The War On Drugs: A Closer Look

Some of our older readers can probably remember when President Richard Nixon called drug abuse America’s public enemy number one. You can likely remember when the 37th President of the United States declared a “war on drugs.” Setting aside any ulterior motives or hidden agendas, Nixon’s declaration of war seemed to make sense. Drugs are both dangerous and deadly. They have the power to ruin the lives of individuals and their families. Illegal drug manufacturing, distribution and use place a heavy economic toll on society.

The war on drugs was basically a three-pronged effort to target illegal drug sales, help addicts recover from what we know now to be a mental health disorder and educate young people about the dangers of substance use and abuse. Unfortunately, now forty years later, we know that most of the Federal government’s energy was directed towards incarcerating drug offenders. Whether they be dealers or addicts. The idea, presumably, arrest those who supply drugs and those who demand them. And voilà! The problem goes away. Right?

President Nixon may have started the war, but the battle to rid the country of both drugs and addiction would continue under every Commander-in-Chief to follow. Aggressively under both Presidents Reagan and Clinton. It is important for all of us to remember that the ill-fated war on drugs in America was believed in by lawmakers on both sides of the Congressional and Presidential aisle. It was about party affiliation. Going after drug traffickers in this country and abroad, and arresting individuals for breaking laws prohibiting the use of certain narcotics, seemed like good policy. Not just in America.

Decades later, and a closer look at such a policy and the results that it achieved versus the costs (not just monetarily), one will see that what can only be described as a dismal failure presents itself. As is evident by the fact that we host the largest prison population and have the biggest drug problem on the planet—despite everyone’s best intentions. Over half of inmates in the U.S. are in jail or prison for nonviolent drug offenses.

While the last decade could be called a quasi-cease fire in the war in drugs (i.e. changes in mandatory minimum sentencing, drug courts, state-level marijuana legalization and presidential pardons for nonviolent offenders), there is still a lot more to be done with regard to putting an end to draconian drug sentencing laws. Also, with breaking the stigma of addiction, so that people who need help can get it.

A War on Drugs, Abroad…

You may have seen news reports over the last year, covering President Duterte of the Philippines. A leader who essentially declared that the punishment for both drug dealers and addicts is death. One not even be given the luxury of a trial, evidenced by suspects being gunned down on the streets. It is fair to say that the approach in the Philippines is far more severe than any war on drugs to come before. Even compared to a country with a history of being the frontline of the global war on drugs, Colombia.

In the 1980’s and early-90’s, with the help of billions of American dollars and the CIA, the Colombian government fought tooth and nail to bring down narcotraficantes (drug traffickers). With the most notable target being Pablo Escobar, who was finally brought down under Colombian President Cesar Gaviria in 1993. While that nation won a few battles, Gaviria points out that it came at great costs in New York Times op-ed published last week. With first-hand experience in such matters and a founding member of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, the former Colombian leader used the op-ed as a forum to reach out to President Duterte. Warning him about what is at stake, if his hardline approach continues.

Winning the fight against drugs requires addressing not just crime, but also public health, human rights and economic development. No matter what Mr. Duterte believes, there will always be drugs and drug users in the Philippines. But it is important to put the problem in perspective: The Philippines already has a low number of regular drug users. The application of severe penalties and extrajudicial violence against drug consumers makes it almost impossible for people with drug addiction problems to find treatment. Instead, they resort to dangerous habits and the criminal economy. Indeed, the criminalization of drug users runs counter to all available scientific evidence of what works.” Gaviria adds, “Taking a hard line against criminals is always popular for politicians. I was also seduced into taking a tough stance on drugs during my time as president. The polls suggest that Mr. Duterte’s war on drugs is equally popular. But he will find that it is unwinnable. I also discovered that the human costs were enormous. We could not win the war on drugs through killing petty criminals and addicts. We started making positive impacts only when we changed tack, designating drugs as a social problem and not a military one.”

Not Just A History Lesson

Hopefully, Gaviria sage wisdom will not fall on deaf ears, and the lives of addicts overseas may be spared. Here at home, where we do not see addicts being meted out extrajudicial punishments, we have a seen a lot of progress in recent years with regard to drugs and how those who use them are treated. In a number of cities across the country, addicts can surrender their drugs to police. Instead of being given handcuffs in return, those living in addiction are shown compassion and referred to treatment centers. A trend that we all hope will continue.

While President Gaviria’s message was meant for the President of the Philippines, hopefully it will be heeded in some degree here in America. As was emphasized earlier, there is still a lot more that can be done, that can make a real impact for the better. Last week, a Presidential Executive Order on Enforcing Federal Law with Respect to Transnational Criminal Organizations and Preventing International Trafficking was signed. Some working in the field of addiction fear that the language in the new EO might echo the draconian approaches of the past in the American war on addiction. In the NYT op-ed (unrelated to the new EO) mentioned earlier, Gaviria closed with:

A successful president makes decisions that strengthen the public good. This means investing in solutions that meet the basic standards of basic rights and minimize unnecessary pain and suffering. The fight against drugs is no exception. Strategies that target violent criminals and undermine money laundering are critical. So, too, are measures that decriminalize drug users, support alternative sentencing for low-level nonviolent offenders and provide a range of treatment options for drug abusers. This is a test that many of my Colombian compatriots have failed...”

PACE Recovery Mission

At PACE Recovery Center, our mission is to provide our clients with a safe and supportive environment to help them overcome the challenges they have experienced due to alcohol and drug abuse. We believe that incorporating sound clinical interventions and a lifestyle that encourages health and wellness, in a shame free setting that encourages accountability and responsibility, will help foster long term recovery.

We will continue our efforts to break the stigma of addiction.

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