The war on drugs, declared by President Richard Nixon in 1971, is a failed attempt at protecting the people of America from the harms of intoxicating substances. Though surely it was meant to save lives and improve the health of our society, the effect has been opposite, the prohibition policies on which the war on drugs is built cost tens of thousands of lives and billions of dollars each year. Though the laws against the possession, use and sale of drugs had already been in place for years, the comprehensive drug abuse prevention and control act of 1970 marked the legislative beginnings of the war on drugs, categorizing (and often miscategorizing) drugs based on their potential for abuse and medical uses.
There never really was much logical thought behind the war on drugs. President Nixon came up with the idea, and he was motivated mostly by fear and preconceived prejudice that anyone who uses drugs must be harmful to society. He never considered any other measures than making more prohibition laws and throwing money into their enforcement.
The worst part about the war on drugs is that it kills tens of thousands of Americans every year. Surprisingly, most drug-related deaths, especially those resulting from drug-related violence, are caused at least in part by drug prohibition. Since the beginning of the war on drugs, drug-related deaths have steadily increased. Every day, there are people killed by drug users, drug users killed by police, police killed by drug users/dealers, drug dealers killing each other in territorial disputes, drug-funded gangs killing each other, deadly riots in prisons overcrowded with drug offenders, and that’s not even considering what’s happening outside U.S. borders. Even more tragic than the deaths of dealers, addicts and inmates are the innocent lives lost in the crossfire- drug dealers and gang members don’t seem to care whether their stray bullets end up lodged in an innocent child’s head. If drugs had never been outlawed, there would be no drug dealers to fight over turf, users would not have the fear of incarceration that drives them to fight the police, law enforcement would have no justifiable grounds to break down random doors and start shooting, and the cartels would never have become so powerful.It seems that the harder our government tries and the more money they spend to enforce drug laws, the more people die. Just as was the case with alcohol prohibition, drug prohibition has inflamed the drug problem by forcing the drug trade underground where it is run by violent criminals.
Violence isn’t the only way the drug war kills. As black market products, there is no standard for quality of drugs, and they are often mixed with toxic chemicals to increase profits. Most heroin overdoses occur because the user must approximate their dosage based on the last time they injected, and it is impossible for them to know the potency of drugs they bought on the street. Pesky customers or suspected informants are often poisoned by dealers. Users die of severe allergic reaction from fillers added by dealers to increase profits. Addicts, some of them prostitutes, spread blood-borne diseases such as HIV and Hepatitis-C because they can’t get clean needles. People jump from buildings because they underestimated the potency of their hallucinogens.
Another deadly consequence of the drug war is the raucous amount of power it gives our government and law enforcement to strip anyone of their civil liberties. For example, Jose Guerena Ortiz, a US marine combat veteran who suffered from PTSD, was fired upon 71 times in front of his wife and toddler by a SWAT team who broke down his door because he was “suspected of involvement in drug trafficking,” although nothing illegal was found in his home and to this day there is no evidence that Ortiz had ever been involved in any illegal activities. Because of the fear tactics our government has used to weaken our civil liberties in exchange for protection from the underground drug culture which they created, senseless murders like this go unpunished, and will continue to occur. None of the officers involved in the slaying of Ortiz have been disciplined, they are still out there kicking down whatever doors they please, brandishing the license to kill that is the drug war.
As if the roughly 16,000 deaths it causes per year were not a high enough price to deem the drug war counterproductive, consider the financial cost- at least $52.3 billion per year (Richardson). That’s $21.9 billion spent by federal and state governments on drug law enforcement, then another $30.4 billion on incarcerating drug offenders. One would think that for all this money, we would be making some progress, but the truth is that the trillions of dollars we have spent over the past four decades have been wasted. Drug use, addiction and sales have increased by almost every possible measure. Even worse than the monetary cost is the millions of nonviolent drug offenders wasting their lives in prison on the taxpayers’ dime. 55% of federal prison inmates are there for drug offenses, and we paid law enforcement to hunt down and arrest every one of them. Coincidentally, $52.3 billion is only a couple billion dollars short of the estimated yearly cost of universal health care (Richardson). This means that we are allowing sick and injured citizens to die so that we can fund an uphill battle that victimizes and often kills our own countrymen.
The fact is that there will always be demand for drugs in this country, and where there is demand supply will follow. Before they were illegal “street drugs”, marijuana, cocaine, heroin and amphetamines were over-the-counter medicines available at any drug store. Before coca-cola was America’s most famous soft drink, it was a medicinal cocaine solution that could be bought in a pharmacy. The prohibition of drugs not only caused the value of drugs to skyrocket, it stigmatized what had been medicine as dangerous intoxicants, spurring even more demand from young people, kickstarting the illegal drug trade.
Our only hope to remedy our nation’s drug problem is to legalize everything. Although decriminalization has improved situations in other countries, it only solves half of the problem by keeping drug offenders out of jail. The real danger of drugs is the outlaw culture that surrounds them. If we legalized drugs and regulated their sale and usage, the drug dealers would be put out of business, and demand for illegal drugs of questionable composition and potency would disappear.
“A Radical Solution to End the Drug War: Legalize everything” by John H. Richardson