The majority of those living in the nation today have spent their lives surrounded by campaigns promoting the War on Drugs, the evils of those drugs and the flaws of users and violence of dealers, authorities say that as would seem to be apparent the War on Drugs is about drugs. However, a focused gaze is placed on the issue there is at its root the seemingly unavoidable fact that it is instead a war on people.
The same forces that to one degree or another led us to the faulty thinking of Prohibition in the 1920s, have with full knowledge that all Prohibition accomplished was transforming a small, primarily northeastern criminal organization into a nationwide menace, done the same thing with illicit drugs. Throughout both Prohibition and the War on Drugs, there has been a constant and that is the primary targets for enforcement, which remained the minorities, poor, lower middle class and societal troublemakers of the nation. How better get rid of anti-war protestors, improve unemployment numbers or decrease chronic homeless figures, than to incarcerate the offending group for minor non-violent offenses and apply absurdly long sentences, in this way your problems simply cease to exist.
Consequently, when President Richard Nixon initiated the War on Drugs he set in motion what has become a multibillion-dollar drug enforcement and corrections industry replete with corporate owned and operated correctional facilities dotting the landscape of our country. As a result, since that day our prison populations have risen over 1000% that is not a mistype the number is one thousand percent. To keep up with demand the law enforcement industry has moved forward on a scale that would dwarf the military industrial complex of some nations. Not surprisingly, the result has been that our police officers no longer look like the idealized, community-minded neighborhood police officer portrayed by people such as Norman Rockwell, they have instead taken on the appearance of front line infantry right down to battle fatigues.
Regardless of initial intent, prejudice and ignorance doomed the War on Drugs, as we punish users/addicts instead of finding them treatment, and devastate families and communities by transforming nonviolent offenders into hardened criminals, without a future; ultimately, we have created an ideal market environment for drug dealers and cartels and made our drug problem worse.
Roots of the Drug War
The criminalization and prohibition of drugs has never been primarily a matter of public safety as claimed, it consistently been predicated on greed, ignorance and intolerance or outright falsehoods. The roots of the drug war are twisted going back to the pre-World War I era. Policymakers for various reasons fabricated links between drug use, addiction and unpopular groups or activities all the way through the twentieth century (Ferraiolo, 2007). However, the early crest occurred during the Great Depression when the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) and its Commissioner Harry Anslinger knowingly obscured the name of the drug cannabis by relabeling it with the little known slang term from the Mexican-American border region, marihuana, in a desperate bid to prevent the elimination of the FBN. As part of this campaign, the FBN ascribed fantastic symptoms such insanity, murder, and addiction to its use, even claiming it was more dangerous than Opiates such as Opium and Heroin.
More than a matter of semantics or budgetary survival, this was a blatant deception to avoid alerting the American Medical Association of their plans (Yurchey, 2010). Dr. William Woodward before Congress, testified to this fact as representative of the American Medical Association (AMA), he denounced the effects that Anslinger attributed to the drug, and the need for federal regulation. Woodward also revealed the reason for the late entry of the AMA to the debate was the fact that they were not aware that cannabis and marijuana were the same product due to the use of slang terminology and in part to the fantastic side effects that the FBN had attributed to the drug (Ferraiolo, 2007). In defense of cannabis, Dr. Woodward noted that Anslinger’s claims were contrary to established medical knowledge of the day, as cannabis had appeared in the United States Pharmacopeia, the official medication reference for physicians, since 1850 as a mild medicinal formulation (Ferraiolo, 2007). His efforts were to no avail as Congress ignored his expert testimony and signed the first drug prohibition laws into existence. As the primary illicit users of the drug at that time were African American and Hispanics within the Jazz culture, this fact went relatively unnoticed in mainstream America. While the industrial base consisted, primarily of small farmers who raised hemp for sale to rope or cloth companies both of which lacked any influence in Congress or the media at the time (Ferraiolo, 2007).
A Correctional Enigma
The collateral damage of the War on Drugs goes relatively unnoticed by those not involved (Small, 2001). However, forceful prosecution of drug laws together with mandatory sentencing has resulted in the states imprisoning more people for nonviolent drug crimes each year than for violent crimes, hardly a strategy designed to maximize public safety (Carson & Sabol, 2012). Additionally, the disconcerting practice of confining non-violent offenders with violent offenders’ as well as the ready availability of drugs even in prisons only results in a worse person coming out the other side, if they survive (Moore & Elkavich, 2008). With 2.3 million people incarcerated, it is difficult to dispute that the reason behind the high rate of incarceration is the federal government’s relentless pursuit of the War on Drugs (Small, 2001).
To give a measure of scale consider that in 1971, the United States as a whole held fewer than 200,000 inmates in federal and state prisons; and by the end of 2012, the prison population had increased by 1000 percent (Carson & Sabol, 2012). One out of five state prisoners incarcerated in the United States was there for drug-related offenses. All of this means the United States continues to maintain both the largest incarcerated population and the highest per capita incarceration rate in the world at 762 per 100,000 residents (Human Rights Watch, 2010). So as a comparison, the United States has 700,000 more people incarcerated than does the People’s Republic of China, an autocratic communist regime that outnumbers us in overall population by roughly 800 million people. While the second most populace nation India, at 1.1 billion persons has only 350,000 people in their prison system (Carson & Sabol, 2012).
The Corrections industry and some politicians use the fact that prisons fill almost as quickly as they can build them as proof of the War on Drugs effectiveness, however skyrocketing incarceration rates have not resulted in any sort of corresponding decrease in drug use or trafficking (Moore & Elkavich, 2008). These multinational corporations own and operate private prisons, reaping profits on the backs of prisoners (Small, 2001). Incarceration without treatment does little to affect the spread of drugs, so some 40 years after the War on Drugs began, our drug problem is even worse and the organizations that distribute the drugs more widespread (Loue, 2003).
The criminalization of an illness is not a wholly modern concept, in the past lepers and carriers of the plague or other contagious diseases were subject to imprisonment or death. A relatively recent example being that of Mary Mallon or “Typhoid Mary” a cook who as a carrier but not a sufferer of Typhoid refused to cease working in jobs where she had contact with food, thus government authorities forced her to liver out her life in exile on North Brother Island in NY Harbor (Leavitt, 1996). However, the act of making a non-communicable disease a criminal offense and aggressively targeting its victims is a construct of the late twentieth century.
One of the problems with the current War on Drugs is that we do not treat the illness, unless you are rich, famous or exceedingly lucky, instead we treat the illness as a crime going after the one segment that is most easily recreated, the user/addict, instead of focusing on the drugs or its traffickers (Loue, 2003). As a nation, the United States seemingly made the decision that it was either too hard to treat these illnesses or that there was profit in punishing offenders. Local authorities found lucrative sources of income, labor and public relations through the arrest and imprisonment of these non-violent offenders, instead of going after drug dealers and traffickers who are exponentially harder to locate and prosecute, but who can turn out new addicts every day making the arrest of current addicts meaningless (Loue, 2003). As these addicts and so-called undesirables were generally from lower levels of society, the impact of their plight was unseen by the majority of Americans.
The medical and psychological community, now see the reliance on substances such as alcohol, marijuana and heroin, once portrayed as mere moral lapses or character defects, within the framework of a disease (Loue, 2003). Yet, confoundingly, the laws have become increasingly harsh as it relates to the use of these substances at the same time scientists have revealed this perspective (Loue, 2003).
Our policies are not only innately harmful to the health of citizens they are impediments to the process of building strong communities; the residual effects of systematic removal and imprisonment of drug users creates a much larger challenge for communities (Moore & Elkavich, 2008). This is primarily because punishment does not end when released, as convicted felons most will find it difficult to procure gainful, legitimate employment to support themselves or their families (Moore & Elkavich, 2008).
Additionally, a drug conviction means the loss of public assistance, such as access to welfare, food stamps and public housing, civil service jobs and other government services, sanctions that seldom apply to other criminal offenses (Human Rights Watch, 2008). The ramifications of detaching people from their families and communities and depositing them back later, without support or substantial rehabilitation, are grave (Loue, 2003). Such policies have in the end made our drug problem worse and in the process created an ideal market environment for drug dealers and cartels; this in and of itself is reason enough to review our policies, if not end the War on Drugs
Historically, this burden of incarceration inexorably falls on members of racial and ethnic minorities. The drug laws of the United States give the impression of neutrality; however there enforcement is inescapably subjective. Truth is often the first casualty in war, and the War on Drugs is no different. Contrary to stereotypes of inner-city drug addicts, former drug czar William Bennett stated that research proved that “the typical cocaine user is white, male, a high school graduate, employed full time and lives in small metropolitan areas or the suburbs (Small, 2001).”
Yet in America, African American men face incarceration at six times the rate of White men, and African Americans constituted 53.5 percent of all persons who entered prison because of a drug conviction (Human Rights Watch, 2010). The group Human Rights Watch reported that racial disparities are even worse for drug offenders, with African American men being 12 times more likely than his White counterpart to enter prison with a new drug conviction, in spite of similar circumstance amongst the two (Human Rights Watch, 2008). This inconsistency has led the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination to voice “concern with regard to the persistent racial disparities in the American criminal justice system… to include the disproportionate number of persons belonging to racial, ethnic and national minorities in the prison population (Human Rights Watch, 2010).” The committee further admonished the United States to “take all necessary steps to guarantee the right of everyone to equal treatment before tribunals and all other organs administering justice,” a painful and embarrassing admonition for a nation built on the concept of freedom, liberty and all men being equal (Human Rights Watch, 2010).”
Research has shown that drug and alcohol abuse rates are higher for pregnant White women than pregnant African American women, but under mandatory reporting laws, African American women are about 10 times more likely to be the subject of a report (Small, 2001). Between 1986 and 1991, the number of African American women incarcerated for drug offenses jumped 828 percent (Small, 2001). African American and Latino Americans became increasingly accepted targets for police and other front-line law enforcement officials due to racially and socially skewed charging and plea-bargaining by prosecutors and discriminatory sentencing practices (Small, 2001). The failure of criminal justice policymakers to remedy the inequities that have come to permeate the justice system is a key contributing factor in this problem.
However, today many of the elected officials who initially supported mandatory minimum drug sentencing and other tools of the drug war have begun to question their impact on the communities they represent (Small, 2001). Additionally, there has been a shift in recent years amongst public attitudes about United States drug policy as well as an increased willingness to try alternative approaches to the War on Drugs. This shift is visible in growing voter approval of ballot initiatives that allow the use of medical marijuana and in cases such as Washington and Colorado the legalization of the possession of limited quantities of marijuana. There has also been a move to limit the civil forfeiture power of law enforcement as it relates to those “suspected” of involvement with drugs even as it rises for other offenses (Bullock, 2003). There has also been and upswing in support of mandating states opt for drug treatment over incarceration for minor drug offenders (Moore & Elkavich, 2008).
In conclusion, the War on Drugs regardless of initial intent, was doomed to failure from the start by the greed, ignorance and prejudice that led the nation to punish users/addicts’ instead of providing treatment in order to promote demand reduction. Additionally, the devastating effect on families and communities done by transforming nonviolent offenders into hardened criminals without a future has impoverished and marginalized many communities. We allow strangers to search our children at their schools and airports as if they were criminals, due to blind fear of illicit drugs. Yet, children sit in classrooms drugged into apathetic stupors at the bidding of those who should protect them because it is easier to hand out a pill than it is to address the underlying issues. In true Nietzschean fashion, we have become the monster that we set out to fight.
Bullock, S. (2003). Policing for Profit. Retrieved from Institute for Justice: http://www.ij.org/foreword-2
Carson, E. A., & Sabol, W. J. (2012). Prisoners in 2011. Bureau of Justice Statistics. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office. Retrieved from http://www.bjs.gov/index.cfm?ty=pbdetail&iid=4559
Ferraiolo, K. (2007, April). From Killer Weed to Popular Medicine: The Evolution of American Drug Control Policy, 1937-2000. Journal of Policy History, 19(2), p147 – 179.
Human Rights Watch. (2008). Targeting Blacks- Drug Law Enforcement and Race in the United States. Retrieved from Human Rights Watch: http://www.hrw.org/reports/2008/05/04/targeting-blacks
Human Rights Watch. (2010). World Report 2009 – Uniuted States. Retrieved from Human Rights Watch: http://www.hrw.org/en/node/79365
Leavitt, J. (1996). Typhoid Mary: Captive to the Public’s Health. Boston, MA: Beacon Press. Retrieved from http://books.google.com/books?id=Fow5cxqJxukC
Loue, S. (2003, September 1). The Criminalization of Addiction. Journal of Legal Medicine, 24(3), 281 – 331. Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com.proxy-library.ashford.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=ip,cpid&custid=s8856897&db=c8h&AN=2004075138&site=ehost-live
Moore, L. D., & Elkavich, A. (2008, May 1). Who’s Using and Who’s Doing Time: Incarceration, the War on Drugs, and Public Health. American Journal of Public Health, 98(5), p782-786. Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com.proxy-library.ashford.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=ip,cpid&custid=s8856897&db=c8h&AN=2009932710&site=ehost-live
Small, D. (2001, September 1). The War on Drugs Is a War on Racial Justice. Social Research, 68(3), 896 – 903. Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com.proxy-library.ashford.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=ip,cpid&custid=s8856897&db=aph&AN=5435688&site=ehost-live
Yurchey, D. (2010, July 10). The Marijuana Conspiracy: The Reason Hemp Is Illegal. Retrieved from activistpost.com: http://www.activistpost.com/2010/07/marijuana-conspiracy-reason-hemp-is.html