The White House has announced they are going to take a new approach to
the countrys endless battle against drugs and drug use, focusing their
efforts on a public health approach education and rehabilitation
instead of continuing the futility of a criminal justice approach. Maybe
this is a good idea given that weve been getting our asses kicked in the
half century long war on drugs.
Politicians absolutely love this war on drugs. It gives them a chance,
especially those who never served in a real war, the opportunity to talk
tough, use a lot of military jargon, pose for photo-ops with various drug
task forces and posture for campaigns.
It was President Eisenhower who first mentioned waging a war against drug
addiction way back in 1954. That approach might have actually made some
sense but subsequent politicians wouldnt leave well enough alone.
Richard Nixon took things up several notches with his declaration of a war
on drugs in 1969. It was primarily an over-reaction to the Woodstock
generation, which he hated and never understood. Anti-war protestors
gathering in front of the White House and on the Capital Mall as marijuana
smoke wafted through the air very nearly drove him insane as the Nixon
tapes still being released prove. His profane responses to those dirty,
long-haired hippies (he really believed we were all commies) now seem
almost comical but the consequences of his drug war have not been at all
amusing. The creation of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in
1973 didnt help much. And any politician who stood up to the excesses of
ever more intrusive and Draconian anti-drug laws did so at the peril to
their own careers.
We started the war on drugs losing and its fair to say we havent won a
single day since.
There is little evidence weve done much to decrease usage of anything.
Drug-related crime is more a function of the expensive black market drug
prices than the drugs themselves. And this war has been astonishingly
expensive. No one seems to be able to put a specific price tag on it but
most everyone agrees it is in the trillions of dollars spent.
Law enforcement has been dutifully fulfilling their end of the bargain at
great risk to themselves enforcing laws they did not create and fighting a
tide they cannot stop. Nearly half our prisoners in federal custody are
there on drug related crimes. State prisons are a bit less than that but
not much. Never mind that the costs of imprisoning someone for a year are
nearly twice that of an average drug rehabilitation program. Even worse,
we typically put drug offenders in prison for several years while a decent
rehab program might take only several months. And never mind that drug
laws have allowed authorities to seize homes, bank accounts and other
property without ever charging the owners of that property with any crime
Sending folks to prison or seizing their property lets politicians be
tough on drugs while supporting rehabilitation programs makes those same
politicians vulnerable to accusations of being soft on drugs. So the
losing war rages on.
What is especially ironic in all of this is the deadliest and costliest
drugs are perfectly legal. Alcohol and nicotine together kill hundreds of
thousands every year, destroy even more lives and cost us billions and
billions of dollars annually in lost productivity and healthcare expenses.
Politicians do little about those drugs except seize the opportunity to
slap new taxes on them. Perfectly legal prescription drugs rack up more
overdose deaths every year than all the illegal drugs combined. And that
doesnt even count the 100,000 or so annual deaths in hospitals from
accidental drug overdoses, fatal drug interactions and adverse reactions.
We should have learned our lesson from the experience of Prohibition.
That did little to curb alcohol consumption but it did give us Al
Capone and the emergence of the American Mafia, much as the war on
drugs has given us violent drug cartels and a wide variety of street
None of which is to suggest illegal drugs are benign. They most surely
are not. They are especially destructive when ingested by young people
whose brains and bodies are still developing.
But the war on drugs has been at least as bad as the drugs themselves. We
do know how to reduce usage without filling up our prisons or encouraging
drug gangs. Weve had tremendous success with anti-tobacco efforts
through a long, steady public education effort that has finally made
tobacco use decidedly uncool. We also know that public health
interventions and rehabilitation programs do work.
This fall California will decide whether or not to legalize marijuana once
and for all and apply a significant state tax to its sale. At least part
of that money will be used in consistent public education campaigns to
discourage children from pot use and intervention and rehab programs to
help those who decide to do it anyway. It will save California billions
of dollars now being spent on the criminal justice system and earn them
hundreds of millions in tax revenues.
The public is ready to stop the futility of our war on drugs. The
politicians, as is almost always the case, still lag behind. But it is
time for the tough-talking pols to admit their rhetoric and laws have done
little and begin a strategic retreat from a war we cannot and will not
Stephen Tuttle is a political consultant who formerly wrote for the