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Negative Outcomes of The War on Drugs in North America

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“Drug abuse is one of the most vicious and corrosive forces attacking the foundations of American society today. It is a major cause of crime and a merciless destroyer of human lives. We must fight it with all of the resources at our command. This Administration has declared an all-out, global war on this drug menace…”

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On the 28th of March 1973, then President Richard M. Nixon appeared before Congress as he established the Drug Enforcement Administration and attempted to gain support for his escalating War on Drugs. Since then, the consequences have become evident. Hundreds of thousands of innocent people have lost their lives. The United States has become the nation with the most incarcerated people per capita. Blacks and modern “hippies” in the U.S. have faced increased discrimination from the government, justice system, and law enforcement. In Mexico and other countries in Latin America, the police, military, and powerful drug cartels incite violence linked to corruption-riddled power struggles, as civilians get caught in the crossfire. And with the benefit of hindsight, it is disturbingly clear that the thousands of deaths and the millions of wasted taxpayer dollars are all in vain. The War on Drugs in North America has been a disaster and a failure for everyone involved and in every nation where it has taken place, and policy must adapt to help drug users instead of punishing them.

Soon after Nixon began the War on Drugs, attention turned to Colombia’s cocaine industry as drug traffickers killed 40 people in one weekend in response to Colombian authorities seizing 600 kilograms of cocaine with U.S. aid. This was the beginning of the violence that would plague the War on Drugs, continuing to the present day. In 1975, Operation Condor began, where the United States government used the War on Drugs as an excuse to silence opponents of capitalism in Latin America. Around 60,000 were killed. Support for criminalization increased after marijuana was found in a 13-year-old’s birthday party in August 1976, leading up to the 1978 amendment of the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control act, allowing law enforcement to seize all money and/or “other things of value furnished or intended to be furnished to any person in exchange for a controlled substance [and] all proceeds traceable to such an exchange.” On July 11th, 1979, the first drug-related fatal shootout occurred in Miami, where a Colombian trafficker was shot along with his bodyguard in the Dadeland Mall. Soon after in 1981, Ronald Reagan was elected president, continuing on Nixon’s War on Drugs. From then to 1997, incarceration rates in the U.S. for drug offenses shot up approximately 70%, and around 400,000 people were incarcerated that year. In August of 2000, President William Clinton delivered $1.3 billion in U.S. aid to Colombia help fund the War on Drugs. In 2006, Mexico followed the U.S. to become the second country to use the military in the War on Drugs as part of the Mérida Initiative. Soon after this, Mexico’s situation dissolved into violence.

On January 31st, 2010, gunmen stormed into a birthday party in Ciudad Juárez and killed 13 teenagers as a part of the turf war going on in the city. On March 19th of the same year, Mexican soldiers accidentally killed two graduate students in Monterrey, Nuevo Léon, during a gun battle against drug traffickers. The military attempted to frame the students, and smashed the security camera that recorded the event. Around two months later, on May 31st, 55 bodies were found and removed from a mass grave near Taxco, Guerrero. On July 25th, 2010, more than 70 bodies were removed from mass graves near Monterrey, Nuevo Léon. Autopsies showed that most were shot, and others showed signs of torture. On November 5th, 2010, more than 100 people died from the gun battle between Mexican security forces and the Gulf Cartel in Matamoros, Tamaulipas. Conditions continued to deteriorate throughout the next year. On May 14th, 2011, in the state of Durango, 340 bodies, all with signs of torture present, were removed from mass graves by the Mexican police. And in June of that year, a Global Commission on Drug Policy, made up of ex-presidents, top advisors, and a former UN secretariat, declared that the global War on Drugs had failed.

Yet, the War on Drugs has not ended; in fact, former U.S. president Barack Obama and sitting President Donald Trump have both agreed to continuing and intensifying the destructive policies of the war.

The economic cost of the War on Drugs alone is immense. Every year, more than $47 billion is spent in the U.S. alone on the War on Drugs. Altogether, $1 trillion has been spent by the U.S. government since 1971 on the war. Every dollar going towards funding it amounts to a dollar taken away from the possible treatment of addicts, healthcare, defense, education, infrastructure, energy, science, commerce, or agriculture. This slows development in all sectors.

Closely related to the cost of the War on Drugs is incarceration and law enforcement. According to the Prisons Bureau of the U.S. Justice Department, the average cost per annum per federal inmate in 2016 was $31,977.65. Considering that about almost 2.3 million people are incarcerated in the U.S., and that one-fifth of them are in prison for drug offenses; this is a cost of about $14.7 billion every year. In 2017, there were 1,632,921 arrests in the U.S. for drug law violations. 85.4% of these arrests were for possession only. Therefore, every 25 seconds, someone in America is arrested for drug possession. This startlingly high arrest rate contributes to America’s standing as the nation with the highest incarceration rate in the world. Worse still, black Americans are four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana charges than their white peers. According to the NAACP, blacks make up about 30% of all drug-related arrests, despite making up just 12.5% of substance users. There’s a cynical reason for this.

“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the anti-war left and black people…We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

The above is a quote from John Ehrlichman, former domestic policy advisor to Richard Nixon, and it explains why the War on Drugs, an absolute failure, was begun by and continued throughout Nixon’s administration; it was a political assault directed against blacks and hippies. Every president after, Democratic or Republican, has had some reason to continue the war. The War on Drugs is a war which cannot be won for two reasons. First, because it wasn’t created to fight drugs in the first place. Second, because it ignores basic principles of supply and demand.

Drugs are addictive. People who are already addicted to drugs cannot immediately stop using them, and even a gradual end to the addiction is difficult and relapses are common. In other words, the demand for drugs is impossible to lower without proper treatment, which is anything but the militarization/harsh criminalization policy of the War on Drugs today. Reducing supply without reducing demand just increases the prices of illicit drugs, which means more economic turmoil and desperation from addicts and greater profits for drug cartels. Something similar happened from 1920-1933, as a result of the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, more commonly known as Prohibition, where the production and sale of alcohol were outlawed.

Immediately, illegal bars known as “speakeasies” popped up in most cities and towns. Organized crime rose as criminal gangs began competing for business. So many people were being arrested that Americans started to realize Prohibition was diminishing respect for the law. Eventually, it was repealed in the 21st amendment. Prohibition suffered the same problem that the War on Drugs does now: it attempted to reduce supply without reducing demand. Therefore, it is evident why the War on Drugs has still not taken the desired effect. The U.S. is in the middle of an opioid and heroin epidemic. Drug usage continues to cost the United States about $7,000 every second in lost productivity. A viable solution must quickly be implemented; that alone is clear. Which solution to use is debatable.

There are several possible ideas to fix the drug issue that North America faces today. Total legalization and regulation may be an improvement over the current situation, but most Americans don’t agree with it. Carrying on with current policies is obviously not an option. Instead, the solution may be what some call “Smart Prohibition and Smart Legalization.” This program would entail “Smart Legalization” being applied to certain milder drugs such as marijuana and alcohol, with purchase of such drugs being legal, but strictly enforced to reduce commercialization; possibly done by allowing only the government and/or non-profits to sell the drugs. “Smart Prohibition” would apply to everything else, and if someone were caught with possession of a drug under this heading, they would not be immediately incarcerated; instead, they would be sent to rehabilitation center for detox treatment. In addition, public health programs such as clean needle exchanges, easy access to the opioid antidote Naloxone, and medication-linked treatment like Suboxone would be separated from the criminal justice system.

Some communities have already begun decriminalization policies by creating drug courts to handle drug cases separately from criminal courts. They focus on treatment/rehabilitation services with sanctions/incentives. This seems to work. According to the National Institute of Justice, recidivism (re-arrest) rates dropped as much as 28% in certain counties where drug courts were established. $6,744 in public savings were reported on average for every drug court participant.

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Whatever the solution, the problem is clear. Drug-related violence, fueled by the War on Drugs, is exploding in North America and elsewhere. Millions have died. Trillions of dollars have been wasted. And drug usage hasn’t dropped at all. It’s time for a change. There are many solutions available, and multiple studies to back each of them up. To end this ruthless circle of violence, policy makers have no choice. Legislation must be passed immediately to scale down the War on Drugs and find a better solution to combatting drug abuse, lest more people die or more money be lost. 

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Negative Outcomes Of The War On Drugs In North America. (2021, January 25). GradesFixer. Retrieved June 5, 2023, from
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