The War on Drugs is One of the Worst Things America Has Ever Done


In the 1920’s, alcohol was illegal in the United States. We certainly can argue the merits of that, but it was a colossal failure. Alcohol was not only not removed from society, but it became a black-market item that made some people really rich. Those people were mostly European immigrants and their descendants, and some like the Kennedys became excessively wealthy from it. While some people were prosecuted, for the most part, the “bootlegging” went on right under the government’s nose.

Fast-forward a few decades to Nixonian America. President Nixon responded to the rise of marijuana and other drugs by declaring the “War on Drugs.” Future Presidents systemically upped the ante on Nixon’s war, stiffening penalties and increasing funding for enforcement. Policing in America moved from “serve and protect” to a near manhunt for drug users, sellers, and producers. Mandatory minimums, three strike laws, and even overseas targeting of producers took tens of millions of dollars from our treasury, destroyed lives, and broke apart families. People suffering from addiction have been treated as hardened criminals. This tough stance on drugs stands in stark contrast to Prohibition. At times it’s appeared ridiculous, like Nancy Reagan saying “Just Say No,” or the old cracked-egg commercials saying “this is your brain, and this is your brain on drugs.” At other times, the anti-drug activities have been brutally punitive, like the 1994 Crime Bill ending educational opportunities for many drug offenders.

The two eras couldn’t be more of a contrast, and I can’t help but think a big part of it is racial. Too large of a percentage of our prisons is populated by black and brown people convicted on drug possession or sale charges. We have continued to push the penalties more harsh with each passing decade because of support from Nixon’s “silent majority.” All that term means is a bunch of coded racists. We have not only not made a differential between dangerous drugs like heroine and not dangerous drugs like marijuana, but we’ve also made sure that sentencing guidelines and penalties are worse for drugs like crack-cocaine (a drug more often associated with African-American users) than they are for powder cocaine (a drug more associated with white users). It seems very clear that race has been a huge factor.

The result has not been the eradication of drug use. There has been very little public health benefit. The result has been packed prisons, ruined lives, and broken homes. It’s seen people labeled felons for life on non-violent, minor drug charges. The results have been cruel. They have not made America better. They have created a prison industrial complex, and made the economics of imprisonment trump care for helping people with problems.

America has more than one dark chapter in it’s history. There was slavery, Jim Crow, our Japanese internment camps, the Vietnam War, the Iraq War, and the War on Drugs that all stand out to me. The War on Drugs is as bad of a moral and operational failure as most. It’s time to end it. Starting with some of the sentencing reform plans, such as the Booker-Paul legislation, and continuing with legalization of marijuana and other less serious drugs. We need to start treating drug addicts as ill, and less as criminals, particularly in how we sentence them. The time for reform has come, there is some bi-partisan consensus on this issue, and there is no reason to delay.


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