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The War on Drugs: A Colossal Failure of Epic Proportions? Is It Time To Re-Think Our Strategies – And Tactics?

This past May, Martha Mendoza of the Associated Press broke news that the “War on Drugs” has cost the United States one trillion dollars. A rising collective believes that the War has been a colossal failure, and growing concern about its ineffectiveness has been voiced by congressmen, economists, media members, and senior law enforcement officials. Spanning a period of 40 years, the War on Drugs is now on the verge of becoming the U.S.’s most expensive and longest lasting war. Despite the astonishingly large budget spent on addressing the ever-increasing drug problem in this country, the strategy has demonstrated repeated failure. As Mendoza points out, approximately 330 tons of cocaine, 20 tons of heroin and 110 tons of methamphetamine are sold in the U.S. every year and nearly all of it comes in across U.S. borders. Even Gil Kerlikowske, Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, admits that, “forty years later, the concern about drugs and drug problems is, if anything, magnified and intensified.” In fact, after 40 years, the War on Drugs seems to have reached none of its goals in reducing drug usage, drug related crime, and drug trafficking. Instead, America presently faces its highest levels of drug trafficking in its history, the highest levels of incarceration for drug related offenses in its history, and the highest levels of illicit drug usage in its history.

With so many people in agreement on the failure of the 40-year drug war, many are also advocating for the immediate cessation of the war – and an abrupt change in discourse about the drug trade in the face of its repeated and expensive failures. In fact, many believe that the drug problem in America needs to be readdressed in an entirely different manner because as the war on drugs is presently structured, it is financially unsustainable, unjust, and ineffective.

What shows that the War on Drug has failed? Overwhelming evidence indicated by the drug policy analysts’ own standards. Drug prices are significantly lower today than they were 30 years ago and they are as accessible if not more so in the face of stringent law enforcement tactics. Part of the problem stems from the simple fact that the drug trade is too profitable to be deterred by even the most severe law enforcement measures. Arrested street dealers are nearly always replaced by others who are willing to take the risks in order to gain outcomes not otherwise available in high poverty neighborhoods.” Additionally, the intended deterrent effect of strong sanctions through harsh prison sentences and the high probability of arrest through frequent street sweeps and drug raids, only serve to lower the drug prices on the streets, further demonstrating the infectiveness of law enforcement measures in the War on Drugs. The street price of cocaine for instance, the War’s signature drug, should have risen if dealing was becoming riskier and drugs less available.” However, prices fell.

In trying to fill in the blanks as to why the War on Drugs has been so widely ineffective, many wonder if the cause of the exponential growth is the criminalization of drugs itself. The criminalization of drug trade creates a market that would otherwise not exist. The statistics from late 1980s, a period when drug interdiction efforts were beginning to peak, provide a brilliant microcosm demonstrating the ill effects of drug criminalization and the overall ineffectiveness of the War on Drugs. In essence, increased law enforcement toughness did not reach its immediate objectives of raising price and reducing availability for the most common primary drugs targeted by the War—instead it made targeted drugs more abundantly available.

In addition, perhaps the starkest evidence of the failure of the War on Drugs comes in the form of a comparison of drug use rates across countries, which was undertaken by the World Health Organization (W.H.O.) and documented in Alex Kreit’s piece on Drug War Madness: Policies, Borders & Corruption. The W.H.O. concluded that despite having the most punitive policies, the United States had by far “the highest rate of drug use of the 17 countries included in the study.” In the report, it was found that the number of Americans who have used cocaine is “nearly four times higher—at 16.2 percent—than any other country in the study.” Moreover, more than twice as many Americans were documented to have tried marijuana than residents of the Netherlands, “where the drug is openly bought and sold in regulated shops.” The gap is even wider among adolescents 15 years and younger, with almost “three times as many American teens (20%) having tried the drug than their contemporaries in the Netherlands.”

To further bolster the argument to abort the War on Drugs, is the evidence of the non-impact of the drug war on drug supply. While few would dispute that prohibition increases the price of illegal drugs above what they would be in a legal and regulated market, it’s also been pointed out that most illegal drugs remain relatively affordable. In fact, the price of the targeted drugs of the War on Drugs, namely “cocaine, heroin and marijuana have all decreased from the time the War on Drugs started.

How much more evidence of failure do we need in order to change the current drug policies? How many more years of increased drug trafficking will it take before we say enough is enough? How many more trillions of dollars do we have to burn through as tax-payers before we realize we have nothing left to spend? How much more bloodshed will it take; exactly how many thousands of lives have to be lost? In a pivotal moment in U.S. history where a financial crisis is spinning out of control, the financial tab and death-toll attributed to the failed war on drugs continues to rise. Now more than ever, the U.S. needs to find ways to reduce spending and a great place to start would be with the misplaced emphasis and resources for a war in which the U.S. should have surrendered several decades ago.

Gratitude is expressed to law student Ara Basmajian, upon whose excellent research paper this blog piece was based.

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