On The War on Drugs

A+Colombian+member+of+a+police+anti-drugs+unit+stands+guard+next+to+marijuana+packages+displayed+to+the+press%2C+on+March+26%2C+2013%2C+in+Cali%2C+department+of+Valle+del+Cauca%2C+Colombia.+
A Colombian member of a police anti-drugs unit stands guard next to marijuana packages displayed to the press, on March 26, 2013, in Cali, department of Valle del Cauca, Colombia.

A Colombian member of a police anti-drugs unit stands guard next to marijuana packages displayed to the press, on March 26, 2013, in Cali, department of Valle del Cauca, Colombia.

AFP/Getty Images

AFP/Getty Images

A Colombian member of a police anti-drugs unit stands guard next to marijuana packages displayed to the press, on March 26, 2013, in Cali, department of Valle del Cauca, Colombia.

Grady Trexler, Assistant Opinions Editor

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This is not a piece in favor of legalization of any kind.

Let me restate that, for those who would turn away at the sight of a drug related article about legalization: this is not a piece in favor of legalization of any kind.  This is merely a plea for common sense in legislation.  There is no moral or logical point to the United States’ war on drugs.  Something needs to change.

In order to understand the laws concerning the war on drugs, one needs to understand the purpose of any laws.  Laws are formed to promote our societal well being without infringing upon our human rights.  This is a mass generalization, but it gets the point across.  Our Constitution was formed “in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”   So laws, and by extension public policy, must do one of these listed things, whether it be insure domestic Tranquility or secured the Blessings of Liberty.  If a law doesn’t do any of these things, then it should not be a law.

Nixon began his “war on drugs” in 1971, when he introduced the Special Action Office for Drug Abuse Prevention, calling drugs “public enemy number one.”  This was after his administration passed the Controlled Substances Act, which contains the schedule system we use today.  More on that later.  Nixon’s war was somewhat short lived, as public outrage over the drug problem soon waned.  But many of the tenets of Nixon’s war remain today, such as the Controlled Substances Act.

After Nixon’s presidency, public opinion about drugs changed.  President Jimmy Carter actually worked to decriminalize marijuana.  But in the late seventies and eighties, the public was once again outraged over the drug problem in America.  Parent groups vowed to keep drugs out of their communities.  Nancy Reagan’s Just Say No program encouraged America’s youth to abstain from drug use of any kind.  So, what is the purpose of the war on drugs?  It keeps drugs away from our children, and keeps crime off the streets.  It is worth noting that any drug legislation strips people of rights, at least on some level.  In theory, a person smoking marijuana or injecting heroin is not hurting anybody but themselves.  You and I both know that people smoking crack on the streets would not be great for society, but the point remains: if a law infringes upon the right of autonomy, there needs to be a concrete reason.  Although some have claimed that drug users hurt society as a whole, there are plenty of groups of people who hurt society just as much, such as alcoholics, who do so legally.  This is not to demean those who struggle with drug or alcohol addiction, just to acknowledge that the claim that drug offenders have a negative impact on society, and should thus be jailed, is not enough.  If we as a society decide that mere possession of certain substances should be illegal, then we as a society must have concrete reasons for the criminalization of that substance.  Many claim that it is for the drug user’s own good: punitive measures help those who otherwise would fall victim for addiction.  For that claim to hold up, it must be true.  The war on drugs must be working to keep drugs off the streets and out of addicts’ hands.

But it just isn’t working.  The National Association of Drug Court Professionals (NADCP) found that those incarcerated for drug offenses had a 60 to 80 percent recidivism rate, or portion of those who were arrested for another crime, typically a drug driven one.  The National Institute of Justice found that drug offenders had the second highest rate of recidivism of all categories of crimes.  NADCP also found that of drug offenders in prison, about 95 percent go back to using or abusing drugs after being released.  Punitive measures are not working to keep drug users from using drugs.  Furthermore, they aren’t keeping the rate of drug users down; the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) found that more than half of people age 18 to 25 had used marijuana or hashish before, 33 percent in the last year.

The final flaw in the war on drugs is the schedule system.  It is a broken mess that makes no sense.  The DEA states the schedule of a drug is decided “depending upon the drug’s acceptable medical use and the drug’s abuse or dependency potential.”  First of all, this is a terrible metric to decide how harsh punishments for a drug should be.  While acceptable medical use and abuse potential should be considered, the schedule system does not take into consideration the actual dangerous effects of the drug.  Peyote, a hallucinatory Schedule I drug, has very little potential for a life threatening overdose, according to All About Counseling, a group dedicated to information about counseling services.  Contrast this with cocaine, which contributes to thousands of overdose deaths every year (NIDA.)  It makes no sense to have a harsher punishment for peyote, a much less dangerous drug.  Cocaine has also contributed to more abuse related ER visits in recent years than marijuana, leading one to wonder if marijuana really is more addictive.  Per the DEA’s own description, potential for abuse leads to a higher schedule, so why is marijuana placed above cocaine?  And is there really no medical use for marijuana?

The bottom line is this: when a law infringes upon a citizen’s right to autonomy, the law must work for the betterment of society.  This is why laws such as anti drunk driving legislation exist; once a person is on the road, the drunk driver poses a threat to the right to life of others.  So if we are to criminalize substances, the laws we use to do so must work.  Options must be explored, such as treatment over punitive measures, or drug courts.  Something must change.

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