passed the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act. This truly began the modern War on Drugs. In 1973, the Drug Enforcement Agency was created, replacing the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. As with the idea of a “war,” the shift in attitude towards drug use and abuse can be seen in the language of the new “enforcement” agency. Drug addiction was not viewed as a medical illness, and drug addicts were viewed as criminals. Enforcement and lots of it were needed.
While Nixon first used the phrase, the War on Drugs truly began with Ronald Reagan. Ramping up efforts to combat the nation’s drug problem, policies under Reagan called for stricter laws and harsher penalties. The 1986 Anti Drug-Abuse Act, a disastrous piece of legislation, called for the creation of mandatory minimum sentences for many drug crimes. This meant sending more and more minor drug offenders to prison for longer and longer sentences. It also contained inherent racial disparity. Non-whites were much more likely to be arrested for drug crimes, and thus much more likely to be sentenced to arbitrary, long-term incarceration. Even more striking, the Anti Drug-Abuse Act mandated a 100:1 sentencing disparity between crack cocaine to powder cocaine. Crack, which is significantly cheaper, was depicted as America’s largest threat. Consequently, its users, predominately poor, inner-city minorities, were targeted and punished with vastly unequal zeal. Not to mention the role of Reagan’s Iran-CONTRA scheme in bringing the drugs to the cities…
With this as the background, the War On Drugs in this country has blossomed into a booming industry. An estimated average of $51 billion is spent each year. 1.5 million Americans are arrested each year on drug charges, and at least half-a-million incarcerated. The American prison system has become bloated with petty drug offenders, as the percentage of our population behind bars continues to rise even as it is already the world’s leader. We continue to spend and incarcerate, and yet the problem of illicit drug use isn’t going away. Just as the people continued to drink after Prohibition, Americans (and people all over the world) continue to use drugs despite the war being waged. Why?
In many ways, the history of the War on Drugs in America is a history of failure. Failure to curb drug use, failure to pass meaningful legislation, failure to implement those policies we do have effectively and fairly. At the root of this is a particular failure, one of understanding. That is, the failure to understand the realities of drug abuse and addiction. The addict, while perhaps driven by his addiction to crime, is not in and of him/herself a criminal. Addiction is an illness, something to be rehabilitated and cured, rather than punished. It needs to be treated holistically, with patience and understanding. So long as the laws in this country continue to focus on treating addicts as criminals, locking them in overcrowded prisons rather than offering them help, we will continue to flounder. We will continue to fight, yes, but we will continue to lose.