For those of us who have been around for longer than we might care to admit, America has been consumed during our lifetime by the never-ending battle to combat drug abuse.
It was in 1971 — almost 50 years ago — that President Richard Nixon first declared a “war on drugs.” The mind-set that took hold thereafter, both among politicians and the public, led to a dramatic increase in the penalties for drug possession, including marijuana, which was classified as a level one drug at the federal level, the same as heroin.
In the 1980s, First Lady Nancy Reagan launched a “Just Say No to Drugs” campaign and in the 1990s, the Clinton administration and Democratic politicians likewise maintained a strong anti-drug policy with heavy penalties.
However, the true basis for the war on drugs was stated bluntly by former Nixon White House aide John Ehrlichman in 2016: “We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders. raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
The end result of our five-decade war on drugs has indeed been what the Nixon administration had hoped for. There are as many Americans with arrest records as with college diplomas; an American is arrested for drug possession every 25 seconds and our nation has more citizens behind bars than any other country in the world, both in terms of sheer numbers and as a percentage of our population.
In 1980 about 50,000 people were in prison for violations related to drug laws — but today that number is over 400,000.
Yet, the war on drugs and our mass incarceration rates have not even remotely led to a decrease in drug use.
In addition, the spillover from our drug enforcement laws has destroyed the social order in other countries, with the drug cartels essentially reigning supreme in many nations in Central and South America, as well as in Afghanistan.
But the most pernicious effect of the war on drugs has been that it has created an environment that directly has led to the high death rate from drug abuse among our citizenry. More Americans now die each year from overdoses than perished in the Vietnam, Afghan, and Iraq wars combined.
Portugal and Switzerland have decriminalized drug possession of all kinds — yet the death rate in those countries from drug abuse is almost non-existent. The reason is very simple: Those nations have treated drug dependency as a health issue, rather than a criminal matter.
The war on drugs, as have so many of our real wars, was based on a lie. Our addiction to incarceration has ripped apart families and destroyed individual’s lives and their futures.
The war on drugs has been a failure in every respect — and it’s time that we face that reality.