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Failure from the Start: The War on Drugs
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Failure from the Start: The War on Drugs

In 1971, President Richard Nixon declared the start of the so-called “War on Drugs.”

The War on Drugs is the collective of prohibitionist federal campaigns and programs with the intent of curbing drug production, arresting users and dealers, and reducing the overall amount of drugs present in the streets of the United States.

Over the past forty-five years, even after billions of dollars expended on the criminal justice apparatus at all levels of government, drug addiction and drug crime still remain a great problem in modern American society. Today, yet another opioid epidemic is ravaging the American Midwest, especially Illinois and Ohio and cocaine usage still remains at an all-time high.

Regardless of the intentions of politicians that supported the Drug War in the 1970’s, it is imperative that the politicians of 2017 and beyond scale down or end what I dubbed in my first article “a failed and destructive federal campaign.”

War: What’s it good for?

From the Libertarian perspective, war and conflict have only been truly good for one entity: the state.

Our nation’s history has proven, time and time again, that war or conflict only serves to strengthen the massive, bureaucratic machine in Washington D.C.

Let’s use an example from the early 20th century. Before World War I, federal spending was $713 million and by 1919, it had increased dramatically to $19 billion. Why the dramatic increase? To prosecute the war in Europe, President Woodrow Wilson had to expand the scope, reach, and power of the federal government. In doing so, he created a multitude of federal agencies and organizations, including the Fuel Administration, Food Administration, War Industries Board, etc.

Whether it was a World War, another World War, a Cold War, or a “War on Terror,” the cycle of the federal establishment’s response is always the same and sadly predictable.

A war or conflict erupts (Pearl Harbor or 9/11) and in response, the Federal government spends more in order to fund existing agencies or to create new executive agencies to handle the new threat. The War on Drugs is unfortunately no different. The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) was created under the Nixon Administration and the federal government has spent more than a trillion dollars over the past forty-five years waging an unwinnable, deadly war against drug addiction.

In the context of the War on Drugs, the outward, tangible evidence of the state’s growing authoritarianism is not necessarily the existence of federal drug interdiction agencies, such as the DEA, but the militarization of local police forces. Long gone is the image of the community peacekeeper; today, the vast majority of municipalities and counties across the country have a Special Weapons and Tactics Team (SWAT), courtesy of federal money.

“It would appear that the War on Drugs has haphazardly morphed into a war on civil liberties.”

Between 2002 and 2011 the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) disbursed approximately $35 billion in grants to state and local police to purchase high-caliber, high capacity rifles, riot gear, body armor, grenade launchers, and armored personnel carriers; through the Pentagon, police departments can also receive surplus military gear.

It’s no surprise that the modern police officer is resembling more of a soldier in combat.

The federal government’s decision in the 1970s to label federal anti-drug efforts as an “offensive” or “war” has in turn led to the adoption of a militaristic, adversarial attitude toward a major socio-political issue. In my opinion, the augmentation of the combat and offensive capabilities of our nation’s local and state police forces has turned modern American municipalities into potential war zones. Furthermore, and most importantly, this augmentation of police firepower has been disastrous for civil liberties.

It would appear that the War on Drugs has haphazardly morphed into a war on civil liberties. The steady erosion of the Fourth amendment has sped up in recent years, courtesy of “no-knock warrants” deemed necessary to prosecute the War on Drugs. “No-knock warrants” allow law enforcement agents to enter a property without prior notification of the residents, in order to reduce the possibility of evidence or contraband destruction and to reduce threats to entering law enforcement.

There are many stories of ordinary Americans dehumanized by entering police officers, injured, or killed by officers during the execution of these special warrants:

  1. The most recent and infamous example involved the burning of a 19-month old toddler by a flash grenade used by police executing a “no-knock” drug raid in 2014.
  2. In 2009, San Antonio police kicked in the front door of Lindsey Bishop and Carolyn Clark, a Lesbian couple. They were accused of manufacturing and selling methamphetamines. However, after a thorough search of their home, the police could find no evidence of a meth lab. After a series of appeals, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans found that the San Antonio police’s actions in the Bishop and Clark case violated the couple’s Fourth Amendment rights against illegal search and seizure.
  3. In 2006, Atlanta police accidentally raided the wrong home and shot the homeowner to death. The homeowner had fired one shot at police after assuming she was the victim of a home invasion. In a shameful attempt to cover up the botched drug raid, the police then planted marijuana in her house. The victim? 92-year old Kathryn Johnson.

Of course, there are countless other stories of ordinary Americans, from across the country, whose Fourth Amendment rights were violated in the name of stamping our drug addiction and drug crime.

America: “Land of the Free?”

The police are only one aspect of the criminal justice apparatus. Let’s not forget about the U.S. prison system. The prison system has also undergone major changes due to the War on Drugs. The most glaring and unfortunate change has occurred in the prison population.

Today, the “Land of the Free,” incarcerates the highest number of people in the world; the United States is unfortunately a perpetrator of the phenomenon known as “mass incarceration.”

As of December 31, 2011, the prison population was 2.24 million, which accounted for approximately 22 percent of the global prison population, which was around 10.2 million prisoners. Today, the number of incarcerated in the U.S. is closer to 2.3 million.

According to statistics from the Cato Institute, the rate of incarceration shot up by 600 percent, after the commencement of the Drug War under the Nixon Administration in 1971. Today, approximately half of those incarcerated in federal prisons are there for drug offenses; around 20 percent of the population of state correctional systems have also been incarcerated for drug offenses.

The proliferation of mandatory minimums and harsher sentencing guidelines for drug offenders on the state and federal levels has led to the dramatic increase in the prison population because more offenders are entering the system, for longer periods of time; the influx of prisoners from the last forty odd years requires more funding to house, feed, clothe, and guard these new offenders.

Data from from the Brookings Institute describes the fiscal effects of the Drug War on correctional systems in the United States:

  • The growth in incarceration has “far outstripped population growth.”
  • Per capita expenditures on corrections more than tripled over the last thirty years as a result of the Drug War.
  • In 1980, the United States, at all levels of government, spent approximately $17 billion dollars on corrections. Compare that to 2010, when the United States spent more than $80 billion dollars on corrections expenditures.

Ending the Drug War would not only help relieve the stress on the prison infrastructure, it would also reduce the strain on the U.S. taxpayer.

Drug Policy Reform: Portuguese Style

It is imperative the United States radically alter its approach to fighting drug addiction and drug use by looking to Portugal’s model.

Portugal was faced with a substance epidemic in the 1980’s and 1990’s. By the turn of the 21st century, approximately 1% of the Portuguese populationaround 100,000 people, was addicted to heroin and AIDS deaths related to drugs were the highest in the European Union. Their initial response, like the United States, was to increase prison sentences for drug-related convictions and to spend more on investigations, interdiction, and prosecutions.

In 2001, Portugal took the alternative route — considered radical at the time — to fully decriminalize all drugs consumed for personal use, including hard drugs such as cocaine and heroin. Decriminalization occurs when criminal penalties are removed from an activity. However, the activity is still an administrative violation; the penalties can include fines and/or community service.

Portugal still prosecutes producers, distributors, and traffickers, but the main difference is how they treat their recreational drug users and addicts. Today, if arrested with less than a 10-day supply of an illicit substance (one gram of heroin, ecstasy, or amphetamine, two grams of cocaine, or 25 grams of marijuana) users are given a citation and summoned before “dissuasion panels,” comprised of medical, psychological, legal, and social experts. Only offenders who make repeat appearances are ordered to undergo treatment, education, and diversion programs.

More than 15 years after decriminalization, Portugal’s alternative methods are yielding encouraging results:

Source: Transform Foundation


Source: Transform Foundation

Lifetime prevalence shows the percentage of people who report drug usage at some point in their life. Past-year prevalence indicates drug usage within the last year. Past-month prevalence indicates drug usage within the last month.

According to the Transform Drug Policy Foundation, the more accurate measurements of current drug use in a country are the past-year prevalence and the past-month prevalence. Among all adults, Portugal has seen a marked decrease in the past-year and past-month prevalence. Among the 15-24 year-olds, who are the most “at risk” for drug usage, Portugal has again seen a marked decrease in past-year and past-month prevalence.

Furthermore, the Portuguese adoption of humanitarian drug policy has also yielded other positive results:

  • Among Portuguese adults, there are 3 drug overdose deaths for every 1,000,000 people. Portugal is more than five times below the European Union’s average of 17.3 deaths per million.
  • In 2001, the year decriminalization occurred, Portugal recorded 80 deaths from drug overdoses. In 2012, Portugal recorded only 16 deaths.
  • The rate of new HIV infections in Portugal has fallen sharply. In 2001, the year decriminalization occurred, Portugal recorded 1,016 cases. In 2012, it recorded only 56 cases.

However, critics rightly argue that ending prosecution of drug users/addicts did not solely yield these positive results. They are entirely right; decriminalization is not a panacea. Portugal’s decriminalization works in conjunction with progressive anti-drug addiction efforts.

In combination with its decriminalization effort, Portugal offers needle replacement facilities to provide clean needles for those using, subsidizes both rehabilitation facilities and employment opportunities for recovering addicts.

To the outside observer, Portugal’s focus is threefold:

  1. Keep its addicts safe when using,
  2. Treat and educate recovering users,
  3. Reintegrate recovered users into society through employment opportunities.

After more than forty years, the United State’s Drug War has proven to be a costly, unmitigated disaster. Isn’t it time to try something new that shows great promise? It’s imperative that we end a campaign that harms society as a whole instead of helping it.

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