Why Fight an Epidemic with a War?
In 1971, citizens and governmental figures, including the President of the United States, saw a huge drug addiction problem on the rise. President Nixon thus declared a “War on Drugs”. Immediately, he increased the governmental anti-drug power, although there was much resistance at first. Then, during the Reagan Era, crack cocaine gained a powerful presence and everyone’s knee-jerk reaction was to prohibit everything. And now, 45 years later, so many costs and resources have been spent to combat the drugs with prohibition that those costs seem to even outweigh the pros of the war. On top of that, the drug war has also unintentionally caused many contradictory consequences, including making drug addiction rates higher than they have ever been and making drugs extremely profitable towards violent, drug-running cartels. Due to the fact that it causes more harm than good, the United States’ War on Drugs must come to an end, and new strategies must be sought out, in order to effectively counter today’s drug addiction epidemic.
The War on Drugs has been a 45-year prohibition strategy to eliminate the presence of drugs around the world. Prohibition is the act of eliminating all production, consumption, manufacturing, transportation, and sale of a particular product. It is the hope that this type of wholesale ban on all narcotics will one day render drugs nonexistent around the world, and therefore there will be no drug addiction and no drug-related crimes. The War on Drugs in America has fought by using governmental legislative policy to create and enforce these prohibition laws against narcotics for years, and it does not seem like this process will come to an end anytime soon.
The war has been fought primarily through the government enacting legislation that seems to closely resemble military operations. As Jelani Cobb explains in his New Yorker article, “A Drawdown to the War on Drugs”:
The war on drugs has been a multitiered campaign that has enlisted legislation, private-sector initiatives, executive-branch support, and public will. But it actually looks like a war, with military-style armaments, random violence, and significant numbers of people taken prisoner. It has been prosecuted throughout eight Administrations and has had the type of social and cultural impact that few things short of real warfare do. (Cobb)
No matter how one may feel about the drug war, there is no argument that the drug policy legislation enacted by the government, especially in America, has had a large cultural impact. People, therefore, develop strong, even largely emotional-based opinions about drug policy, and is why individuals can very easily just take an either all-or-nothing approach to dealing with drugs. But, the fact that drug policy has the same level of effects on society as does war in many cases is precisely why many solutions to the drug epidemic, besides prohibition, for example, must be considered.
Despite how heroic an all-out ban on drugs from a government that enacts powerful legislative acts equal to that of military actions, there have been serious negative effects caused by the drug war. In the Wall Street Journal article, “Have We Lost the War on Drugs?”, Gary S. Becker and Kevin M. Murphy say that:
President Richard Nixon declared a “war on drugs” in 1971. The expectation then was that drug trafficking in the United States could be greatly reduced in a short time through federal policing—and yet the war on drugs continues to this day. The cost has been large in terms of lives, money and the well-being of many Americans, especially the poor and less educated. By most accounts, the gains of the war have been modest at best. (Becker and Murphy)
The War on Drugs enacted by the US government has indeed had profound effects since the 1970’s, only they have been unintentional and adverse costs and effects. And to add salt to the wound, drug trafficking has been greatly increased rather than greatly reduced. Yet, the war still continues. This is most likely due to the fact that most people do not know enough about the war to care and the politicians in power who do care are far too emotional when employing anti-drug policies. Either way, the cons of the war are seemingly endless and even have outweighed nearly any possible pros of the war.
The war has also cost countries billions of dollars and drug addiction rates are higher than they have ever been. Kofi Annan, the previous UN secretary-general, in his Huffington Post article, “Why I’m Calling an End to the War on Drugs”, says the drug war has failed. Claiming that the drug war has cost at least $100 billion, Annan also states that around 300 million people use illegal drugs worldwide today. He says that its illicit global market of $330 billion makes it one of the largest global commodities today. The fact that the former UN secretary-general who received the 2001 Nobel Peace Prize says that the war has failed simply due to the costs means this fact should not be taken lightly. Also, even though he does claim the same population of the US uses illegal narcotics globally, he doesn’t mention the fact that over 24 million people shoot up unlawfully in America itself, according to the “Nationwide Trends” of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. A large portion of this huge population of drug users have also been arrested since the act is illegal, which has greatly contributed to another problem in American society – the prison overpopulation crisis.
Since drug offenses are treated as crimes rather than afflictions, the War on drugs has greatly contributed to the US prison system becoming grossly congested over the years as well. So much so, that according to the BBC News article “World Prison Populations’, the current incarceration rate in America is greater than any other countries in the world, at 2 million people, which is about 500,000 more prisoners than that of China in second place. In fact, one in FIVE Americans who were in jail were imprisoned due to non-violent drug offenses in 2016, according to Peter Wagner and Bernadette Rabuy article, “Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2016”. They both claim that “The American criminal justice system holds more than 2.3 million people in 1,719 state prisons, 102 federal prisons, 942 juvenile correctional facilities, 3,283 local jails”. Those are some horrendously ridiculous numbers that take very large sums of American tax dollars to manage as well. One would think the US would do whatever it can to keep those numbers down, but sometimes emotion overtakes logic, especially when it comes to drug policy.
On top of that, the war on drugs furthermore fuels the assumption that some have that many or most people of color are in possession of drugs. Especially in the US, police often racially profile poor citizens and minorities, due to the fact that drug trade is often present in more run-down urban areas. Asha Bandele wrote in her New York Times article, “Jay Z: The War on Drugs is an Epic Fail”’, that “…African-Americans can make up around 13 percent of the United States’ population – yet 31 percent of them are arrested for drug law violations, even though they use and sell drugs at the same rates as whites”. Not only does the prohibition strategy of the drug war fuel the possession of drugs for blacks and whites, and this sad assumption of many officers and other citizens, it also has led to the mass incarceration of mostly minorities in the US as well.
The drug war not only has greatly contributed to the overflowing of the American prison system, but it greatly works against the country that is prohibiting the drugs in the long run too. In Randy Paige’s “Interview with Milton Friedman on the Drug War”, Milton Friedman says in response to Paige’s first question about his opinion on the legalization of narcotics:
I see America with half the number of prisons, half the number of prisoners, ten thousand fewer homicides a year, inner cities in which there’s a chance for these poor people to live without being afraid for their lives, citizens who might be respectable who are now addicts not being subject to becoming criminals in order to get their drug, being able to get drugs for which they’re sure of the quality. You know, the same thing happened under prohibition of alcohol as is happening now. (Friedman)
If the United States wishes to terminate these short and long-term issues permanently, the government must stretch its imagination beyond the simple, emotion-based strategy that is prohibition. After all, there were profound negative effects to the country during the prohibition of alcohol, and as soon as it was lifted, violence over the product stopped, the country made money thanks to taxation, and the mobs based on the smuggling of alcohol stopped making money almost immediately.
Despite all of this, there are still many countries today that believe doubling down on prohibition by rallying others to their cause and spending even more resources is the answer to effectively combating the drug epidemic, according to the article “The Secret of World-Wide Drug Prohibition” by Harry G. Levine. However, after Mexico tried a full measure like this in the mid-2000s, it was apparent this would not work. The cartels have only increased their own fanatically violent drug distribution agenda in the years since. The New York Times author José Luis Pardo Veiras, who wrote the article “A Decade of Failure in the War on Drugs”, describes the downside of the war on drugs in Mexico. He explains that after 2006 Mexican President Felipe Calderon declared all-out war on drugs in the streets, the murder rate has doubled and cartel operations have greatly expanded dramatically since. Veiras then says that Mexico needs to reevaluate its drug policy and perhaps search for other solutions, such as decriminalization since it has worked for other countries. It really was a valiant effort by the Mexican president, but it has led to nothing but even more chaos, in both Mexico and America. This “fight-fire-with-fire” strategy was far too emotional on Mexico’s part – the idea, going forward for all countries is now to be more tactical, considering the damage that has been done as evident in Mexico.
Luckily, there are far less emotion-based, alternative long-term objective solutions to prohibition that have been proven to effectively halt the drug epidemic, most of which involve employing the opposite strategy of prohibition. First, there is decriminalization, which lessens the penalty of drug-related crimes but doesn’t necessarily make the drugs legal. Next, there is legalization, which eliminates all criminal penalties and encourages governmental drug regulation and is the exact opposite of prohibition. Lastly, there is rehabilitation, which is therapeutic medical treatment for those who are addicted. There are a lot of other tactics, but typically they fall under and go along with these three general strategies.
The decriminalization of drugs could possibly work, but still doesn’t quite eliminate the business of cartels. Decriminalization makes it to where all economic dealings become legal but does not affect personal consumption. Don Winslow, an author and news reporter, who has spent 15 years on the Mexican-American border, says in his CNN article, “America’s War on Drugs is Empowering Mexico’s Drug Cartels”, that seizures, sales, and imports of marijuana in the US have been halted dramatically since many states have decriminalized it. Unfortunately, Winslow says that as a result of cannabis not making the money it used to, the cartels have resorted to greatly increasing their operations involving the unwarranted shipment of crack, meth, and heroine sevenfold. And on top of that, there is still some money made off of marijuana. Perhaps this means decriminalization is too much of a half-measure in turning away from prohibition. Maybe something much more prevalent, like a full-measure such as complete national legalization, is to be called into play in order to thoroughly stamp out the drug problem.
Moving towards the legalization of drugs would be a much more ideal way to end the drug trade and the addiction problem that plagues America. Legalization is where adults can consume, buy, and possess a product. The sale of the product, especially in the case of narcotics, is heavily regulated and controlled and often is restricted at times in some cases. In the article “Drug Legalization – A Guide to the Arguments and Facts”, Peter Guither says that the
Legalization of drugs is fully compatible with regulatory efforts restricting access to children, forbidding use while driving or while working in safety-sensitive jobs, banning use in certain locations or situations, controlling the means for manufacture and distribution (including taxation and labeling), and creating standards for purity and potency. (Guither)
Legalization would lead to the safe and regulated use of currently illegal drugs, which would result in fewer deaths, less violence, the cartels losing money, and the government would make money due to taxation. However, in order to truly ensure that this tactic would work, institutions dedicated to helping cure those who are addicted to drugs would need to be opened.
Rehabilitation would be the second part of completely eliminating the drug epidemic after legalization, which would help those in need of a cure to addiction. And even if it wasn’t combined with legalization it would still be quite effective. Mark A.R. Kleiman, Jonathan P. Caulkins, and Angela Hawken in the jointly-written Wall Street Journal article, “Rethinking the War on Drugs”, say there are more ways than legalization and prohibition to combat the drug trade. They say together that rehabilitation programs may simply be the answer to the huge incarceration and self-harm rates. After all, people who use drugs aren’t inherently just junkies who are lazy and harm themselves and others, they are simply fellow human beings with a problem they need help to fix – they are essentially sick people who need help and must be treated rather than punished.
Many other countries have resorted to legalizing all drugs and opening countless rehabilitation centers to counteract the drug epidemic, which has thus improved their situations significantly more than prohibition has. For example, in Switzerland, “innovative policy of providing drug addicts with free methadone and clean needles has greatly reduced deaths while cutting crime rates” (Nebehay). The drug problem has been completely slashed in Switzerland, whilst even providing to the European economy, due to a sudden shift in the country’s attitude. According to Nebehay, the country began this strategy when a few years ago, “Swiss authorities authorized experiments such as syringe exchange programs and safe injection rooms offering a shower, bed and hygienic conditions under medical supervision”. Since extraordinary reductions in the likeliness of death were projected from this series of experiments, the Swiss government enacted to put this policy in full effect, while also providing rehabilitation centers for the addicted. Since emotion was not a factor any longer, victims of drug addiction were treated as sick patients, rather than criminals – and thus, things have improved greatly for the Swiss.
In the same article, Nebehay says that now 70 percent of all opioid users in Switzerland receive treatment thanks to the enacted legalization and rehabilitation combination strategy. She also says that HIV and overdose mortality ratings have dropped over 50 percent in the last decade, along with a great reduction in delinquent drug use. As well, Nebehay states that doctors have recommended 60 percent of those being treated for addiction. It appears there have been nothing but positive effects from the legalization/rehabilitation strategy that are even still improving to this day. This is simply because their drug crisis was treated as a harm reduction policy for neighbors in need, rather than a hardline policy for criminals of wrongdoing.
Perhaps the 2019 G20 meeting involving drugs moving all the way up to 2016 represents a shift to the likeness of Switzerland’s attitude towards the War on Drugs. Josh Zepps interviews Johann Hari in the 2016 Center for Inquiry podcast, Johann Hari: The Beginning of the End of the War on Drugs, where the baseline of their discussion is the act of the UN General Assembly’s special session on drugs moving back from 2019 to 3 years earlier. Mexico and 95 other countries needed to move it up due to the many, many problems the drug “epidemic” has been causing, which Hari believes to be the sign of a major shift in a negative perception of the drug war. Hari predicts that many of these countries will begin to put pressure on the US to end the drug war and use different, more humane tactics when dealing with drugs. Hari believes that perhaps this will turn UN drug summit conversations into a global discussion about the regulation and criminalization of drugs. This is a much-needed change in the opinions of those in power. 95-countries calling an emergency meeting move-up is progress, but it is only a start. If the international community, including the US, is to truly solve the drug problem, they must go all in with changing tactics together, if the epidemic is to be truly stamped out for good.
The Drug War needs to come to an end now, and those who are addicted must be looked upon as patients who need to be treated, rather than as criminals. After all, drug addiction is an affliction, not a crime. It should be treated as an epidemic, rather than a crime wave. The war has been nothing but a short-sighted, overly emotional attempt to eradicate substances that will always exist and to punish addicts as if they were mindless animals without any self-control. As a result, even more drugs exist and even more people are addicted. The solution carrying forward should be a logic, sound, and tactical one that gives people the right to choose what to do with their lives. The minute that freedom is taken away, is the same moment all individuals involved lose their humanity since it turns men against one other. There are far too many instances of men fighting each other, and mankind could use one less reason to fight itself. So now, it is time for the people in power to rise up and help these people in need, since the ability to come together and work together is what makes one human after all. It is an epidemic that people should be working together to cure, not just another war they should be fighting amongst themselves. It is time to come together, for better or worse.
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