The War on Drugs: A Failed Social Policy

Susan P. Robbins, Ph.D., LMSW-ACP

It is somewhat remarkable that at the beginning of the new millennium there are continuing debates about the war on drugs. By all empirical measures, the war on drugs has been one of the most costly, enduring and ineffective social policies ever undertaken in the United States. And yet the war continues, as do the debates, fueled by empty rhetoric and promises of future success that rely on spending more money in ways that have produced failure in the past. In order to evaluate the overall impact of the war on drugs, it is important to examine not only if its stated mission has been achieved, but also the consequences that drug war policies have had on this country and other countries.

Although certain drugs have been under some degree of federal control since the early 1900s, the “War on Drugs” as we know it today, began during Richard Nixon's presidential campaign in 1968 (Baum, 1996). Since that time there have been a myriad of policies enacted with the stated mission of reducing illegal drug use in the U.S. (demand reduction) and stopping the flow of illegal drugs from entering the country (supply reduction). In order to achieve this, the federal government has spent billions of dollars, with a drug war budget that has increased dramatically over the last twenty years, from $1 billion in 1980 to over $19.2 billion in 2001. When combined with state and local monies, annual expenditures on the war on drugs now amount to over $40 billion a year (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1999; Drucker, 1998; Office of National Drug Control Policy, 2000b).

Even though a vast amount of money has been spent to reduce drug use and keep illicit drugs out of this country, the war on drugs has done neither, despite claims to the contrary. In fact, the data indicate that the availability of illicit drugs has not only increased in the last two decades, but the drugs themselves are cheaper and purer than they were twenty years ago (Department of Health and Human Services, 1999; Lindesmith Center, 2000; National Institute of Drug Abuse, 1999; Office of National Drug Control Policy, 1999). In addition, there has been an increase in drug overdose deaths as well as an increase in emergency room drug episodes (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 1996).

Another measure of the ineffectiveness of the war on drugs can be seen in an examination of government data on illicit drug use throughout the 1990s, the period in which governmental expenditures for war on drugs steadily escalated. After an initial and steady rise in illicit drug use among adolescents during the last decade, drug use in this group has fluctuated slightly from year to year (see NIDA, 1998, 1999, 2000), typically with decreases in the use of some drugs accompanied by increases in the use of others. Temporary downward fluctuations have been proclaimed to be proof that the war on drugs is working by those who support current prohibition policies. Careful analyses of these data suggest otherwise, and show that decreases in use of most drugs are relatively minor and are offset by increases in the use of other drugs, as well asoverall increases when viewed longitudinally. For example, although youth in the 8th, 10th and 12th grades showed very minor decreases in the use of most drugs between 1999-2000, a minor increase was seen in the use of hallucinogens other than LSD, “other” narcotics for 12th graders, and larger increases were seen in the use of MDMA (Ecstasy). Likewise, although minor decreases were found in the use of any illicit drug between 1999-2000 (from -.07 to -1.5), the levels of self-reported drug use were still significantly higher in 2000 than in 1991 (+.8.1 to +15.0) (National Institute of Drug Abuse, 2000). The reporting of carefully selected data such as these is used to create the illusion of incremental success in the war on drugs. In reality, drug use waxes and wanes due to a variety of social, cultural and individual factors, although some have argued that the war on drugs has helped to create a more plentiful and less expensive supply of dangerous drugs such as crack (Gray, 1998).

Data from the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse collected annually from 1993 and 1999 show that current illicit drug use rose from 11.7 million in 1993 to 14.8 million in 1999. That said, illicit drug use has decreased for some populations since record high use was reported in the late 70s through early 80s (Walker, 1998). It is a far stretch, however, to attribute this decrease to thewar on drugs, since use also began to steadily increase again, particularly among teenagers, during the 1990s when record amounts of money were spent on drug use prevention and drug interdiction. Some attribute the escalating reports of drug use in the early 80s to the advent of crack, which created open drug markets and disproportionately affected poor and disenfranchised minorities. Inciardi, however, (1992) points out that the crack “epidemic” reported by the media presented a distorted picture of drug use, since powder cocaine was more plentiful and more widely used than crack.

Not surprisingly, marijuana has consistently been the most commonly used illicit drug, accounting for at least four fifths of all current drug use, and with the majority of marijuana users using no other illicit drugs (National Institute of Drug Abuse, 1998. 1999, 2000). Earlier data such as these prompted Baum (1996, p. 126) to observe that: “Were marijuana legal, the country's problem with illegal drugs would shrink to the tiny number of heroin and cocaine users, obviating a federal drug enforcement budget the size of the DEA's.” Drug war rhetoric notwithstanding, the failure to significantly and consistently reduce either casual or steady drug use despite our ever-increasing expenditures led Sweet, a federal judge and former prosecutor, to conclude that “Our present prohibition policy has failed, flatly and without serious question” (Sweet in the National Review, 1996 p. 11).

Data on drug use, however, even when accurately reported and interpreted, are deceptive because they place the focus on use rather than on acute and chronic drug abuse, and the war on drugs has been instrumental in blurring this very important distinction (Benjamin & Miller, 1993; Robbins & Mikow, 2001). As Nadelmann (1996) points out, most drug use results in no harm, and demonizing drug use leads to a host of other problems. Drug abuse and chronic dependence, on the other hand, do create significant problems for the individual user and society at large and many believe that this should be a primary focus of our national drug policy. The economic costs of abuse and chronic dependence can be easily seen in the increased costs of medical care, loss of productivity and death, much of which can be mitigated by referrals to treatment to reduce abuse.

However, current drug policy funding ensures that those who are most in need of treatment are least likely to receive it, despite the fact that treatment upon request has been Federal law since 1988 (see the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988). According to the Office of National Drug Control Policy (2000a), 57% of Americans who need drug treatment receive none. Although some have debated the efficacy of treatment (see Bender & Leone, 1998), an important study by the RAND Drug Policy Research Center found that each dollar invested in drug abuse treatment saves taxpayers more than $7 in societal costs (such as drug related emergency room visits and crime committed to support a drug habit). The study also found that treatment is ten times more effective at reducing cocaine use than interdiction, that it is less expensive than law enforcement, and that treatment reduces demand (see Caulkins, 1998; Rydell & Everingham, 1994). Despite these findings, the Network of Reform Groups (1999) notes that the current 10-year national drug strategy plan fails to make treatment-on-request a reality. This is not surprising, given that approximately two-thirds of the federal budget is allocated for law enforcement and criminal justice initiatives related to the drug war and only one-third of it is spent on treatment and prevention (Massing, 2000). Although there have been modest increases in allocations for treatment and prevention in 2001, the largest percentage increase has been allocated to interdiction and criminal justice (Office of National Drug Control Policy, 2000b).

The abysmal failure in achieving the stated goals of reducing supply and demand is only part of the picture, however. The ever-escalating war on drugs has had a profoundly negative impact on society as a whole in a variety of ways. The prison population grew from 200,000 in 1970 to 1.7 million in 1997, with over 60 percent of federal prisoners being jailed for non-violent drug offenses, many of them first offenses. (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1997). According to Friedman (1998) and Walker (1998), drug prohibition is the major source of the tremendous growth in our prison population.

This has led to a disproportionate imprisonment of minorities, especially Black men, with one out of three either in prison or on some form of supervised release. Current drug policy has been racist in its effect, even if that was not its stated intent and the federal sentencing guidelines that impose differential penalties for crack and powder cocaine have been cited as “the most blatant aspect of bias in the system”(Austin, et al., 2001; Walker, 1998).

The war on drugs not only affects Black men and their families, but the inner cities as well. As Friedman points out (1998), the destruction of the inner city in major metropolitan areas is a direct consequence of drug prohibition. Sellers, who are heavily concentrated in these areas, are involved in stiff competition with one another, and the resulting violencehas left many inner city areas looking like war zones. Children who live in the inner city face some of the greatest dangers of being victims of drug-gang violence Benjamin & Miller, 1993). Inasmuch as one of the arguments used to justify the war on drugs is to “save the children,” the effect appears to be quite the opposite when considering the long term social, economic and cultural impact of our current prohibition policies. In addition, the large amounts of money involved in the illegal drug trade provide a strong inducement to otherwise law-abiding citizens to forgo traditional careers in favor of fast money.

Many who support the current war on drugs cite drug use as being a significant causal factor in crime, replete with images of the crazed drug addict who robs or burglarizes to support his or her habit. Although there are crimes related to drug use, very few burglaries or robberies are drug related (Walker, 1998). Despite the common misperception that drug use causes a significant rise in crime, the relationship between the two is complex and the data do not support this connection. According to Walker, the National Household Survey data show that few who use illicit drugs become addicts or engage in other criminal activity. Quite to the contrary, there is a wealth of data that demonstrates the clear causal link between drug prohibition and crime (Benjamin & Miller, 1993; Gray, 1998), and the rise in crime that occurred with alcohol prohibition is analogous to the rise in crime that has resulted from the war on drugs. Not surprisingly, organized crime plays a central role in the distribution of illicit drugs and the war on drugs has led to a significant rise in organized crime and violence associated with drug dealing (Benjamin & Miller).

Not only does drug prohibition lead to increased crime, but it leads to corruption in law enforcement, the criminal justice system, and interdiction efforts as well. McNamara (1996), points to grave instances of corruption in the police force, the Federal Bureau of Investigations, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and the Coast Guard. He points out that the violence and corruption stem from the competition for illegal profits rather than drug use itself and notes that “the drug war is as lethal as it is corrupting” (p. 9).

Citing a National Institute of Drug Abuse study, the Network of Reform Groups (1999), notes that 60% of societal costs of illicit drug use are due to drug related crime and the black market. This includes “police, legal and incarceration costs, lost productivity of incarcerated criminals, and victims of crimes, as well as the lost productivity due to drug-related crime careers” (p. 1). Significantly, less than 30% of the societal costs were found to be caused by the effects of ingesting the drugs themselves. The authors conclude that “our failing War on Drugs actually creates the majority of costs our communities pay when considering illegal drugs” (p. 1).

There are numerous other negative effects of the war on drugs that are unrelated to prisons, crime or corruption that are just as insidious and harmful to our citizens and communities. These deserve a more detailed discussion than is possible in this brief chapter, but merit mention due to their importance. Of major significance is the fact that drug prohibition compounds the harm to the individual user. Friedman (1998) notes that in addition to making drugs dangerously adulterated and more expensive than if they were legally produced, users are forced to associate with criminals to purchase drugs, they are at constant risk of infection from unclean needles (which is responsible for the unnecessary spread of disease), and many must admit to criminally using drugs in order to qualify for treatment. For these reasons,many involved in the drug reform movement are strong advocates of harm reduction strategies which recognize the reality of drug use but seek to limit the harm to the user and society at large that results from drug prohibition. Another facet of this harm that is rarely discussed is the under-treatment of chronic pain by medical doctors who fail to prescribe adequate doses of pain medications to patients with chronic pain due to pressure from the Drug Enforcement Administration (Friedman). Further, the loss of constitutional rights and freedoms has been well publicized in the drug war debate, and is a significant threat to a continued democratic society.

Finally, we must also consider the harm that is done to foreign countries in our quest to solve the drug problem in America. Friedman (1998) points out that the war on drugs has led to instability, loss of wealth and loss of sovereignty in countries like Columbia, Peru and Mexico. A critical examination of the failed war on drugs cannot help but demonstrate that its effects have been far reaching and extremely damaging to our citizens, our communities, our freedoms and to other countries.

As the November Coalition notes, “In thirty years of 'The War On Drugs,' our government hasn't even managed to accomplish even a small reduction in drug dealing and abuse, yet we have spent almost a trillion dollars. ONE TRILLION DOLLARS!” In order to address the very real problems associated with drugs, especially that of acute and chronic drug abuse, we must refocus our efforts and seriously examine a wider and more rational choice of policy options if we are to achieve a more effective allocation of taxpayer dollars. Clearly, it is time to rethink drug policy.


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