The ‘War on Drugs’ was a name dubbed to the criminalisation of hallucinogenic substances during the presidency of US President Richard Nixon. It wasn’t just a national campaign, because the US is a superpower, almost every country followed suit with some style of criminalising hallucinogens. This list included Cocaine, LSD, Heroin and the hotly debated Marijuana, which is making a comeback.
Today, the war on drugs is a huge failure. The entire nature of the policy has caused numerous, devastating consequences. It’s lead to mass incarceration (particularly in the US), anarchy, civil dissent and human rights abuses across the world. All of this comes at the expense of billions of dollars of investment into fighting drugs, while creating the very cartels and drug dealers that the goal is to fight.
The core ‘equation’ or idea of fighting drugs is effectively summed up by “No drugs = No problem”. So, all the efforts to attain this have revolved largely around persecuting/prosecuting drug offenders and the people who supply drugs. However, they ignored the entire concept of supply and demand while drawing up the schemes for the war on drugs.
If you reduce the supply without reducing the demand first, the prices skyrocket. While the high prices may have deterred the sales of other things, this is not the case with drugs. Drugs will be consumed no matter what they cost, so the unintended effect was that it caused recruitment of traffickers and producers of drugs to increase its availability. This created a situation similar to that one arcade game, ‘Whack A Mole‘.
The US government made attempts to halt the production of Methane-amphetamine (Crystal Meth) by regulating the sales of the chemicals that were being used to manufacture the drugs. This caused a large scale decline in big meth operations, however, it caused thousands of smaller, home grown meth producers to spring up across the country. To further limit this, the US government further regulated the sales, which choked out even the small scale meth businesses. However, just as this happened, drug cartels in Mexico took over, determined to make profits on stronger, more potent meth. Many cartels had a lot of experience in smuggling already, and their meth was even better than before. This just made the drug more dangerous, while it didn’t affect the supply at all.
At the time, I was writing a book about the politics of drug prohibition. I started to ask Ehrlichman a series of earnest, wonky questions that he impatiently waved away. “You want to know what this was really all about?” he asked with the bluntness of a man who, after public disgrace and a stretch in federal prison, had little left to protect. “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.”
In case you missed the message, here’s what he’s saying, paraphrased.
“The war on drugs was a ploy, to undermine Nixon’s critics, black people and critics of the Vietnam war. The entire scheme was drawn up was to criminalize black people.”
That’s appalling. The legal system and prisons is where you can see the effect of the war on drugs the most: the incarceration of non-violent drug offenders. The United States, for example, has 5% of the world’s total population, but 25% of the world’s prison population.
Let’s examine a case study: Switzerland in the 1980s.
During this time, Switzerland was experiencing a public health crisis, the abuse of heroin. As a result, HIV rates shot through the roof, and street crime became an immense problem. Instead of punishing the offenders, the Swiss government adopted a new strategy, ‘Harm reduction’.
They opened free heroin treatment centers, where people would be treated and stabilized. Here, people would be given heroin of high quality, clean needles and have access to safe injection rooms, medical care, showers and beds.
Social workers helped them with other problems such as counselling and housing. Two-thirds of the people in these centers got regular jobs. Today, nearly 75% of all heroin addicts in Switzerland get treatment. HIV and deaths from overdose, street crime have dropped drastically.
There are ways out. Understanding addiction is the first step. I strongly suggest you watch this video.