Do you want to understand the impact, and failure, of the War on Drugs, or War on Drugs? Then it’s important to understand America’s changing relationship with psychotropic substances. It helps if we divide history into 2 unequal halves: before World War I and after. Many Native American tribes had sacred ties to native plants. Think psychotropic drugs like cannabis, peyote, and mushrooms. These plants played an important role in spiritual and social ceremonies then, as well as everyday life now. In the post-colonization period and throughout the 19th century, people had a liberal attitude toward drugs. Certain drugs were known for their recreational power, such as opium. But people used heroin to treat respiratory diseases. Cocaine was a natural ingredient in Coca-Cola, and doctors regularly prescribed morphine as a painkiller.
FROM TAXATION TO PROHIBITION
The second half of America’s relationship with drugs has less to do with World War I itself. This revolves more around the impact of the “Temperance Movement” and prohibition. Around the beginning of the 20th century, states began introducing taxes on drugs. Sometimes drugs were restricted to medicinal use only. For example, although the Smoking Opium Exclusion Act of 1909 prohibited the smoking of opium, it was still available for medicinal purposes. In 1914, the U.S. Congress introduced the Harrison Act. This regulated the production, importation, and trade of cocaine and opiates. Alcohol prohibition followed not long after in 1917. Congress then passed the 18th Amendment and the National Prohibition Act (also known as the Volstead Act).
MARIJUANA TAX ACT
Between 1917 and 1933, prohibition was strictly enforced, leading to a religious and moralistic disdain for drugs. This was reinforced by the fact that many soldiers were treated with morphine for their injuries after returning from World War I. This led to a dramatic increase in drug addiction. In 1930, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics saw the light of day. They also introduced the Uniform State Narcotic Drugs Act. This was in an effort to regulate and tax the abuse of narcotics, supposedly to help combat addiction. In addition to this, in 1937 they introduced the first U.S. cannabis law. Through the “Marihuana Tax Act” they taxed the sale of cannabis, hemp and marijuana, without criminalizing the possession or use of weed. So how did America move from relatively lenient drug laws to today’s landscape of oppressive and punitive drug laws? The blame lies with one man: President Richard Nixon.
THE DIRTY REASONS BEHIND THE WAR ON DRUGS
Nixon was officially inaugurated as president of the US in 1969. The country was in the midst of a prolonged Vietnam War. In addition, it was still dealing with the shock of the assassination of JFK in 1963 and that of his brother Robert in 1968. It was a socially troubled period in the US. Nixon won the election by a particularly narrow margin and ran again in 1972. In 1971, Nixon presented the problem of drug addiction as a national emergency. Describing the issue as a “War” on drugs, he was able to request $84 million for “emergency measures.” The truth, however, is that the War on Drugs was about more than just addiction. In fact, it was a useful political tool. Recreational drug use was especially popular among 2 specific populations: the left-wing anti-war movement and people of dark skin color. Neither group was in favor of Nixon as president. The War on Drugs allowed the president to punish his political enemies while shaming them. This is not a conspiracy theory. In 1994, journalist Dan Baum interviewed Nixon’s domestic policy chief, John Ehrlichman. He was very clear about why the administration needed the excuse of the War on Drugs. “We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be against the war or against people of dark skin color. But we could disrupt these communities. We did this by making the people associate hippies with weed and people of color with heroin and heavily criminalize these drugs. We could round up their leaders, raid homes, disrupt meetings and blackball them on the news every night. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we knew.” Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we knew.” The result? In the 1972 election, Nixon won a monster victory.
MEASURES TO COMBAT DRUG USE AND TRAFFICKING
Nixon’s drug policy introduced strict laws and severe penalties for recreational use. In addition, special enforcement agencies were established. Thus, it set the tone for domestic drug policy in America. The same goes for the influence of the U.S. on foreign countries.
ANTI-DRUG POLICY IN THE USA
The Controlled Substances Act, or CSA, was signed into law in 1970. Its purpose was to classify drugs into 5 levels or categories. These categories rank drugs based on their medicinal use, as well as the risk of abuse. The highest category, or Schedule I, is for drugs that are considered the most addictive with minimal medical benefits. Schedule I includes heroin, LSD, MDMA and cannabis. The lowest category, or Schedule V, includes substances such as cough syrup with codeine. By June 1971, Nixon had dramatically increased federal funding for drug enforcement agencies. They also introduced harsher penalties. Consider mandatory prison sentences for drug offenses and the formation of the Special Action Office for Drug Abuse Prevention. In 1973, Nixon introduced the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). The negative attitude toward drugs continued in the 1980s, during the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, respectively. Violators received severe penalties. Reagan’s Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984 marked the end of widespread recreational cannabis use. It also opened the door for mandatory minimum sentences and a balderdash law. From 1980 to 1984, the FBI’s drug enforcement operating budget increased from $8 million to $95 million. In 1988, the ONDCP, or Office of National Drug Control Policy, was created. They introduced the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign in1989. With support from Presidents Bush and Clinton, the ONDCP board was introduced and then promoted to similar status to the cabinet. Funding for the department was under the Treasury and General Government Appropriations Act of 1998.
Nixon claimed to limit U.S. involvement in foreign conflicts. Yet the notion of a “War on Drugs” served as a convenient cover for U.S. military and paramilitary operations. U.S. involvement in other countries under the guise of a drug war led to huge budgets for foreign aid, equipment, training, and troops. This influenced foreign policy and stymied leftist uprisings. In addition, the CIA was under fire for alleged drug smuggling. It was suggested that the service was responsible for drug trafficking. This occurred from the early 1960s through the 21st century. This includes allegations of heroin trafficking in the Golden Triangle and drug trafficking in Mexico, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama and Venezuela.
THE IMPACT OF THE WAR ON DRUGS
The War on Drugs has caused irreparable damage in the US. This is true both domestically but also when it comes to scientific progress.
Nixon’s attempt to target specific populations led to enormous socioeconomic inequality. This continued into the 1990s. The black community was disproportionately affected by drug policy. The same was true for lower income groups. The political snowball effect of mandatory prison sentences resulted in the incarceration and disenfranchisement of more and more young Americans with darker skin color. Depending on the state, this can lead to permanent loss of voting rights, educational opportunities, employment and housing among already underrepresented groups.
IMPACT ON TAXPAYERS
Harvard economist Jeffrey A. Miron conducted research in 2008. He claimed that the U.S. would save a total of $41.3 billion by stopping the War on Drugs. Miron compared the costs of enforcement and prison costs with the benefits of taxing legal drugs. From this, he concluded that an increase of $46.7 billion in tax revenue is possible.
IMPACT ON THE GROWER
U.S. efforts to prevent the importation or use of drugs had an enormous international impact on the livelihoods of farmers. For example, the coca leaf was traditionally used in South America for spiritual, medicinal and nutritional purposes. Yet the U.S. coca eradication policy was implemented without offering farmers an alternative crop. Even the military was deployed. As a result, farmers were left without food, income or opportunities.
THE WAR ON DRUGS: AN UTTER FAILURE?
The ineffectiveness of drug prohibition cannot be overemphasized. Its effects in countless societies are also far-reaching. Moreover, a repressive approach has very little impact on the global drug stock. At the same time, there is a negative impact on human rights, international security, national development and public health. Simply put, the War on Drugs is a complete failure. It offers no benefits to the health and security of society. In fact; it makes the situation worse. In essence, this failure is the result of insufficient attention to addiction treatment and racism. The federal government spent most of its resources on law enforcement and punishment. It provided no benefit in the form of addiction treatment. Nor has there been any attempt to curb drug use. In Europe, however, common sense is beginning to prevail. There is an increasing focus on responsible drug use and emphasizing harm reduction methods. This significantly reduces the negative effects of drug use. In the Netherlands, we do not consider drug use as a legal issue. Instead of focusing on punishment, the Dutch government has opened centers. There, drug users can go in a safe and hygienic environment. The net result is a reduced mortality rate. There has also been a reduction in the spread of viruses such as HIV and hepatitis C. Similar projects have been initiated in countries such as Germany, Spain, Canada and Norway. This signals a change in our view of drugs. It is time to stop the War on Drugs. Let’s not spend billions on a pointless, punitive approach. Instead, let’s focus on a future of responsible, conscious and peaceful drug use.