Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Time for a New Chapter: An End to the War on Drugs

By Delphi CleavelandPublished April 15, 2016

The United States is at war on its own soil. The once amicably declared war on drugs has entered its fourth decade, and morale has run out. As casualties mount, crime rates soar, and budgets dry up, it is time for a change.

    In the years leading up to Richard Nixon's presidency, nationwide socio-political unease had resulted in a fashionable glorification of rebellion. Drug use became central to these cultures of uprising, as hallucinogens and narcotic drugs became symbols of the anti-government and anti-war movements. Spilling into the next decade, the 1970s witnessed a continuation of these fads, but shade was soon cast over the scene as rates of crimes, overdose, and death trickled evermore heavily into the public eye. In 1971, President Nixon declared drugs to be the greatest threat to the American public. Responding to mass-eruptions of crime and dangerous drug use in inner-city neighborhoods across the United States, the Nixon administration resorted to heavily punitive and severely harsh laws to combat the spreading calamity. The war on drugs was born.  

    Fast-forward to the present, and the war is waging on, with few signs of abatement. Nearly half a million people have been imprisoned, and millions more have died due to drug related complications and crime. Annually, $50 billion is funneled from the federal government into drug related prevention, policing, and law enforcement, but estimates are that these efforts succeed in dismantling less than 10% of all illegal drug usage. Furthermore, the severity of laws governing the use, holding, and selling of illicit substances, and the methods through which these laws are enforced appear to have brought with them a myriad of complications.  

    Criminal activity surrounding drug usage and trade has continued incessantly in the decades following President Nixon's declaration, leading to dangerously high rates of violence and death. Fearing the legal ramifications of being caught in association with illicit substances, many choose instead to avoid law enforcement altogether. This distrust and desperation manifests itself in communities, resulting in otherwise avoidable drug overdoses, gang wars, and shared needles. The latter became of glaring concern in the 1980s with the onset of the American AIDS epidemic. Sharing needles is a tremendous threat to public health, repeatedly cited by experts as one of the leading enablers to the spread of AIDS and other blood-borne viruses.

    The war on drugs also presents an immense economic burden to the federal budget. Following President Nixon, the Reagan administration further intensified the punitive repercussions of drug use. Between 1980 and 1997 the number of people sent to jail on non-violent drug offenses quadrupled. In 2007, the total cost of imprisonment for those convicted of drug-related crimes was $193 billion —roughly $6120 per second. This year alone the federal and state expenditure for drug-related arrests and incarceration has already reached over $10 billion. These high rates of incarceration also intertwine themselves with greater critiques of the criminal justice system in the United States. Drug legalization, often referenced as a potential solution, is estimated to reduce federal expenditures by $41.3 billion annually while simultaneously generating tax revenues of approximately $46 billion.

    A further caveat of the Reagan administration's additions to the war on drugs was the legally mandated discrepancy between crack versus powder cocaine. Until 2010, the former received sentencing 100 times longer that of the latter. The implications of this differentiation of what is arguably the same substance has been condemned by policy makers and inequality experts for being an innately racialized distinction. The demographic of those using crack cocaine consisted largely of people of color, while powder cocaine --the much more expensive of the two—was found predominantly in white upper-class groups. This phenomenon is reflected often in pop culture, where drug use is glorified among white elites and demonized when portrayed in minority communities.  

   The fabric of the war on drugs is fraught with loose threads. A recent upsurge in the levels of heroin addiction further solidifies the need for change. With the presidential elections looming, both ends of the political spectrum have acknowledged the problems in current drug policy. New narratives of rehabilitation to replace incarceration have become popular. Other steps to preemptively educate communities on the dangers of drugs have also been proposed. But speculation is not enough to end a war that has been waging on for the past forty years. Collaboration needs to occur across teams of lawmakers, policy analysts, medical experts, and community leaders to create, implement, and enforce a new wave of drug protection for the American people.