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The Failure of the War on Drugs

And how it can be rectified

By Kent PrionPublished 6 years ago 10 min read

The Failure of the War on Drugs and How It Can Be Rectified

On July 14, 1969, Richard Nixon made a speech to Congress, identifying drugs as a serious national threat. Additionally, he called for federal and state anti-drug policy. Nearly two years later Richard Nixon officially declares a “war on drugs,” similar to L.B.J. ‘s (Lyndon B. Johnson) “war on poverty.” Reasons cited for his new “public enemy No. 1” were the increase in crime and juvenile arrest rates from 1960 to 1967. A little over two years later, the DEA is formed in an attempt to coordinate all other agencies in the new war on drugs (Timeline: America’s War on Drugs). With the sixties nearing their close, it seemed that society, at least some fringe groups, had embraced various drugs. For example, at the fringes of the anti-Vietnam War protests, marijuana and lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) was used. Richard Nixon needed a way to deal with the vehemently anti-Vietnam War protesters, as well as the black community, which Nixon had a horrible track record with. The solution that his administration came up with would later be known as “The War on Drugs.”

By linking the general Vietnam War protester and the black voter who didn’t support Nixon and his well known racist comments with so-called “dangerous” drug use such as marijuana and LSD, he could make an argument which criminalized being anti-Vietnam War and black, without actually targeting the demographics themselves, but rather the lies or exaggerated truths which Nixon and his administration spun. A decade after the Nixon administration, the Reagan administration continued the war on drugs. The First Lady, Nancy Reagan, even started the famous “Just Say No” campaign, stating that “drugs are a threat to a children,” even while drug use trends had been decreasing, especially among juveniles and young adults (CNN: 1986: Nancy Reagan’s Just Say No Campaign 2014 ; Drugs & Crime Data 2012). Now that we’ve been over the beginnings of The War on Drugs, we can ask whether or not said movement has been effective. While this may seem like a trivial question, it’s rather difficult to delineate. For example, do we measure the success of The War on Drugs based on the rate of drug use, the demand/supply of drugs, drug addiction rates or something completely different or otherwise? As one may have surmised by now, any answer to the question “Has The War on Drugs been successful?” must contain some degree of nuance.

If we define the successfulness of The War on Drugs as the change in the drug addiction rate in the United States, it’s had little success. According to The Atlantic, the rate of drug addiction from 1970–2010 vs the US drug control spending via graphical representation shows that, while the United States has spent over $1.5 trillion in drug control expenses (including penitentiary costs, $800 billion excluding those costs), the rate of addiction has virtually remained constant (Dai, 2012). If we measure the success rate in terms of demand/supply, we’ll see that The War on Drugs still hasn’t been successful. According to The New York Times, the cost of one gram of cocaine (as of July 3, 2012 according to the Drug Enforcement Agency’s data) is $177.26. What’s interesting about this is that the price of one gram of cocaine 30 years ago was $223.35, 74% more expensive than what it was in 2012 (Porter, 2012). Cocaine isn’t the only drug that has decreased in price either. Drug prices, in general, seem to be declining. The NDIC in the Hawaii Drug Threat Assessment (National Drug Intelligence Center) has reported that the price of one gram of heroin in 1992 was $600, while the price of one gram of heroin in 2000 was $150-$300. Lastly, to quote the NDIC, “Decreasing heroin prices indicate that heroin is increasingly available in Hawaii,” which would mean that demand is increasing (Hawaii Drug Threat Assessment 2014). If you measure the success rate of The War on Drugs as lower demand/supply of the drug, it’s failing miserably. One may argue that there are metrics which show The War on Drugs to be successful, such as the change in overall drug use. According to a study sponsored by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, there were 25 million drug users in the United States in 1979, an all-time high, which declined to 14.8 million in 1999 (Is the war on drugs succeeding? 2001). By the aforementioned metric, one could argue with limited data and talking points that The War on Drugs is successful in its pursuit, but does this warrant the collateral damage that has happened in the last decades?

To summarize the last paragraph, there are various metrics showing that The War on Drugs isn’t succeeding, while there are only a handful showing that it is succeeding. Additionally, even if one accepts the metrics showing that the war is indeed winning, is the collateral damage worth it? According to the ACLU, the top two private prison companies in the United States raked in nearly $3 billion dollars in 2010 ( Banking on Bondage: Private Prisons and Mass Incarceration 2015). Now, corporations making immense amounts of money isn’t inherently a bad thing, but when the CCA (Corrections Corporation of America), the largest private prison in the United States, is quoted by the Securities and Exchange Commision in their annual report in 2010 as saying, “The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by...leniency or parole standards sentencing practices,” there is a problem. Not only does the federal and state government need to increase their budgets to accommodate unforeseen financial situations, these private institutions also have horrible human rights records. According to ABC News, GEO Group Inc. was cited as violating both International and U.S. law when inmates were subject to verbal abuse, sexual harassment, strip-searches, and poor to non-existent mental and physical healthcare. This isn’t the first time GEO has been found to violate human rights.

If the majority of accepted metrics show that The War on Drugs isn’t succeeding and the ones that due have horrible implications, what other options are there to explore? One such proposal has actually been implemented in various countries: decriminalize the use and/or possession of drugs. In 2001 Portugal decriminalized the use of all previously illicit drugs as well as possession as long as the amount was no more than a typical ten-day amount. Instead of focusing on an incarceration tactic, they opted for a rehabilitation tactic. Sixteen years later, despite concerns from various countries such as the United States and virtually all other countries, the numbers show it’s doing quite well. According to Scientific American, over a span of five years overdose rates dropped from roughly 400 annually to 290, and the number of new HIV cases caused by injecting various drugs dropped from 1,400 in 2000 to roughly 400 in 2006 (Vastag, 2009). If one is caught using or carrying a small amount of any illicit drug, they are sent to a dissuasion commission, where a doctor, lawyer and social worker either, prescribe treatment, charge you with a small fine or come to the conclusion of doing nothing. This is radically different from nearly all other countries, though even the Spokesperson for the United Nation’s Office on Drugs and Crime said Portugal’s drug approach “appears to be working” (Vastag, 2009). Lastly, not only have new HIV cases plummeted and overdose rates gone down, but so have adult use and use by young people in Portugal. According to Business Insider, “The number of adults who have done drugs in the past year has decreased steadily since 2001.” Additionally, another figure from Business Insider, who received their numbers from the European Drug Report, shows that “young people in Portugal use the least amount of legal high drugs, such as synthetic marijuana” (Baer, 2016). While these statistics show that drug decriminalization is effective to some degree, it leaves one problem unaddressed, which is why it doesn’t go far enough.

The final alternative to an incarceration approach I will present is the most controversial and (wrongly) considered the most radical: complete legalization of all drugs. While this may seem like the opposite directional approach towards what may seem intuitive, it’s also the most likely to succeed. We’ve seen the outcomes of decriminalizing all drugs and the numbers show that they are overall better than criminalizing drugs and more successful at The Drug War’s goal than it itself. However, while decriminalization may be successful in a myriad of ways, legalization would be more successful. Not only are more people less likely to use drugs when criminalization is removed, as shown in Portugal’s statistics, legalization can limit or even remove the black market. According to LA Weekly, in the case of the Western United States (Oregon, California, Washington), the more adjacent states that legalize marijuana the less dependent they are on the Californian black market, which is now competing with various businesses in all states (Margolan, 2016). Additionally, LA Weekly stated that legalization could lower the amounts of drugs coming in from Mexico as well, saying that “We’ve already seen decreases in the amount of cannabis imported from Mexico, and that’s a good example on an international level of what we expect to see happen as more states vote yes on the ballot initiatives” (Margolan, 2016). Not only does legalization destroy or at least limit the black market, it also results in massive increases in government money at both the state and federal level which can be used for various things such as drug education, infrastructure, and social programs. According to RAND Drug Policy Research Center for the Office of National Drug Control Policy, the United States drug black market totals roughly $100 billion per year (Kilmer et al., 2014). To put this into perspective via the United States educational budget, if we were to capture 1/10th of the total black market profit, we would have funded nearly a quarter of the amount of money spent in 2016. Not only could this new-found surplus be used to better educate our citizens, it could be used to further lower drug use. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, younger people, especially teenagers, are the most likely to experiment with drugs, especially during transitional times such as moving from middle school to high school. Additionally, the NIDA said that, “When research-based substance use prevention programs are properly implemented by schools and communities, use of alcohol, tobacco, and illegal drugs is reduced” (“Drugs”, 2014). Where decriminalization fails, reducing or removing the black market, legalization succeeds, whether it’s directly or due to implications of legalization.

The War on Drugs has failed by nearly all metrics and decriminalization in Portugal has shown to be much more effective in its goal. However, decriminalization doesn’t go far enough as it allows the black market to continue its lucrative trade. Not only does legalization carry forward the positive impacts of decriminalization such as lower overdose rates, HIV transitions and both young people and adult use, it directly impacts the black market in a negative way. Legalization redirects the profit from criminal syndicates such as the Mexican Cartel towards programs such as drug education, which has been shown to dramatically lower drug use.


Baer, Drake. (2016, April 26). 6 Incredible Things That Happened When Portugal Decriminalized All Drugs. Business Insider. Retrieved March 2, 2016.

Ferner, Matt. (2014, March 13). Americans Spent About A Trillion Dollars On Illegal Drugs In The Last Decade. Huffington Post. Retrieved March 2, 2016.

Kilmer, Beau. (2014). How Big is the U.S. Market for Illegal Drugs? RAND. Retrieved March 2, 2016.

Margolin, Madison. (2016, December 5). How Will Marijuana Legalization Affect California’s Black-Market Exports?. LA Weekly. Retrieved March 2, 2016.

National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2014). Prevent Drug Abuse: The Best Strategy. NIH. Retrieved March 2, 2016.

Vastag, Brian. (2009, April 7). 5 Years After: Portugal’s Drug Decriminalization Policy Shows Positive Results. Scientific American. Retrieved March 2, 2016.


About the Creator

Kent Prion

I'm a fourth-year pure mathematics major. While my primary focus is mathematics, I have a soft spot for the humanities, and so I really enjoy writing.

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