“Once brave politicians and others explain the War on Drugs’ true cost, the American people will scream for a cease-fire. Bring the troops home, people will urge. Treat drugs as a health problem, not as a matter for the criminal justice system.”
~ Larry Elder, lawyer and radio/television personality – the “Sage of South Central”
In 1969, President Richard Nixon formally declared a “War on Drugs” that would focus efforts on the eradication, interdiction, and incarceration of people who possessed, manufactured, or dealt drugs.
Two years later, in a message to the Congress on Drug Abuse Prevention and Control, he referred to drug abuse as “public enemy number one” and talked about the allocation of more federal resources toward the “prevention of new addicts, and the rehabilitation of those are addicted“.
Unfortunately, that second message did not get as much media attention as the first, and for the last two generations, millions of Americans who could have benefited from timely intervention and compassionate treatment for their disease of addiction were instead arrested and incarcerated, sometimes for the rest of their lives.
Let’s take a look at some of the shortcomings of the War on Drugs:
Why the “War on Drugs” Needs a New Strategy
“Our programs cannot be judged on the fulfillment of quotas and other bureaucratic indexes of accomplishment. They must be judged by the number of human beings who are brought out of the hell of addiction, and by the number of human beings who are dissuaded from entering that hell.”
~ President Richard Nixon, in his original message to the Congress on Drug Abuse Prevention and Control
No one can deny that drug abuse is a major cause of social dysfunction:
- Disease, Disability, and Death
- Addiction and Overdose
- Healthcare Costs
- Loss of Productivity
- Domestic Violence
- Child Abuse and Neglect
- Accidents Due to Impaired Driving
So, from the start, the intent of the War on Drugs was positive. But has it actually achieved anything?
Opponents of the War on Drugs say that it will one day be looked at the same way the Prohibition of Alcohol was in the 1920s – a counter-productive, antiquated policy that was doomed to failure from the start. After all, criminalizing alcohol did not solve the intended problem. In fact, it seems as if the War has targeted people, rather than the product or the problem.
Let’s take a look at some real information:
- A 2013 study published in the British Medical Journal concluded, “These findings suggest that expanding efforts at controlling the global illegal drug market to law enforcement are failing.”
- Drug manufacturers have responded to law enforcement efforts by lowering prices and increasing purity, thereby ensuring customer demand, even in the face of incarceration. Between 1990 and 2007:
- The price of heroin fell by 81%, while purity increased by 60%.
- The price of cocaine fell by 80%, while purity increased by 11%.
- The price of cannabis fell by 86%, while purity increased by 161%.
- Every 25 seconds in the United States, someone is arrested for drug possession.
- More than 1 out of every 9 arrests by state law enforcement officers is for drug possession.
- In 2014, more than 73,000 people were in state prisons and local jails for drug possession.
- 2010-2015, 75% of individuals convicted of felony drug possession in Florida had little to no prior criminal history, yet 84% went to jail or prison.
- In 2015, 1 out of every 16 people in custody in New York was there because of drug possession.
- 2012-2016, 1 out of every 11 people in custody in Texas were there for drug possession.
- As of September 2016, over 46% of prison inmates were there because of drug offenses. That equates to 83,609 people.
Here’s the most telling statistic – up to 65% of the almost SEVEN MILLION people who are incarcerated in the local jail, state or federal prison, or on probation/parole meet or have met the medical criteria for a substance abuse disorder.
And, when you factor in those individuals who have a personal history of substance abuse, were impaired by drugs or alcohol when the crime was committed, committed a crime to get money for drugs, or who were imprisoned for an alcohol/drug violation, the number rises again – to around 85%.
Yet, only around 11% of prisoners with addictive disorders ever receive any sort of drug or alcohol treatment during their incarceration.
In fact, according to a report by the Government Accountability Office, there are more prisoners on the waiting list to enter drug rehabilitation or educational programs than are actually enrolled in such programs. For example:
- In 2011, there were 31,803 inmates enrolled in programs such as the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ Residential Drug Abuse Program, but more than 51,000 inmates on waiting lists.
- Inmates who complete the Residential Drug Abuse Program receive a one-year reduction in their symptoms, but the waiting list is so long that only 25% of graduates were able to enter the program with at least a year left on their sentence.
Susan E. Foster, Vice President and Director of Policy Research and Analysis at the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, said:
“States complain mightily about their rising prison costs, yet they continue to hemorrhage public funds that could be saved if they provided treatment to inmates with alcohol and other drug problems and stepped-up use of drug courts and prosecutorial drug treatment alternative programs.”
The Financial Costs of the War on Drugs
The financial cost of the War on Drugs is staggering – globally, it is estimated that enforcement costs $100 BILLION a year. Over the last 40 years, the United States has spent more than $1 TRILLION on drug law enforcement. Currently, around $15 BILLION is spent annually on federal drug control in America.
And for all of that expenditure, there are diminishing returns – for example, in 1980, Washington State could expect $9 in benefits to society for every $1 that was spent incarcerating drug offenders. Now, because of the sheer number of inmates, Washington realizes only 37¢ of actual societal benefit for every dollar spent.
It costs at least $30,000 a year to incarcerate an inmate, but only $11,665 is spent per public school student, on average.
On the flip side, however, a 2008 report put out by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration Center for Substance Abuse Prevention determined that effective education and prevention programs could, if implemented nationwide, save an estimated $18 for every $1 invested.
At the end of the day, perhaps the question that should be asked should echo the one made by President Juan Manuel Santos – “So are we going to continue 50 years more? Or are there better alternatives?”
So Where Should the War on Drugs Go from Here?
“This issue touches every family and every community in one way or another. There are millions of Americans – including myself – who are in successful long-term recovery from a substance use disorder. This policy supports each and every one of us and demonstrates a real commitment to a smarter, more humane approach to drug policy in the 21st century.”
~ Michael Botticelli, Acting Director, National Drug Control Policy
Jail time doesn’t help drug addicts overcome their disease. What it does do is burden taxpayers the cost of enforcement and incarceration. What’s worse, that cost is paid without doing a single thing towards helping the addict.
Until the demand for illicit drugs subsides, it will be hard to achieve a conclusive victory in the War on Drugs. And the only real and lasting way to reduce that demand is by (A) early and effective educational and intervention programs designed at preventing drug abuse and addiction before it happens, and (B), treating those individuals who are already suffering from an addictive disorder.
Are such programs effective?
To answer that question, one only has to look at the success enjoyed by drug courts around the country that offer treatment as an alternative to punishment:
- Across the country, 75% of graduates of drug court stay arrest-free for two years or more.
- Drug courts can reduce crime as much as 45%, compared to other sentencing options.
- Offenders in drug court are six times more likely to stay in treatment.
- Overall, recidivism can be reduced by up to 26%.
For perhaps the first time in US history, lawmakers are committing to taking the right steps. In July 2016, President Barack Obama signed into law the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act of 2016, which is intended to focus on America’s drug problem by providing grants for individual communities facing drug abuse crises, thereby enabling those communities to increase the availability of treatment and overdose programs.
Senator Rob Portman of Ohio said:
“This is a historic moment, the first time in decades that Congress has passed comprehensive addiction legislation, and the first time Congress has ever supported long-term addiction recovery. This is also the first time that we’ve treated addiction like the disease that it is, which will help put an end to the stigma that has surrounded addiction for too long.”