The Prohibitive Costs of the Drug War
On June 17, 1971, President Richard Nixon committed what is arguably one of his most significant and lasting executive acts when he issued a special message to Congress regarding the growing drug abuse problem within the United States. Although this message was significant in many ways because of the public acknowledgment that the Federal Government was not doing enough to combat drugs and their associated ills, this message is mostly remembered as the origin of the term the War on Drugs. We are now over forty years removed from that “declaration of war,” and not only has the United States' drug problem remained, it has grown to unthinkable proportions, both in its scale and in the fallout resulting from the policies designed to combat it. It is undeniable that drugs are extremely dangerous to the health of the users and are also a major motivating factor in many of the violent crimes in North America. However, given the ongoing and growing nature of the illegal drug trade and the associated violence, the question of whether this “war on drugs” is the most effective and socially responsible method of fighting those ills must be asked. The answer is fairly simple: it is not. The “war on drugs” is not only an ineffective means of combating the illicit use and trade of narcotics, it has exacerbated an array of other equally problematic issues for the United States and its citizens. Therefore, a significant reform in policy is needed in order to efficiently address our national narcotics problem.
When the statistics are examined, it is fairly obvious that the United States' drug policies have not worked and that a significant change in policy is necessary in order to overcome this epidemic. Unfortunately, the issues surrounding the drug policy debate are anything but simple, and are all hotly contested in their own rights. These issues are a series of complex and interconnected challenges that we, as a society, need to address —first domestically, and then globally. Because of that complexity, this report may seem to bounce from one point to another, but I will do my best to make it as easy to follow as possible.
First, what is the drug policy of the United States? The United States federal government has maintained a policy of outright prohibition of narcotics since the early twentieth century. Prohibition criminalizes the manufacture, transportation, sale, and even the mere possession of a banned item or substance. As a concept, prohibition makes perfect sense; but in reality, it is not always possible to enforce. The federal government has attempted it previously and failed. During the 1920s, the prohibition of alcohol created a huge black market, which helped spawn powerful transnational networks of violent criminal organizations (ex: La Cosa Nostra) that exist to this day. According to a poet and author of the time, Charles Hanson Towne, “In a study of more than thirty major U.S cities during the Prohibition years of 1920 and 1921, the number of crimes increased by 24 percent. Additionally, theft and burglaries increased by 9 percent, homicides by 12.7 percent, assaults and battery rose by 13 percent, drug addiction by 44.6 percent, and police department costs rose by 11.4 percent. This was largely the result of “black-market violence” and the diversion of law enforcement resources elsewhere. Despite the Prohibition movement's hope that outlawing alcohol would reduce crime, the reality was that the Volstead Act led to higher crime rates than were experienced prior to Prohibition and the establishment of a black market dominated by criminal organizations.” Thinking that prohibiting narcotics would end up any differently doesn't make any sense at all, and, frankly, is incredibly shortsighted. To put the size of the black market for narcotics into context, according to the Office of National Drug Control Policy,...
Cited: Towne, H. Charles. The Rise and Fall of Prohibition: The Human Side of What the Eighteenth Amendment Has Done to the United States. New York: Macmillan, 1923. Print
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