The societal harm of the War on Drugs


By Alex Cocanig, Opinions columnist

Prohibition of drugs in the United States dates back over 100 years and continues to remain a hot-button issue today. Later this month, the United Nations will host a summit in New York to discuss the War on Drugs, which has been an ongoing effort by most countries of the world to reduce, eliminate or combat the undesirable illicit market for controlled substances. Since President Nixon coined the phrase “War on Drugs” in 1971, domestic and international attitudes toward drug use have evolved constantly.

In the United States, prohibitionary drug laws gained the most strength during the Reagan administration, which passed the Anti-Drug Abuse act in 1986, granting over $1.7 billion in funding to fighting the War on Drugs. It also passed mandatory minimum sentencing and asset forfeiture laws for those convicted of drug-related crimes.

Internationally, the U.N. met in 1998 and agreed that a drug-free world was a viable and feasible goal for global leaders.

Nearly 20 years later, the U.N. will meet again regarding the worldwide effort to fight drugs, but with a very different attitude and perhaps a motive to go back to the drawing board — or even throw out the figurative board altogether.

This is because the War on Drugs has failed on almost all of its original objectives since 1970. It has not eliminated drug use, let alone consistently reduced the number of users. Similarly, the drug war has dramatically increased prison populations to alarming highs and in effect created an underclass of people burdened by lingering criminal records. Lastly, the cost of the War on Drugs represents a $52 billion annual expenditure for the government that comes out of Americans’ tax dollars, translating to over $1 trillion since its inception over 45 years ago; amounting to over 5 percent of the current $19.2 trillion debt.

    Sign up for our newsletter!

    According to research from the University of Michigan, drug use among those in 12th grade peaked in 1978, with over 52 percent of students admitting they had tried “any illicit drug.” The same numbers dipped to an all-time low in 1991, with just over 27 percent having given illicit drugs a try.

    One could argue the Reagan-era laws were effective in that drug use was reduced; however, even at the lowest point, over one in four persons still admitted to using illicit drugs. Though most changes in the data are steady, the most recent data suggests that drug use is on the rise, increasing to more than 40 percent of 12th grade students from 2007 to 2011.

    In beginning the drug war, Nixon and especially his more conservative successors made drug-related crimes federal offenses. Many convictions for mere possession resulted in felony prison sentences and more serious crimes like dealing or trafficking came with even longer sentences, sometimes exceeding a decade.

    The prison population has exploded as a result of mandatory minimum sentencing laws. The Federal Bureau of Prisons states that over 46 percent of all federal inmates are serving sentences for drug-related offenses, as of Feb. 2016. This figure does not include any local, state or non-federal penitentiaries, such as Cook County Jail in Chicago.

    According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the total number of people incarcerated at all prisons amounts to nearly seven million, representing almost 3 percent of the nation’s adult population, or 1 in 36 adults.

    Mass incarceration of Americans as a result of the War on Drugs has disproportionately affected minorities, particularly African Americans. According to the Seattle Medium, of all people sent to state prisons, 62 percent are African American, despite representing only 12 percent of the total population of the United States.

    Similarly, in many southern states such as Louisiana or South Carolina, African Americans exceed 69 percent of prison populations, which could likely be attributed to how they are sent to state and federal prisons at 13 and 57 times the rate of whites, respectively.

    The problem is significant enough to question the original motives and goals of drug war architects. Whatever those motives on the surface were, recently surfaced evidence suggests a much deeper, disturbing reasoning for starting the War on Drugs.

    Alex in senior in LAS. 

    [email protected]