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War on Drugs was a set of policies adopted by the Nixon administration in 1971, following a tremendous growth of the local illegal drug market in the 1960s, in the aftermath of the Vietnam War (Duke & Gross, 2014). These policies were aimed to significantly increase penalties not only for drug dealers but also for everyone found guilty of illegal possession of drugs. The policies also provided the US government with rights to conduct interdictory actions towards potential drug markets as well as countries where drugs were coming from, namely Mexico. After more than 30 years, the War on Drugs did not reduce the domestic consumption of the aforementioned substances. In fact, the number of drugs imported into the USA every year increased from 19-25 tons in 1978 to 71-125 tons in 1984 (Cox & Cunningham, 2017). The number of people jailed for domestic consumption of drugs increased tenfold, causing dramatic prison overcrowding and significantly increasing the expenses for federal prison systems. The purpose of this paper is to analyze the policies adopted under the premise of the War on Drugs, analyze them using five theoretical models by Freiberg and Carson, and determine the reasons for their failure to improve the situation.
The Need for the War on Drugs
Although Nixon is famous for declaring War on Drugs and introducing the majority of the modern policies pertaining to drug use in the USA, he was not the first one to declare drugs the “enemy number one.” Anti-drug policies existed ever since the end of the 19th century. Some of the first federal laws to restrict the consumption and distribution of narcotics was the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act, adopted in late 1914. It was followed by the establishment of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics in 1930, the Uniform State Narcotic Drug Act in 1935, and the Marijuana tax act of 1937.
Officially, Nixon’s War on Drugs began after the end of the war in Vietnam, as many of the veterans returned home plagued by marijuana and heroin addiction. According to some sources, between 10% and 15% of all American servicemen had an addiction of some kind (Duke & Gross, 2014). Nixon declared drugs to be one of the greatest threats to the American nation and established the Drug Enforcement Administration as well as the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. Some of the policies adopted under Nixon involved mandatory minimum sentences of 2 to 10 years just for the possession of illegal drugs.
Some of the sources within Nixon’s administration, however, indicate that the Drug War policies were not aimed at actually reducing the amount of drug-related crime and improving the general welfare of the nation. Namely, John Ehrlichman, in his interview for Harper’s Magazine in 1994, stated that the primary reason for the War on Drugs was to disrupt left-wing supporters and black communities by associating them with drugs and arresting them for illegal possession (Duke & Ross, 2014).
The Basis for the War on Drugs Policies
According to Freiberg and Carson, there are five approaches, which drive policy development, implementation, and procedural decisions. These approaches are as follows:
- The knowledge-driven model. The approach bases the adoption of any given policy on substantial research and analysis performed in the field. In the case of the War on Drugs, very little research has been made, which rules out the possibility of it being based on the knowledge-driven model.
- The problem-solving model. This model prioritizes policy-making before research. Policies are aimed at solving particular problems, while research indicates whether they were successful or not. If we are to assume that the purpose of the War on Drugs was to reduce domestic drug consumption, then it was based on the problem-solving operational model.
- The interactive model. A combination of the two methods presented above. There is no evidence indicating that the War on Drugs was initiated after a long and complex process of interaction between researchers and policy-makers.
- The political model. Under this framework, the adoption of the policy was influenced by political processes in society. If we accept the mounting evidence indicating that the War on Drugs was a political maneuver to discredit minorities and political opponents, then the policy was based on the political model.
- Enlightenment model. An intricate framework, within which research helps frame the view in which the problem is being addressed by policymakers. The benefits of such a method are often indirect. There is no evidence indicating that the War on Drugs utilized the enlightenment model at its inception.
Who is Affected by the Policy?
The War on Drugs affects several stakeholders, namely the state agencies, the domestic consumers and drug distributors, and any foreign countries that possess an illegal drug industry, such as Mexico, Columbia, and various countries in South America. The policies grant extensive authority to government agencies, enabling them to conduct random stop and search operations, raids, and other preventive and introductive activities. Under Ronald Reagan, minimal sentences for illegal possession of drugs were significantly increased, which limited the ability of judges to show leniency towards convicted criminals. The War on Drugs affected black communities in a negative way because the consumption of various drugs in them was widespread. According to Cooper (2015), the continuation of the War on Drugs resulted in a disproportionate number of arrests of black people as well as the ever-increasing levels of police brutality.
The American War on Drugs negatively affected numerous countries, such as Mexico, Columbia, and various countries in South America. According to Gerber and Jensen (2014), the USA used the premise of its domestic policies to intervene in the internal affairs of these states, whether through economic sanctions, political pressure, or covert operations. As a result, while the drug industry inside those countries was disrupted, it came at the cost of a power vacuum which caused internal drug wars and general destabilization of the state. The research by McSweeney et al. (2014) notes dangerous levels of deforestation in sensitive ecological areas in South America caused by the migration of drug cartels in an effort to avoid physical prosecution.
Effectiveness of Continuation of the War on Drugs
The war on Drugs was an objective failure. In 2011, the Global Commission on Drug Policy had stated that the American effort to curb the drug war through focusing drug markets has failed. Ever since the US administration has made changes to its policies in order to make them more balanced and effective. Nevertheless, changing how the system operated for more than 30 years is difficult. It will require time, research, and resources.
In my opinion, the policy took a completely wrong vector by trying to eliminate drug supply rather than curb the demand for drugs in the US. As it is possible to see, the amount of drugs and drug-related crimes in the country has risen in the past 30 years. Where there is a demand – there will also be the supply (Ross, 2016). Conducting interventions in other countries does not curb the overall drug flow, as evidenced by the events in Columbia and Mexico – the destabilization of the central government and the involvement in local drug wars does not destabilize the industry (Ross, 2016). In addition, the mass incarceration of blacks for mere possession of drugs has left black communities destabilized, as single mothers struggle to support their families, resulting in their children getting involved with gang activity, which perpetrates illegal drug use.
I believe that while the US should maintain its efforts to secure the borders from illegal drug trafficking, a much greater emphasis must be put into the rehabilitation of drug addicts. Duke and Gross (2014) propose that drug possession and use should be treated as a medical issue, and not as a criminal one. Interventions in other countries must stop, as they are ineffective. Attempts to close the borders are a waste of time and money, as the US possesses various means of drug import – by land, by sea, and by air, which means it would be impossible to disrupt all of the supply channels effectively.
My conclusion is that the War on Drugs policies is largely ineffective and thus unnecessary. They have perpetrated the use of drugs in the USA, contributed to the disruption of black communities, and caused damage to countries abroad. In addition, they have overcrowded the domestic prison system and cost the American budget many billions of dollars. At the same time, the motivations of the Nixon administration for beginning the War on Drugs in the first place are suspect. As such, these practices should cease, and a set of different policies should be implemented, based on academic research and practices that were proven successful in other countries.
Cooper, H. L. F. (2015). War on drugs policing and police brutality. Substance Use and Misuse, 50(8), 1188-1194.
Cox, R., & Cunningham, J. (2017). Financing the war on drugs: The impact of law enforcement grants on racial disparities and drug arrests. Web.
Duke, S. B., & Gross, A. C. (2014). America’s longest war: Rethinking our tragic crusade against drugs. New York, NY: Open Road Media.
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Gerber, J., & Jensen, E. L. (2014). Drug war American style: The internationalization of failed policy and its alternatives. New York, NY: Garland Publishing.
McSweeney, K., Nielsen, E. A., Taylor, M. J., Wrathall, D. J., Pearson, Z., Wang, O., & Blumb, S. T. (2014). Drug policy as conservation policy: Narco-deforestation. Science, 343(6170), 489-490.
Rose, C. (2016). The war on drugs: An analysis of the effects of supply disruption on prices and purity. Web.