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A Failed Solution, a Persistent Problem 1

A Failed Solution, a Persistent Problem


Andrew J. Mackay

Drug abuse as a major social problem entered the American consciousness in the 1960s.
An ugly protracted war in Indochina led to soldiers using illegal drugs to deal with their pain and
mental trauma; an estimate in 1971 found that as much as a fifth of all servicemen in Vietnam
used heroin. Drug-related arrests for juveniles increased eightfold from 1960 to 1967, and
establishment politicians in the Nixon Administration feared the connections between substance
use and the emerging radical counterculture. On May 1st, 1971, the Comprehensive Drug Abuse
Prevention and Control Act went into effect, inaugurating an aggressive anti-drug policy on an
international scale (Marcy 6-8). This War on Drugs is now over forty years old, and by most
measures it has been a failed solution to the legitimate problem of drug abuse. Its economic and
social costs have been huge, and the nation has sacrificed much in order to continue funding it. A
new solution needs to address the fundamental reasons that people use and abuse drugs, and to
replace the previous, failed solution- the War on Drugs. A radical departure from traditional
American policy is required, but full legalization of all drugs would be irresponsible and a threat
to the common good. Thus there should be a split, in which drugs with no serious risk like
marijuana are legalized and regulated, and hard drugs are decriminalized and dealt with outside
the criminal justice system- in which getting addicts resources and treatment is valued over
incarceration. The long-term aim is to lower drug use rates and counter the violent drug trade
that engulfs northern Mexico and foments gang violence in American cities.
It is prudent to first look at the costs of maintaining the drug war, then look and see if its
results justify the expense. On the domestic front, each stage of the policing effort has significant
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cost. The law enforcement side of the drug war goes far beyond regular police; Radley Balko,
writing for the Wall Street Journal, describes military and federal agencies that converged with
the drug war starting in the Reagan Administration. In detail, he describes that National Guard
helicopters and U-2 spy planes flew the California skies in search of marijuana plants. When
suspects were identified, battle-clad troops from the National Guard, the DEA and other federal
and local law enforcement agencies would swoop in to eradicate the plants and capture the
people growing them. Moving into the legal system, there are large costs with holding hearings,
giving suspects counsel, and if there is not a plea bargain reached conducting a full trial and
sentencing. Beyond this a good amount of people arrested go through the legal system, and a
good amount of those end up in prison. The United States has the highest rate of incarceration in
the world, in some part due to a huge amount of non-violent drug offenders; a study done by the
Center for Economic and Policy Research found, during 2008, an estimated 561,256 inmates of
this type in all levels of corrections facilities, including a majority of people in federal prison
(Schmitt, Warner and Gupta 9).
On an international scale, the War on Drugs involves efforts to prevent drugs from
crossing the borders of Mexico and Canada into the US, along with preventing farmers in Latin
American countries from growing cannabis and coca. These harsh efforts backfired; during the
Reagan administration Continuous U.S. pressure on the Andean governments generated
massive political instability (Marcy 81) and that evidence that guerillas were cooperating with
drug traffickers became incontrovertible (Marcy 118). Supply of drugs did not cease, but the
American efforts did weaken governments and made them more vulnerable to coup or the power
of resilient narcotics syndicates. Taking domestic and international together, since its inception
the War on Drugs has had direct costs of $1 trillion, with the overall costs of drug abuse
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(economic, medical, legal) being $215 billion annually (AP IMPACT).
Besides a economic costs, aggressive anti-drug policy harms families and communities.
The people most affected by law enforcement efforts have been ethnic and racial minorities; in
The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander states Although the majority of illegal drug users and
dealers nationwide are white, three-fourths of all people imprisoned for drug offenses have been
black or Latino (96-97). High rates of black imprisonment lead to single-parent families and
under-supervised children, creating a culture of crime and punishment from one generation to the
next. In-depth, the sociology of race and crime is beyond the scope of this work- a relevant
source is listed as further reading after the works cited page.
Given the costs of the the drug war, it would have to produce strong results to be
justified. Unfortunately, it is difficult to find any positive results. A 2008 article examining
survey data from many countries found The US, which has been driving much of the world's
drug research and drug policy agenda, stands out with higher levels of use of alcohol, cocaine,
and cannabis, despite punitive illegal drug policies (Degenhardt et al.). A gram of cocaine in
2012 was 74% cheaper than it was thirty years prior. The spread of HIV/AIDS via injection drug
use is higher in the US than in similar developed countries like the United Kingdom and
Switzerland (Porter). So no progress has been made against drug use, drug availability, and the
harmful medical effects of drug use. With that established, it is time to consider a radical pivot
towards more liberalized drug laws.
A new solution has to do two things- address the root causes of drug abuse and figure out
a way to avoid the costs and complications of the solution that has been tried and failed. There is
a civil libertarian viewpoint that all drugs should be legalized, and that it is not the job of
government to tell individuals what drugs they can or cannot take. This is understandable, but
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ultimately some drugs have large-scale negative effects and thus require a policy solution. One
can divide all currently banned drugs into two categories. The first are what are sometimes called
soft drugs- marijuana most prominently. They are unlikely to seriously harm third parties, in
terms of a risk standpoint they resemble alcohol and tobacco more than methamphetamine and
heroin. The second group are hard drugs, which frequently harm third parties through crime,
social strife, or the spread of disease; the government has a vested interest in controlling these
tightly. The proposal is simple: the first group should be legalized and regulated, the second
group should be decriminalized and managed using a rehabilitation-focused system.
There are several advantages to legalizing and regulating marijuana, including one that
would help undo some of the damage done by the War on Drugs. Economically speaking,
recreational marijuana is substantial untapped source of government revenue. In 2010, California
voters narrowly defeated Proposition 19, which would have regulated and taxed marijuana like
alcohol and tobacco. A legislative estimate is that $50-per-ounce tax would bring in $1.3 billion
per year (McNichol). To compare, thats almost as large as all cuts to California Community
Colleges between 2007 and 2012 combined ($1.5 billion) (Bohn, Reyes, Johnson 9). It would
reduce police expenses and allow them to allocate resources towards other crimes. Legalization
will strike a blow against the violent syndicates that smuggle drugs into America, and are
responsible for bloody chaos in northern Mexico and gang turf wars in US cities. Journalist Greg
Campbell, who studied the cannabis industry, states that In 2010, Mexican officials estimated
that cannabis now provides the cartels with as much as half of their revenue. Cartels are so
powerful and extreme because the drug trafficking business is lucrative; it could be said that the
danger of marijuana is not its effect on a smoking individual, but that it often comes from a
destructive source. Eduardo Porter cites a study from the RAND Corporation which suggested
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that if marijuana were legalized in California and the drug spilled from there to other states,
Mexican drug cartels would lose about a fifth of their annual income of some $6.5 billion from
illegal exports to the United States. So one part of stopping the crime associated with the drug
war is to end the criminal monopoly on the lucrative marijuana industry. A second, and perhaps
more important part is to reduce demand for drugs of all types, and ultimately make cartel
activity unprofitable.
Decriminalization is a way to reduce the rate of drug abuse without creating an
overwhelmed legal system. The possession of personal amounts of hard drugs should not be a
crime, instead addicts should be approached as victims of a disease. This is not based on
idealistic notions of justice, but rather an extraordinary experiment that Portugal embarked on in
2001. Having one of the worst drug problems in Europe, Portugal decriminalized the possession
of small amounts of drugs (up to about a weeks supply). Instead of going through the criminal
justice system, people who are caught are brought before a panel of a social worker, a
psychologist, and a lawyer. Given a broad selection of tools to deal with each individual case (for
instance, if you are a taxi driver, the panel may revoke your license until you complete
treatment), they seek to improve the quality of life of addicts, and attempt to help them get clean
and find gainful employment. Despite widespread pessimism among experts, UK professor Alex
Stevens states simply that "The disasters that were predicted by critics didn't happen"
(Portugals Drug Policy Pays Off). Samuel Blackstone looked at the first eleven years of the
Portuguese system and found a drastic reduction in addicts, with Portuguese officials and
reports highlighting that this number...has been halved in the following ten years. Portugal's drug
usage rates are now among the lowest of EU member states. By increasing the availability of
clean needles and other drug paraphernalia, the spread of HIV and other diseases has been
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reduced even further. A halving of American drug addicts would make illegal drug trafficking
far less lucrative, and by keeping more people out of the corrections system it may alleviate
social problems that exist in communities with high drug conviction rates.
The War on Drugs was a very aggressive attack against supply- militarizing the border,
using herbicides and political pressure on countries where drugs were grown, using police to raid
low and mid-level dealers. But this has never seemed to have the needed effect on demand- as
long as America has the worlds highest rate of drug use, there will be an industry to feed it.
Thus the solution proposed is an indirect cure for the problems that exist today with trafficking
and gang activity. By legalizing the growing and selling of marijuana in the United States, the
cartels lose the monopoly they enjoyed on providing the drug. And by using a treatment-centered
system for the more powerful and damaging drugs, the narcotics trade becomes less lucrative and
in time, hopefully less violent. If the drug problem as it exists today is a mighty tree, the
individuals who use and abuse drugs are the water that sustains it. Deny the tree water, and it
withers, then dies.


Works Cited
Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New
York: New, 2010. Print.
"AP IMPACT: After 40 Years, $1 Trillion, US War on Drugs Has Failed to Meet Any of Its
Goals." Fox News. FOX News Network, 13 May 2010. Web. 18 Nov. 2013.
Associated Press. "Portugal's Drug Policy Pays Off; US Eyes Lessons." Fox News. FOX News
Network, 26 Dec. 2010. Web. 14 Nov. 2013.
Balko, Radley. "Rise of the Warrior Cop." The Wall Street Journal. Dow Jones & Company, 7
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Aug. 2013. Web.
Blackstone, Samuel. "Portugal Decriminalized All Drugs Eleven Years Ago And The Results
Are Staggering." Business Insider. N.p., 17 July 2012. Web. 14 Nov. 2013.
Bohn, Sarah, Belinda Reyes, and Hans Johnson. "The Impact of Budget Cuts on California's
Community Colleges." PPIC.org. Public Policy Institute of California, Mar. 2013. Web.
Campbell, Greg. "Blunt Trauma:." The New Republic. N.p., 13 July 2012. Web. 14 Nov. 2013.
Degenhardt, Louisa, and Et. Al. "Toward a Global View of Alcohol, Tobacco, Cannabis, and
Cocaine Use: Findings from the WHO World Mental Health Surveys." PLOS Medicine
(2008): n. pag. PLOS Medicine. 01 July 2008. Web. 18 Nov. 2013.
Marcy, William L. The Politics of Cocaine: How U.S. Foreign Policy Has Created a Thriving
Drug Industry in Central and South America. Chicago, IL: Lawrence Hill, 2010. Print.
McNichol, Tom. "Is Marijuana the Answer to California's Budget Woes?" TIME.com. Time Inc.,
24 July 2009. Web. 18 Nov. 2013.
Porter, Eduardo. "Numbers Tell of Failure in Drug War." The New York Times. N.p., n.d. Web.
Schmitt, John, Kris Warner, and Sarika Gupta. "The High Budgetary Cost of Incarceration."
CEPR. N.p., June 2000. Web. 19 Nov. 2013.
Further Reading
Wacquant, Loic. "Deadly Symbiosis: When Ghetto and Prison Meet and Mesh." Punishment &
Society 3.1 (2001): 95-133. Print.