America’s War on Drugs
The war on drugs has continued for centuries, but there are many questions as to its effectiveness. While the government continues to insist that it is winning the war, many people feel that the policies implemented are not working and that some contravene social justice. This paper has two aims; to show how the impact that the war has had both socially and economically as well as to discuss some policies that may be used to negate the trend.
The US ranks among the top nations in terms of crime, incarceration and drug consumption rates, something that has been linked to poor policies such as the zero tolerance policies which influence crime rates and drug use patterns over time. These policies include habitual offender laws, sentencing enhancements, and repeat offender laws. Data collected over 27 years show that it is questionable whether tough on crime policies have actually achieved their objective of deterring crime. In a period between 1980 and 2,000, the researchers found that upon the enactment of these tough on crime laws, the number of US residents in jail for drug crimes increased 15-fold (Kebhaj, Shahidinia, Testa, & Williams, 2013). Today, close to half a million people are in jail for a drug-related offense as compared to only 40,000 people in 1980, representing an increase of 1,100 percent. The tough on crime policies introduced by America have thus aided in increasing prison populations instead of reducing drug use.
Besides increasing prison populations, the incarceration of people for drug related crimes hinders social justice as a majority of those incarcerated for drug crimes are either Hispanics or blacks (85% in some states). The war on drugs has played a significant role in the disappearance of young black and Hispanic men leading to a gender gap of 26 percent (Alexander, 2010). Those who survive death end up in jail meaning that many black and Hispanic women cannot find eligible men for marriage. These young men are met with scorn and contempt in their communities after leaving jail even when they were arrested for the possession of small amounts of drugs. They can no longer find jobs or even decent housing as housing officials evade them. They are also constantly told that they will amount to nothing and as a result, most of them end up going back to jail. These blacks and Hispanics also suffer from police brutality, something that does not happen in white communities. The war on drugs has led to stereotypes so that young black and Hispanic men are viewed as nothing but criminals and drug addicts, which makes it hard for them to advance in society and leads some to the crimes they have been wrongfully accused of.
The war on drugs has other costs besides economic and social costs such as constitutional costs. To better enforce prohibition, there have been major alterations to the constitutional system including a curtailment of fundamental rights, a restructuring of the form of government, and the undermining of legal concepts by changing legal concepts and state functions. The Anti-Drug Abuse Act established in 1988, for example, is by all intentions punitive as it includes new penalties for drug offenders that extend beyond traditional criminal punishments (Quah, Collins, Becerra, Caulkins, & Csete, 2014). The war on drugs thus enhances discrimination by selectively imposing higher and more punitive punishments on a group of people.
As explained above, most of the policy actions in place are outdated or discriminatory hence there is a need to look at some policy actions that can aid the situation. One policy action would include removing penalties for non-violent crimes as a way of reducing the prison population. This was the road for Portugal when in 2001 it removed criminal sanctions for the possession of drugs including marijuana, heroin, and cocaine (Kebhaj, Shahidinia, Testa, & Williams, 2013). While it was expected that prison populations would reduce drastically, many critics anticipated that the move would increase the nation’s drug problems. This did not happen, however, as the number of teens using drugs reduced while the number of those seeking treatment doubled. It is not known whether such a policy if adopted in the US would reduce drug use but it would theoretically reduce the prison population.
An alternative to arresting drug offenders would be to improve the health services for people who use drugs and this should be a government priority (Quah, Collins, Becerra, Caulkins, & Csete, 2014). Good quality treatment for drug dependence has numerous benefits as explained below. Firstly, it has economic value as the users can utilize their money for other purposes besides ensuring that there are more productive people in society. There are also numerous social benefits such as the reduction of crime and externalities such as road accidents besides ensuring that there are role models for the young in society. There are also health benefits such as reducing incidences of HIV and hepatitis as well as reducing the burden of health and social services.
Another view that needs to be taken into consideration when reviewing policies on drugs is an economist’s one. Economists argue that discouraging drug use will reduce the welfare of drug users since it becomes harder for them to consume drugs. Drug users are rational consumers and they only consume the drugs after they have weighed the effects and concluded that the anticipated benefits outweigh the costs (Zedillo & Wheeler, 2011). The issue of externalities, however, comes into play as some economists argue that even though the consumption of drugs is a rational choice, it may have spillover effects such as car accidents due to driving under the influence of drugs. Policies should thus not eliminate all drug use but rather eliminate drug use that is irrational or that generates externalities.
One of the drugs which many critics have called to be made legal in the US is marijuana. Marijuana is currently classified as a Schedule 1 drug that attracts big punishments even though a bulk of research shows that it is harmless with low instances of abuse. Marijuana has been used medicinally for centuries for treating ailments such as nausea, depression, anxiety, insomnia, among others. Marijuana is also not addictive with research showing that it is less addictive than caffeine. The use of Marijuana does not lead to violent crimes nor does it cause brain damage or biological defects. This drug also has zero instances of death as compared to alcohol and tobacco which cause 80,000 and 430,000 deaths annually (Winterbourne, 2012). As such, marijuana does not fit to be called a Schedule 1 drug. Researchers like Dinerdu and Lemieux have also shown that legalizing marijuana has no effect on the prevalence of use. The legalization of marijuana use would thus not only reduce stigma but is also positive for the war against drug abuse.
In conclusion, the war on drug abuse has brought many negative effects such as social injustices such as the mass incarceration of people, a majority of whom are either blacks or Hispanics. The war also has numerous economic and health disadvantages which call for a rethinking of drug policies. Some of the new policies to help win the war include improving health facilities for drug abusers, decriminalizing the possession of some drugs such as marijuana, and eliminating drug use that is irrational and causing externalities. These initiatives will not only help in winning the war on drugs but also ensuring that the constitution and basic rights are upheld.
Alexander, M. (2010). The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: The New Press.
Kebhaj, S., Shahidinia, N., Testa, A., & Williams, J. (2013). Estimating the Effect of Zero Tolerance Policies on Drug Arrest Rates, 1975-2002. The Public Purpose, 1-25.
Quah, D., Collins, J., Becerra, A., Caulkins, J. P., & Csete, J. (2014). Ending the Drug Wars. New York: LSE Expert Group on the Economics of Drug Policy.
Winterbourne, M. (2012). United States drug policy: The scientific, economic, and social issues surrounding marijuana. Social Sciences, 95-99.
Zedillo, E., & Wheeler, H. (2011). Rethinking the “War on Drugs” Through US-Mexico Prism. New Haven, CT: Yale Center for the Study of Globalization.