In a national televised address in 1986, then-President Ronald Reagan and his wife, Nancy, addressed the nation on their vigorous campaign on drug abuse.
Throughout the ill-fated diatribe, Reagan derided illicit drug use and trafficking, declaring “Drugs are menacing our society. They’re threatening our values and undercutting our institutions. They’re killing our children.”
He boasted about the apparent effectiveness of this “War on Drugs” (first started by Richard Nixon in the late 60s), which he claimed lowered levels of drug use across age groups and increased seizures of contraband and incarceration of drug offenders.It was an easily digestible political platform. It was even easier to demonize an entire collective as “enemies” of an abstract war with vague end-goals and throw them in prison for lifelong durations.
In the immediate short term, Reagan’s assertions were true. Incarceration rates skyrocketed. Regular drug use in the military was cut by 67 percent. The rate of teenagers using recreational marijuana decreased from 1 in 14 to 1 in 20. To Reagan, this indicated a degree of success against these “enemies.” However, the mission was not over.
As Reagan so eloquently described, “Our job is never easy because drug criminals are ingenious. “They work everyday to plot a new and better way to steal our children’s lives… For every door that we close, they open a new door to death. They prosper on our unwillingness to act.”
He adds, “And drug abuse is not a so-called victimless crime. Everyone’s safety is at stake when drugs and excessive alcohol are used by people on the highways or by those transporting our citizens or operating industrial equipment. Drug abuse costs you and your fellow Americans at least $60 billion a year,” (“Speech to the Nation on the Campaign Against Drug Abuse,” Miller Center, 09.14.1986).
The American public reacted enthusiastically, implementing programs such as D.A.R.E. in schools, teaching their kids to “just say no,” and categorically attaching high levels of stigma to the mere mention of drugs. Rational discourse regarding drug addiction and its potential implications for marginalized groups was silenced in favor of fear-mongering. The uprooted lives, struggles and humanity of these “ingenious” drug criminals were not taken into consideration. They were just low-life drug dealers and junkies, after all.
Flash forward to 2015. $51 billion is spent every year fighting the War on Drugs, first escalated to its far-reaching federal heights underneath small-government hero Ronald Reagan.
Although drug rates are roughly similar across racial lines, Latino/Latina Americans and African-Americans constitute approximately 57 percent of those incarcerated for drug offenses. Over 200,000 have lost federal financial aid as a result of drug convictions.
While these figures may be daunting, the sharpest pang of irritation and despair comes with the fact that yearly drug overdoses are roughly similar to the numbers reported during the initial escalation of the War on Drugs in the early 1980s (upwards of 40,000 a year).
Conclusively, spending trillions of dollars of taxpayer money over the past three decades has led to thousands upon thousands of drug users ending up incarcerated (which disproportionately impacts minority groups), lessened educational access for at-risk students and, perhaps worst of all, has barely impacted the rate of death among drug abusers (Drug Policy Alliance).
The most pertinent and pressing of the long-term effects of the War on Drugs results from the heightened level of incarceration of drug users, who often are sentenced to durations of prison time that are comparable to armed robbers and perpetrators of violent assault. For example, trafficking 200 or more grams (or seven ounces) of cocaine would result in a 12 year sentence.
No other crime at the federal level require a 12 year sentence. Crimes that entail a 10-year prison sentence include rape with use of a firearm, assault with a firearm with intent to rob or murder a person above the age of 60 and a second offense for human trafficking for sexual servitude (Families Against Mandatory Minimums).
In many states, prison time results in a loss of voting rights, loss of educational access as a result of ineligibility for federal aid, and a permanent social stigma attached to ex-convicts who must navigate themselves through a society that has thoroughly dehumanized drug users. For offenders who do manage to survive their time in prison, it can be incredibly difficult to find long-lasting or well-paying employment as a result of stigma.
This effectively creates a self-fulfilling prophecy of poverty and imprisonment for individuals who may have made a mistake that did not warrant draconian prison sentences.
In 2012, over half of all convicted federal drug offenders have little or no criminal record (Families Against Mandatory Minimums). The War on Drugs values deterrence, punishment and separation rather than empathy, respect and rehabilitation.
Obama’s recent commutations of people serving time in federal prison and visit to El Reno Correctional were steps in the right direction in terms of changing the tone on the drug conversation (despite Obama’s relative softness on radically altering the drug policies of his predecessors during the first chunk of his presidency). Obama even referenced his own experiences with drugs, noting “When they describe their youth, these are young people who made mistakes that aren’t that different from the mistakes I made, and the mistakes that a lot of you guys made,” (“Obama visits prison in call for justice reform,” The New York Post, 07.16.2015).
Despite this instance of progress, many political figures continue to adhere to the doctrine of deterrence. During the second Republican political debate, Jeb Bush affirmed his commitment to deterring drug criminals and maintaining strict drug laws as a means of fighting drug use.
This is problematic in a nation whose policies of stringent punishment for drug-related offenses have devastated communities and systematically imprisoned thousands unfairly. The War on Drugs has failed. The intense criminalization of drug use and the astronomical spendings of our government has backfired against the nation’s most vulnerable individuals. Momentous changes must be made to the current drug enforcement bureaucracy and legal codes if the destructive and corrosive effects are to ever be reversed.