Former President Richard Nixon officially declared a “war on drugs” 45 years ago today. His primary motivation was to go after anti-war protesters and black people. It doesn’t get clearer than this frank explanation from one of Nixon’s top policy advisers, John Ehrlichman:
“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."
Disturbing, right? Drug prohibition has resulted in tens of millions of people getting arrested and locked up behind bars, and the U.S. has spent more than $1 trillion to make that happen. The tone was set from the beginning that there will always be money to fight the war on drugs.
Every year, more money is requested to fight the drug war and now the U.S. spends more than $51 billion annually on the war on drugs. There are more than 1.5 million arrests for drugs each year, the large majority of which are for possession only. But no matter how much money we spend and how many people get arrested, drugs have been around for thousands of years and they always will be.
So what should we do instead?
More than 50% of Americans support legalizing and regulating marijuana. Twenty-five states have medical marijuana laws, four states and Washington, D.C. have legalized marijuana, and more than 20 states have decriminalized possession. But marijuana remains illegal at the federal level and of the 1.5 million arrests each year for drugs, about half are for low-level marijuana law violations. States that legalized marijuana are seeing great benefits – thousands of people are no longer getting arrested and having their lives ruined over marijuana, and the states are collecting huge amounts of money in taxes.
Arresting someone for using or possessing a drug is ineffective, costly and unjust. Most people (80-90%) who use drugs don’t go on to develop problems with them, as neuroscientist Dr. Carl Hart often emphasizes. If someone struggles with addiction and wants to get treatment, they should not fear arrest or other punishment for admitting their drug use.
The U.S. is home to less than five percent of the world’s population but nearly 25% of its prisoners, in part because of the overly harsh consequences of a drug conviction. Despite comparable drug use and selling rates across racial groups, African Americans and Latinos are disproportionately punished for drug law violations.
The Drug Policy Alliance and our allies have been at the forefront advocating for harm reduction policies like 911 Good Samaritan Laws and access to the overdose-reversal drug naloxone for many years. But there are some unconventional ways to deal with drug misuse that deserve more attention, like supervised injection facilities and heroin-assisted treatment. Earlier this year a Maryland state legislator made history and introduced a sweeping drug policy reform package calling for the decriminalization of all drugs, treatment on demand for anyone who wants it, and the creation of supervised injection facilities and heroin-assisted treatment programs. The mayor of Ithaca also put forward a similar proposal. To deal with this issue more effectively, our drug policies will have to come from a public health approach, not a criminal justice one.
Just like with sex education, we know that abstinence-only drug education programs do not work. We need to provide honest and accurate drug information so that young people can make the safest choice possible.
We have to be willing to look outside the U.S. to see what’s working elsewhere to move forward with drug policy reform. Portugal has shown that there are many benefits to decriminalizing all drugs. Heroin-assisted treatment programs have been very successful in places like Switzerland, Denmark, Canada, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Germany, Spain, and elsewhere. Canada and Uruguay are moving forward with new marijuana legalization policies at the national level, and the U.S. should do the same.
Hopefully we’ll be in a much better place five years from now, given the momentum we’re seeing on issues like criminal justice reform, overdose prevention, and marijuana legalization. Let’s develop an exit strategy before the 50th anniversary of the drug war in 2021 – let’s end drug prohibition and begin telling the story of what it was like when drugs were illegal.
Derek Rosenfeld is the manager of social media and media relations at the Drug Policy Alliance.
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