How old is the War on Drugs?
If you had said 42 years old based on President Nixon’s June 17, 1971 speech where he declared from the White House, “To wage an effective war against heroin addiction, we must have international cooperation.”, then you would be only partly correct.
The original War on Drugs in the U.S. kicked off 100 years ago in 1913 with the Harrison Act, which is considered the foundation of current U.S. drug law. The year before, the 1912 Hague International Opium Convention was signed by China, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Persia (Iran), Portugal, Russia, Siam (Thailand), the UK and the British territories (including British India).
The convention consisted of six chapters and twenty-five articles, and it was in response to the the growing problems of Opium, Morphine, Cocaine, and Heroin among the societies. It served as a global declaration of how dangerous Opium and other non-medical drugs were becoming; it also was the inspiration for the Harrison Act. Today, the Hague convention has evolved into the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
The current prohibitionist approach to control global drug production and supply began in 1961 with the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, which lists all controlled substances and created the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB). It was promoted with public health goals but it took a prohibitionist approach based on police and military and enforcement intended to suppress production and supply and punish users. However, this created a high demand for the drugs by people and profit opportunities for criminal entrepreneurs, which pushed production, supply and consumption into an illicit, but lucrative underground economy.
Originally, President Nixon’s aim in 1971 was geared more towards prevention and treatment as a remedy to drug addiction. Over the decades, the ongoing War on Drugs evolved into an ever more expensive and militaristic assault with many unintended, unforeseen consequences and implications. In 1971, Nixon allocated $371 million for drug control abuse as part of the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970; in 1976, Carter campaigned on legalizing Marijuana; in 1984, Nancy Reagan began the “Just Say No” movement; in 1986, Reagan signed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 with $1.7 billion in funding; in 2000, Clinton delivered $1.3 billion in aid to help Colombia combat drug traffickers, with 80% going to military hardware and training.
Today, illegal drugs are a $60 billion per year industry patronized by at least 16 million Americans, 7 percent of the U.S. population over the age of 12. The market is large and continues to grow, and it is mostly controlled by organized crime. Currently, the top three street drugs are Marijuana, Heroin, and Cocaine; Ecstasy and Methamphetamine are on the rise.
Prohibition of drugs has created a costly black-market where the price of a gram of heroin and cocaine are each much higher than the price of a gram of gold.
The core problem for the United States’ War on Drugs the past forty years has been primarily ideological where the preferred approach has been to criminalize production, distribution, and consumption of illegal drugs. This greatly ignores two very important things: the financial cost and the human cost, and makes it an expensive, un-winnable mission.
The growing consensus is that the War on Drugs prohibition on production, supply, and use of street drugs has not only failed to deliver its intended goals, but has been counterproductive.
There is also evidence that the War on Drugs has not only exacerbated many public health problems, such as the spread of dangerously impure drugs and the spread of HIV and hepatitis B and C infections among drug users who share needles, but has created a much larger set of secondary harms associated with the criminal market. These include vast networks of organized crime, endemic violence related to the drug market, corruption of law enforcement and governments, militarized crop eradication programs leading to environmental damage, food insecurity, and human displacement, and funding for terrorism and insurgency.
The criminalization of drugs has, historically, been presented as an emergency response to an imminent threat rather than an evidence-based health or social policy intervention. Prohibitionist rhetoric frames drugs as menacing not just to health, but also to children, national security, and the moral fabric of society itself. The prohibition model is positioned as a response to such threats, and is often misappropriated into populist political narratives such as “crackdowns” on crime, immigration, and, more recently, the War on Terror.
Globally, it is estimated that over $100 billion annually is spent fighting the War on Drugs. In the U.S. it is estimated between $40-60 billion annually to fight the War on Drugs.
The White House’s 2010 National Drug Control Strategy budget was $15.1 billion for reducing drug use and availability based around four major policy areas: (1) Substance Abuse Prevention, (2) Substance Abuse Treatment, (3) Domestic Law Enforcement; and (4) Interdiction and International Counterdrug Support.
Although it is impossible to accurately count the true costs of the War on Drugs, here are some snapshots to demonstrate the magnitude of the costs:
• $714 billion federal budget deficit in 2010
• $48.7 billion for the cost of drug prohibition
• $6.5 billion to disrupt international drug trafficking during 2002-2005
• $6.2 billion to imprison drug offenders in 2007
• $3.4 billion for drug treatment and treatment research in 2009
• $2 billion for counter narcotics programs in Afghanistan during 2005-2009
• $1.7 billion spent to influence adolescents with the media during 1998-2010
• $268 million for aviation units in counter-narcotics operations in 2007
• $1.4 billion lost revenue from retail sale of marijuana in California in 2009
• $4.1 billion for State Department Financial Crimes / Money Laundering
• $72.5 billion estimated for cost of drug diversion and abuse to public and private medical insurers, much was passed to consumers in higher health insurance premiums (2007)
• $467.7 billion spent on substance abuse and addiction for federal, state, and local in 2005
In addition, an often overlooked cost of the war on drugs is its negative impact on the environment. There has been increasing deforestation and pollution mainly resulting from aerial spraying of drug crops in ecologically sensitive environments. Chemical eradication not only causes localized deforestation, but has a devastating multiplier effect because drug producers simply deforest new areas for cultivation. This problem is made worse because protected areas in national parks, where aerial spraying is banned, are often targeted. Crop eradication efforts, as well as having the environmental costs already mentioned, can impact on basic rights. Chemical spraying can lead to health problems, for example the glyphosate sprayed by U.S. planes over fields has caused gastrointestinal problems, fevers, headaches, nausea, colds and vomiting.
Legal food plants are additional casualties. Despite millions of acres being eradicated since the 1980s, overall production has easily kept pace with rising demand, moving from one region to another
Widespread use of disproportionate punishments for minor drug offenses can overwhelm criminal justice systems, fueling prison overcrowding and related health and human rights harms.
Of the 1.5 million people arrested every year for drug-law violations, 75% of them are for possession, not sale or manufacture. The annual cost of imprisoned drug offenders exceeds $8 billion. Mandatory prison sentencing has added to this prison overcrowding, as first-time nonviolent drug offenders can be convicted for 10 to 20 years. According to a CEPR (Center for Economic and Policy Research) study, nonviolent offenders make up more than 60 percent of the prison and jail population. Nonviolent drug offenders now account for about one-fourth of all inmates, up from less than 10 percent in 1980. Much of this increase can be traced back to the “three strikes” bills adopted by many states in the 1990s. The laws require state courts to hand down mandatory and extended periods of incarceration to people who have been convicted of felonies on three or more separate occasions.
An in-depth look at prisons and incarceration is beyond this scope, but the following is worth mentioning. Although the U.S. has 5% of the world’s population, it has +/- 25% of the world’s prisoners. According to the International Center for Prison Studies at King’s College London, the U.S. leads the world with 2.3 million prisoners (2009) (for violent and non-violent crimes); China is second with 1.6 million prisoners. The capacity of the U.S. prison system is 2,093,021. The U.S. also leads the world in incarceration rates with 751 people in jail for every 100,000 citizens, or 100 people in jail for every 100,000 adults counted. The United States is the only advanced country that incarcerates people for minor property crimes like passing bad checks.
Prison rates remained stable from 1925 to 1975 with about 110 prisoners for every 100,000 people. Then when prisons started being privatized, incarceration rates and costs started increasing dramatically.
The Pew Center has documented a detailed breakdown of racial and gender statistics of inmates (click the image for more detail).
Total state spending on corrections topped $49 billion in 2007, up from $12 billon in 1987. By 2011, continued prison growth is expected to cost states an additional $25 billion. California’s Corrections spending was $8.8 billion in 2007. While figures vary widely by state, the average per prisoner operating cost was $23,876 in 2005, the most recent year for which data were available. Rhode Island spent the most per inmate ($44,860) while Louisiana had the lowest per inmate cost, $13,009. While employee wages and benefits account for much of the variance among states, other factors, such as the inmate-to-staff ratio, play a role as well. Capital expenses, meanwhile, are difficult to estimate, but researchers cite $65,000 per bed as the best approximation for a typical medium security facility.
A Better Approach
Inherently, this is a very complex and complicated issue where almost all people have an opinion either for or against. In reality, it is not a conservative nor a liberal issue, although that may form some people’s beliefs. Typically, federal, state, and local policymakers have followed an ideological approach of getting tough on crime. And for Democrats and Republicans, that has been their guiding principle for the past forty years. Politicians and lawmakers don’t want to appear soft on crime, so they have led the country into an ever growing mess of endless spending on law enforcement, building / privatizing prisons, excessive rates of incarceration, and an endless “war” with a lot of collateral damage in terms of people. It’s a very dumb and expensive policy for which taxpayers are footing the bill. That is money that could have went to education and social services for the public. To me that is the greatest travesty, especially when budgets are tight and public services are being cut today. Murder, rape, and robbery are inherently considered criminal acts, and so is drug production and trafficking. But we have far too many people who are users who are being imprisoned, when treatment and prevention is less expensive overall.
We now have forty years of results to evaluate the War on Drugs, and the current approach is mostly a failure based on the facts. We know now that drug addiction is a sickness which can be treated. Prevention and treatment would be a preferable approach because it’s less expensive and it minimizes the collateral damage in human terms. The U.S. should completely rethink its drug strategy so that its goals are based on science and facts, and results can be measured.
Despite the hostile ideological environment in the U.S., two distinct policy trends have emerged in recent decades that provide a blueprint for trial at the state and federal levels: harm reduction and decriminalization of personal possession and use.
The Obama administration has taken a new direction in its approach to the War on Drugs which takes a more balanced approach to the problem and emphasizes prevention and treatment, as well as law enforcement. The plan has ambitious aims, including a 15% reduction in the rate of youth drug use and the number of chronic drug users. Importantly, outside of law enforcement initiatives, the Obama administration hopes to achieve these goals by strengthening efforts to prevent drug use in communities, improving early intervention opportunities in health care, integrating treatment for substance use disorders into health care, expanding support for recovery, and improving information systems. This year, the strategy will focus on three specific areas: preventing drug use, driving under the influence of drugs, and prescription drug abuse.
The strategy talks about the implementation of “evidence-based prevention initiatives” and states how “science should help inform policy and rigorously evaluate its effects”.
Supervised Injection Center
In Vancouver, British Columbia, the first legal supervised injection center called InSite was established in 2003. It provides a clean, safe health-focused place where people can inject drugs and connect to health care services including primary care for disease and infections, to addiction counseling and treatment, to housing and community supports. It provides users with clean injection items such as syringes, cookers, filters, water, and tourniquets. If an overdose occurs, the team, led by a nurse, are available to intervene immediately. Nurses also provide other health care services, like wound care and immunizations. Although there have been 1418 overdoses at InSite between 2004 and 2010, staff were able to successfully intervene each time. There has never been a fatality at InSite since opening. In fact, research shows that since InSite opened, overdoses in the vicinity of the site have decreased by 35% compared to a 9% decrease in the city overall. InSite also has addiction counselors, mental health workers, and peer staff who connect clients to community resources such as housing, addictions treatment, and other supportive services.
Other countries are also trying completely new approaches. In 2001, Portugal recognized that death by overdoses and HIV cases were growing, so the government tried a new approach by changing its goals. It decriminalized drug use and possession of heroin, cocaine, marijuana, LSD, and other drugs, and focused on treatment and prevention. In 2006, the number of deaths from overdoses dropped from 400 to 290 annually, and the number of new HIV cases caused by using dirty needles to inject heroin, cocaine, and other illegal substances, dropped substantially from 1,400 in 2000 to about 400 in 2006. People caught dealing and trafficking are still jailed and fined, but people caught using or possessing small amounts (defined as 10 days of personal use) are brought before a Dissuasion Commission, which consists of three people and must include a lawyer / judge, a health care professional or a social services worker. The treatment and prevention approach helped Portugal reach its primary goal of reducing the health consequences of drug use. Portugal’s approach of decriminalization appears to be working because it eliminates jail time for drug users but maintains criminal penalties for dealers.
Portugal’s experiment also demonstrated that decriminalization didn’t lead to it becoming a drug tourist destination. Spain and Italy have also decriminalized personal use of drugs and Mexico is proposing to do the same.
Control and Regulation
Another approach is that the non-medical drug markets can be controlled and regulated by appropriate government authorities instead of remaining in the hands of unregulated criminal profiteers. There is no third option under which drugs do not exist. Transform Drug Policy Foundation’s blueprint for regulation attempts to answer this question by offering different options for controls over products (dose, preparation, price, and packaging), vendors (licensing, vetting and training requirements, marketing and promotions), outlets (location, outlet density, appearance), who has access (age controls, licensed buyers, club membership schemes), and where and when drugs can be consumed. It then explores options for different drugs in different populations and suggests the regulatory models that may deliver the best outcomes. Lessons are drawn from successes and failings with alcohol and tobacco regulation in the UK and beyond, as well as controls over medicinal drugs and other risky products and activities that are regulated by government.
Their framework consists of five basic models for regulating drug availability.
1) Prescription – the most controlling model, this would be an exact equivalent to current prescription models for medical drugs, and some opiate maintenance programs.
2) Pharmacy sales – drugs would be made available through pharmacies or pharmacy-like outlets, either on prescription or over the counter.
3) Licensed sales – vendors would be granted a license to sell specific drugs under certain, clearly defined conditions, on off-license like premises.
4) Licensed premises – vendors would be licensed to manage premises where drugs would be sold and consumed, much like public houses and bars.
5) Unlicensed sales – certain low risk substances could be managed through food and beverage legislation, as coffee is currently managed.
This type of model would be enforced and regulated within the framework of existing public health, regulatory, and enforcement agencies. Activities that take place outside the regulatory framework would still be prohibited and considered criminal.
This model doesn’t solve everything. For instance, this approach would not solve habitual drug use, but it offers a pragmatic approach by freeing up (financial and human) resources. The costs of developing and implementing a new regulatory infrastructure would represent a fraction of the ever increasing resources currently directed into the War on Drugs’ efforts to control supply. It would also have potential for translating some existing criminal profits into legitimate tax revenue.
It is worth noting at this point that both the Cato Institute and Harvard have developed studies measuring the savings and tax revenue from legalizing drugs (click the image for more detail).
Marijuana is by far the most widely used drug. There is a growing body of evidence suggesting that the harm it causes is at worst similar to the harm caused by alcohol or tobacco.
Decriminalization of cannabis would thus be an important step forward in approaching drug use as a health problem and not as a matter for the criminal justice system. To be credible and effective, decriminalization must be combined with robust prevention campaigns. The steep and sustained drop in tobacco consumption in recent decades shows that public information and prevention campaigns can work when based on messages that are consistent with the experience of those whom they target. Tobacco was deglamorized, taxed and regulated; it has not been banned.
The U.S. now has forty years of evidence to judge the approach used for War on Drugs. Overwhelmingly, it is a failure. The Global Commission on Drug Policy recently issued a report that lays out where the failures are and makes its recommendations for change. The commission is notable for its members: César Gaviria, former President of Colombia; Ernesto Zedillo, former President of Mexico; Fernando Henrique Cardoso, former President of Brazil; George Papandreou, former Prime Minister of Greece; George P. Shultz, former U.S. Secretary of State; Paul Volcker, former Chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve; Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group. Its conclusion recommends a prevention and treatment approach.
“The global war on drugs has failed. When the United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs came into being 50 years ago, and when President Nixon launched the US government’s war on drugs 40 years ago, policymakers believed that harsh law enforcement action against those involved in drug production, distribution and use would lead to an ever-diminishing market in controlled drugs such as heroin, cocaine and cannabis, and the eventual achievement of a ‘drug free world’. In practice, the global scale of illegal drug markets – largely controlled by organized crime – has grown dramatically over this period. While accurate estimates of global consumption across the entire 50-year period are not available, an analysis of the last 10 years alone shows a large and growing market.”
“End the criminalization, marginalization and stigmatization of people who use drugs but who do no harm to others … Encourage experimentation by governments with models of legal regulation of drugs to undermine the power of organized crime and safeguard the health and security of their citizens … Offer health and treatment services to those in need … Invest in activities that can both prevent young people from taking drugs in the first place and also prevent those who do use drugs from developing more serious problems … Focus repressive actions on violent criminal organizations, but do so in ways that undermine their power and reach while prioritizing the reduction of violence and intimidation … Begin the transformation of the global drug prohibition regime. Replace drug policies and strategies driven by ideology and political convenience with fiscally responsible policies and strategies grounded in science, health, security and human rights – and adopt appropriate criteria for their evaluation.“
Ira Glasser, former Executive Director of the ACLU, put it succinctly addressing the Criminal Justice, Drug Policy and Human Resources Subcommittee of the House Government Reform Committee on June 16, 1999:
Above all, criminalization has intruded the state into that zone of personal sovereignty where the state should never be allowed to go, at least not in a society that calls itself free. By failing to distinguish between users and abusers, the government has demonized all drug use without differentiation, has systematically and hysterically resisted science and has turned millions of stable and productive citizens into criminals. The Hippocratic principle that governs medical practice is: “First, do no harm.” Criminal prohibition has, since 1914, done immense harm, without achieving its stated goals.
The United States cannot continue to spend endless amounts of time, money, and resources on an approach that has not worked. It is time to try other approaches based on scientific facts and evidence.
The NDP Proposal
1. End the War on Drugs
2. Reform drug laws, focus on legalization, regulation, decriminalization, and rehabilitation / recovery through implementation of the Recommendations listed in this position paper
3. Help Mexico eliminate its drug gangs and stop exporting guns to Mexico
4. End the private prison system
1. John T. Woolley & Gerhard Peters, The American Presidency Project. “Richard Nixon – Special Message to the Congress on Drug Abuse Prevention and Control”
2. United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. “The 1912 Hague International Opium Convention”
3. Jonathan P. Caulkins, Peter Reuter, Martin Y. Iguchi, James Chiesa. “How Goes the War on Drugs: An Assessment of U.S. Problems and Policy”
4. The Obama Administration. “National Drug Control Strategy: FY 2010 Budget Summary”
5. United States Congressional Budget Office. “Monthly Budget Review: FY 2010 A Congressional Budget Office Analysis”
6. Jeffrey A. Miron, Department of Economics, Harvard University. “The Budgetary Implications of Drug Prohibition”
7. United States Government Accountability Office. “Drug Control”
8. Heather C. West & William J. Sabol, U.S. Department of Justice Office of Justice Programs. “Bureau of Justice Statistics Bulletin: Prisoners in 2007”
9. United States Department of State. “Status of the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs Counternarcotics Programs in Afghanistan: Performance Audit”
10. Lynn Langton, U.S. Department of Justice Office of Justice Programs. “Bureau of Justice Statistics Special Report: Aviation Units in Large Law Enforcement Agencies, 2007”
11. Debra A. Waltz & Ronil Dwarka, California State Board of Equalization. “Staff Legislative Bill Analysis: Marijuana Fee”
12. United States Department of State. “Narcotics Control Strategy Report: Volume 1 Drug and Chemical Control”
13. U.S. Department of Justice Office of Justice Programs & National Drug Intelligence Center, DEA. “National Prescription Drug Threat Assessment”
14. Susan E. Foster & Roger Vaughn, The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University. “Shoveling Up II: The Impact of Substance Abuse on Federal, State and Local Budgets”
15. John Schmitt, Kris Warner, & Sarika Gupta, Center for Economic and Policy Research. “The High Budgetary Cost of Incarceration”
16. ICPS (International Centre for Prison Studies)
17. Adam Liptak, New York Times. “Inmate Count in U.S. Dwarfs Other Nations”
18. Jennifer Warren, Adam Gelb, Jake Horowitz, and Jessica Riordan, The Pew Center on the States. “One in 100: Behind Bars in America 2008”
19. The Lancet. “A New Dawn for Drug Policy in the USA”
20. Vancouver Coastal Health.
21. Brian Vastag, Scientific American. “Five Years After: Portugal’s Drug Decriminalization Policy Shows Positive Results”
22. Stephen Rolles, Transform Drug Policy Foundation. “After the War on Drugs: Blueprint for Regulation”
23. Jeffrey A. Miron, Harvard University and Katherine Waldock, Cato Institute. “The Budgetary Impact of Ending Drug Prohibition”
24. Global Commission on Drug Policy. “War on Drugs”
25. Ira Glasser, American Civil Liberties Union. “Testimony to Congress”