The war on drugs can’t be won, not the way you think.
Has the United States’ war on drugs always really been about drug use? We’ve all heard many gut-wrenching, heartbreaking stories about addiction. Lives have been destroyed. Families have been torn apart. Criminalization has created an insidious monster. Casualties litter our country. We’ve been told the enemy is “drug abuse”, but the drugs aren’t the ones paying the heavy price.
In the 1870s, the first anti-opium laws were put into action, but they were mainly directed at Chinese immigrants. When the first anti-cocaine laws were drafted and enforced in the early 1900s, they targeted black men. In 1971, President Nixon plunged the United States into a relentless war that we’re still battling today. The United States declared a war on drugs. Was Nixon really trying to clean the streets of drugs and drug users, or did he have another “enemy” in mind?
“You want to know what this was really all about. The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying. 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.” — John Ehrlichman, a top Nixon aide
Since Nixon’s war cry, a tenacious propaganda campaign has had us in a chokehold for decades. Countless of our citizens are rotting away in inhumane conditions for simply having an illegal drug in their possession. Nothing violent and not intending to sell, but for simply being caught with their drug of choice. Stereotypes of dangerous, heartless, and somewhat dehumanized drug users fuel mass hysteria. Instead of providing education and resources to prevent negative aftermath and addiction, the government criminalizes and punishes. Policing has been prioritized rather than addiction health services and community investment. Mass incarceration and dangerous, racist beliefs have torn the country apart.
For every being sitting in a jail cell, a family has been torn apart. Children have lost access to their parents. People have lost their will to live. Communities have lost beloved members.
Just like with a violent war, like WW2 or the Vietnam war, the aftermath has never just affected the people on the front lines. Soldiers come home from war and have no idea what to do now that they’re back in civilization. The things that they’ve seen and experienced are beyond our comprehension. We can be empathetic, but we can’t possibly understand fully. The war on drugs has seeped into every aspect of our lives, whether we realize it or not. Housing, education, child welfare, and immigration are just a few sections of our lives that have been affected by the war on drugs.
In 1988, Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act. This act has a section that focuses on preventing drug abuse in public housing. Public housing authorities became required to include new rules that forced a lease termination if a member of the household or even a guest participated in any “drug-related criminal activity on or near public housing premises.” An entire family can be kicked out of their homes if even one person is suspected of doing illegal drugs. Now when we think about it, at first it makes sense. You don’t want kids running around and playing outside in the same place that people are actively getting high, right? What if they give it to a child?
These thoughts are misguided and have been shaped by misinformation that was created in order to spread fear. Intimidation is admittedly how a lot of things get passed. Would an addicted drug user really freely give away something they’re actively addicted to? Take a look at the anti-transgender bathroom laws. How do fear and intimidation play a part in those? How many times have you heard or read that men would pretend to be trans just to gain access to women's bathrooms and potentially harm them? How many men do you know would honestly go as far as pretending to be a transgender woman, knowing how much ridicule and violence they face for simply existing?
Propaganda fueled by the war on drugs works the same way. Throughout the years, it has chipped away at people’s rights. Thousands of people have lost their homes from this act. It’s also made it severely more difficult for them to obtain new housing.
Ronald Reagan, our 40th president, declared his own “war on drugs.” Slashing funding for various federal aid programs wasn’t the only thing on his agenda. His legislation provided an additional $1.7 billion to this war. It also created and enforced 29 mandatory minimum sentences. The next presidents would follow their predecessor’s lead and continue to fight this war against our very own citizens.
Drugs have been used far and wide for countless different reasons for as long as humans have walked the Earth. If people have always used drugs, why do we have such harsh anti-drug laws? Today, drug possession is one of the most arrested offenses in the U.S. Many believe that handing out harsh prison sentences and criminalizing offenders combats drug use, possession, and sales. If that’s the case, why do we still face an addiction epidemic after decades of this so-called drug war?
Portugal decriminalized drug possession 20 years ago. Since then, overdose, disease, and incarceration are all down. Deaths from overdoses have decreased and the number of people in drug treatment programs has soared. Without these harsh punishments and the life-destroying aftermath of being criminalized has lifted the fear holding many back from seeking treatment that would help them get their life back on track.
It’s been 50 years since Nixon declared drugs as our number one public enemy, but we’re still in the middle of multiple addiction epidemics. Instead of decreases, we’re seeing higher numbers across the board. It’s time for a different approach. Instead of criminalizing people and throwing them in cages, we should be focused on getting them the help they need. We should be building crucial resources in our communities instead of ripping people out of their homes.
Treatment is less expensive than incarceration. Rehabilitation can return community members to a productive routine much easier than being a convicted felon. How do we expect people to heal and recover outside of a dedicated treatment program — in an inhumane holding cell where they’re told when they can eat or go outside? Ever since Nixon pushed us into this war, we’ve spent over $1 trillion that could have been invested elsewhere like education and community needs.
As long as we’re fighting this war the way we are, we’ll never win.
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