Why Are We Still Fighting Nixon’s Losing ‘War on Drugs’?
Editor’s Note: This is the fourth article in a series that discusses the necessity of crafting laws that have both solid moral underpinnings and reasonable methods of enactment in order to gain public compliance. Start the series here.
By Dr. Gary Deel, Faculty Director, School of Business, American Military University
What has been the result of the war on drugs? The same as Prohibition—the public generally rejects these restrictions and people still use drugs more or less as they please. However the resulting “criminal” activity and penalties for individuals have put a tremendous strain on society.
As a result of drug criminalization, nearly a half million people are incarcerated in the United States for nonviolent drug offenses. That amounts to approximately one in every five inmates nationwide. It’s estimated that the U.S. has spent at least one trillion dollars on the war on drugs since Nixon began the offensive. The federal government currently spends nearly $9 million per day on incarcerated drug offenders.
Criminalization and incarceration have also had a disproportionate effect on minorities. Despite evidence indicating no difference in propensity for drug use among races, minorities are incarcerated for drug use at a much higher rate than whites. Blacks and Latinos account for about 80 percent of inmates convicted of drug charges in federal prisons, and 60 percent of inmates convicted of drug charges in state prisons.
Have Drug Laws Succeeded?
Most people simply don’t take anti-drug laws seriously. As with alcohol during Prohibition, if people wish to use drugs, they will do so regardless of whether it causes self-harm or is against the law. A 2017 poll indicated that most Americans have tried marijuana in the past, and nearly half of those who have tried it continue to use it recreationally. Yet, in that same year, nearly 30,000 people overdosed and died from using synthetic opioids like fentanyl. So these laws have failed to deter both relatively innocuous drug use as well as the use of extremely dangerous drugs.
[Free eMagazine: A Public Health Perspective on the Opioid Crisis]
It’s also worth considering the lost societal benefits from the legalization of drugs. Making certain drugs legal would not only allow for greater safety through regulation, but also contribute to public funding through taxation. For example, Colorado—which legalized recreational marijuana use in 2014—has already generated more than one billion dollars from marijuana sales tax. It uses this additional public funding for a variety of positive initiatives, including mental health services and youth drug-prevention programs.
In light of these factors, blanket prohibition laws simply don’t make sense to most of the general public.
This isn’t to say that there is no place for anti-drug laws in our society. Again, every drug is different in terms of its potential risk. Perhaps particularly dangerous drugs like fentanyl ought to be tightly regulated. Perhaps recreational use of such extremely dangerous substances should remain banned outright. Each and every substance—including heroin, cocaine, ecstasy, LSD, magic mushrooms, and others—deserves a thoughtful analysis and discussion to adopt a classification strategy that, one, makes good sense and, two, earns the acceptance of society.
But given that less harmful drugs like marijuana can’t hold a candle to the societal harm caused by, say, the opioid crisis, it’s clear that the current status quo does neither.
Some States Rectified Drug Laws, Will the Federal Government Follow?
Fortunately, in recent years some states have begun to acknowledge the irrationality of the war on drugs and federal drug policies. Some state legislatures have legalized marijuana for medical and/or recreational use in their states.
Given the societal support for legalized marijuana, the federal government under President Obama adopted a policy of non-enforcement, allowing Colorado and other states to experiment with marijuana legalization. In fact, in the last 10 years the legalization movement has gained significant traction. As of 2019, 11 states have legalized marijuana for recreational use, and another 21 states have legalized it for medical use with a prescription.
However, because marijuana is still illegal at the federal level, these liberal state laws could hypothetically be overturned by the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution. President Trump originally aimed to enforce the prohibition on marijuana across all 50 states. However, his administration recently reversed course and announced that it will continue to permit state legalization.
This was probably a sensibly political move. If Trump had tried to turn the clock back on marijuana legalization, he would have undoubtedly faced significant resistance and backlash from the millions of people who currently use marijuana for medical or recreational purposes.
It should also be noted that in 2018 the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) removed hemp from the list of controlled substances, allowing for the unrestricted sale of cannabidiol (CBD) oil and other popular products made from hemp.
Hemp and marijuana are different in that hemp is a category of cannabis varietals with 0.3 percent or less tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), whereas marijuana varietals have more than 0.3 percent THC (THC is the psychoactive compound that creates the “high” in marijuana). However, because of the close association between the two types of plants, the new freedoms surrounding hemp have further fueled efforts to legalize marijuana.
Many believe the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) will eventually reclassify marijuana to a controlled, but recreationally legal substance. For students of history, it’s astonishing that—in light of lessons learned nearly a century ago—it has taken the federal government this long to turn the corner on this issue. It took just over 10 years to repeal Prohibition, yet the government has been actively fighting the “war on drugs” for more than half a century. However, in this case, late is certainly better than never.
In the next installment of this series, I will tackle another hotly debated area of criminalization: prostitution.
About the Author: Dr. Gary Deel is a Faculty Director with the School of Business at American Military University. He holds a JD in Law and a Ph.D. in Hospitality/Business Management. He teaches human resources and employment law classes for American Military University, the University of Central Florida, Colorado State University and others. To contact the author, email IPSauthor@apus.edu. For more articles featuring insight from industry experts, subscribe to In Public Safety’s bi-monthly newsletter.