Has the ‘War on Drugs’ failed?

The US has has a ‘War on Drugs’ for more than 100 years.

A few short years ago John Key and his Chief ‘Science’ Advisor declared a war on drugs too.

But have all these  wars on drugs worked.

Eric Schneider, author of Smack: Heroin and the American City shares his thoughts at Politico.

Let’s all pause today to wish a happy 100th birthday to the War on Drugs. And what a century it’s been!

Twenty-five years ago, the stated goal of the United States’ anti-narcotic efforts according to the Department of Justice was to “disrupt, destroy and dismantle drug trafficking enterprises.” That same year, the U.S. government pumped almost $8 billion into anti-drug efforts, including $600 million in prison construction alone. It was just a typical fiscal year during the height of the drug war. But two and a half decades later, despite this dizzying spending, we don’t need a drug czar to tell us—even though one of them has—the war on drugs, by its own measures, has been a century-long failure.

A hundred years ago this month, the U.S. government started this fight to rid us of the scourge of opiates. Today, not only have we failed to control drug demand, an entirely new breed of opiate epidemic has flourished in the face of the most draconian drug laws in the world. Aided by aggressive Big Pharma marketing and enthusiastic “pain specialists,” opiate abuse has simply taken on a new shape, moving from urban enclaves and overrunning pockets of New England and the South, from rural Vermont to the suburbs of Dallas, that have little history of widespread drug abuse. Heroin today is cheaper and purer than it was 50 years ago. That’s to say nothing of the 700 percent increase in incarceration of American citizens in the past four decades, the distribution of nearly $450 million worth of military equipment that is used by local and state law enforcement agencies (that “militarization of the police” you’ve been reading so much about lately), and the creation of a wasteful, labyrinthine bureaucracy dedicated to what has proven a perhaps impossible goal: The eradication of drugs.

And how has it all gone?

In one word terribly. Schneider outlines the ling sad and failed history of the ongoing ‘War on Drugs’.

He summarises with the human cost.

It seems, though, that the federal government is finally coming to terms with the catastrophic loss—in resources as well as Americans’ lives—incurred by the drug war. The Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, for one, redressed disproportionate sentencing by eliminating the five-year mandatory minimum sentence for possession of crack cocaine and reducing the sentencing disparity to 18 to 1. Some states, such as New York, which led the drive for tougher penalties for drug sellers under Governor Nelson Rockefeller, have also opted to reduce penalties for drug offenses. Increasingly, states and municipalities are decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana. While sentencing reform is welcome, the drug war is far from over.

The drug war has had a host of casualties, but felons released from prison are the most obvious. They are virtually unemployable, since discriminating against someone with a criminal record is allowable, and so frequently return to the drug economy as the only occupation available to them. Felons lose public benefits such as food stamps, public housing and educational assistance, and in some jurisdictions, they are stripped of their right to vote and to serve on juries. The creation of a permanent class of non-citizens who cycle in and out of prison remains the most destructive legacy of the war on drugs.

After a century of aggressive policing, mandatory minimums and enforcement that disproportionately targeted the most marginalized of American citizens, the failure of the war on drugs is ultimately a cautionary tale about pursuing an agenda at any cost—financial or human. From the founding of a vast bureaucratic infrastructure to support the new war, to the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on military police equipment, to the $50 billion spent annually on incarceration, the story of fighting addiction in America has brought out its mirror image: An irrational dependence, despite all logic to the contrary, on a steady flow of government cash and brute enforcement.

We should have just said no.


– Politico


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  • Coffee Connoisseur

    has the war on drugs failed?

    • Damon Mudgway

      A war that can not be ‘won’, only curtailed. When people will pay, and that goes for any commodity, there will always be a market, there will always be the consumer and the profiteer.

      After all, illicit drugs are just business.

      • Mark

        With the State as the best marketing tool available.

  • Elinor_Dashwood

    It’s a powerful case, ruined by a weak and unclear finish. Who exactly should have “just said no”, and to what?

  • Tippex

    In a nutshell: invariably in any war on drugs, the drugs win.

  • Andrew Gibson

    Like a host of social issues, there’s no easy answer. Is the writer suggesting the “victims” – felons released from jail – would be valuable contributors to society if not for the war on drugs? Instead they are forced back to the “drug economy”….

  • cows4me

    Looks like war against drugs is nearly as profitable as the drug trade. I guess it’s like climate change, gets increasingly costlier every year with no real outcome. I sometimes wonder if there was a fix for these so called problems we would have a major unemployment problem.

  • kiwibattler

    It is correct that the war on ‘minor’ drugs has been a complete waste of time but the fact remains that if the govt hadn’t done ANYTHING against ‘hard’ drugs they would be far worse off then they are. As mentioned below the govt will never win a drug war but you can’t tell me we would be in a better place if nobody bothered to come down hard on the supply/use of hard drugs.

  • Drugs are a business, if you want to kill a business you don’t attack supply, that only pushes up the price, you need to attack demand. It is of course much harder to do, but in the long term much more effective.

  • Pharmachick

    The answer to your question is “yes”. But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be addressed in some way. What Portugal has done int he last 5 years is wonderful, and should be looked to more.

  • The wildman

    Unfortunately what has been missed is that illeagle drugs and the tackling of it is a medical issue not a legal issue and should be treated as such.hate to compare but just as we treat drunks we also need to make more avaliable treatment for other addictions.P is really the only other problem,there are others sure but treatment should be the first step.no one likes to pay for others stupid decisions,but you really cant separate one substance (alcohol) over another.treat them with equality (hate that word).the only addict i know was addicted to prescription pain killers after cancer.the doctors took over a year before admitting him for treatment.never the same.

  • parorchestia

    The war on drugs may have failed in the US but not in many other countries, especially those with a very hard line against drug use and trafficking. Try importing drugs into Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia etc.
    The US has fallen between two stools. There are only two realistic policy options: either you come down hard, real hard, or you have a Portuguese-type policy. They do a bit of both and this will never work. Taking the wrong approach is a peculiarity of US public and foreign policy evidenced since 1812 when they got into an unnecessary war they were sure to lose.