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The War on Drugs: A War Where Everybody is a Loser

We are at war, haven’t you noticed? We are all caught up in the middle of the War on Drugs, initiated by Richard Nixon in 1971, a war that is not unlike any other, with an insane amount of casualties worldwide, unrests and no real solution in sight.

All things considered, the war is lost. Drug use is experiencing an all-time high as criminal organizations thrive and the War on Drugs becomes a profitable business for the government at the taxpayer’s expense. The war is indeed lost, but yet we keep on fighting based on a shallow and fearful evaluation of what drug use means.

The War on Drugs is more than 45 years old. It’s about time we take a hard look at what has been happening since. Who benefits and who suffers under the policies and efforts that have been put into place and have been pursued until today to fight drug use. As the US is the driving force behind this approach, meaning we will mainly look at them, but rest assured, similar assumptions can be made elsewhere in the world as the US-System has been partially adopted in many places. To be entirely clear – the US approach even directly negatively impacts other countries, but more on that later.

Losing The War On Drugs

To understand the whole concept, one has first to define what the terminology “War on Drugs” actually means. A war constitutes a fight of abstract black and white, good and evil and is usually only ever ended by the destruction of one side or by the agreement of peaceful coexistence. Now considering this declared war was intended to fight the use and illegal distribution of drugs, it is worth asking if the prospect of winning this war is achievable.

In other words – is a world without drugs feasible, is it possible to win a war against them? The answer here has to be no. Drugs are an integral part of our world. One that has to, at the very least, acknowledge that. Being it cocaine with the elite, or glue with the poorest of the poor. It’s not a local issue, but an issue known around the world, even if we do not often hear about it. So it is not surprising to find that drug use and distribution is not only alive and well after 45 years full of hardliner policies, it worsened. By the definition of a war on drugs, that means the drug side is winning, with impressive numbers even. Between 1990 and 2007, according to a study, prices for commonly used drugs decreased drastically while their potency increased significantly.

A War against People

Fact is, this War on Drugs is not a mere war on the product, it is a war against the people using it. Especially the US has been very hard in its crackdown on drug users with insane incarceration numbers for people charged with drug use unrelated to any other crime or wrongdoing. Mandatory Minimum Sentencing is the key here, that arguably has the biggest impact on society. We are talking about people in possession of drugs, without being sentenced for any other crime, sent away for years at a time. And those penalties stack up very quickly.

The US government has created a business out of putting people in jail, a quite lucrative one at that. Privately run prisons thrive due to those minimum sentencing practices, while taxpayers pay for often disproportionately long prison times for people that are no immediate harm for anyone but themselves. And as a reaction those individuals are persecuted to the fullest extent, lives are being destroyed, and the nation’s workforce is diminished while the costs are paid by society.

Instead of a helping hand, the U.S. has introduced the tradition of handing out handcuffs to those related to drugs. And that is exactly what we have to talk about. Who is doing what and who is harmed as a consequence? How about we let a former law enforcement officer describe the impact the war on drugs had on normal citizens without any other noticeable criminal behavior.

Unbased Fear And Criminalization

Since 1971 by order of the US President, drug users have been stigmatized and, most importantly, criminalized mostly based on the harm they inflicted on themselves. A lot of drug users consume recreationally, meaning that the use may be regular but does not show addictive patterns, but there are indeed individuals that get addicted to narcotics. Those that do get hooked on drugs are usually criminalized even stricter by law enforcement and society, though at the end of the day, a substance addiction is to be classified as a health issue that is not solved by harsher sentencing, but giving easier access to healthcare systems for those involved.

The underlying assumption is this – law enforcement has, for decades now, spent precious resources on what is individuals making conscious decisions to take drugs and potentially harm themselves. It is important to not mix these statements with crimes related to drugs, like smuggling, violent crimes, human trafficking or driving under the influence. Those need to be handled of course.

What we have to be aware of is that law enforcement always had the task of preventing people from harming each other, while health services and education had the task to prevent people from hurting themselves. By blurring those lines and by putting the focus on restricting drug access and individuals administering drugs to themselves, the situation has become worse. The reason is an economic one, called the Balloon Effect.

Prohibition And the Balloon Effect

As George Santayana put it: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Between 1920 and 1933 the prohibition of alcohol should have been a clear indication what happens when the state interferes and criminalizes a product its citizens self-consciously use. With alcohol being illegal, criminal organizations emerged to produce and distribute alcohol illegally. Just as we witness now with drugs, alcohol became more dangerous over the course of the prohibition era. The reason being is that when you have to smuggle large amounts of illegal material, you make it more potent, so you use what you have effectively.

Why would you bother to smuggle a can of beer when the same amount of alcohol can be hidden in a shot glass of liquor? It’s not hard to see that this will increase the population’s intake of more potent substances. That also means more deaths due to higher potencies or, at the very least, a larger amount of people getting permanently hooked on those high power substances. The underlying economic principle causing this is the Balloon Effect.

An Approach that Simply Doesn’t Work

While the War on Drugs explicitly targets users of drugs, its primary goal is to eradicate the supplier. It is an ongoing effort to reduce the quantity of narcotics available on the market. Fewer available products mean an increase in price, one that should, in theory, also lessen the amount of people willing to purchase. That would mean if the demand for the product is price elastic (the price of the product determines the actual need) a rise in costs amounts to fewer people buying.

The drug market, however, is not price elastic, it is price inelastic, meaning that the demand for drugs is only slightly changed by the increase of prices. Much like basic needs, drugs are consumed in similar quantities regardless of price. That doesn’t mean it does not impact anything else though.

When drugs get rarer and prices charged are rising, crime organizations sometimes make even more money than when there is a supply that meets the demand. This means that the business with drugs does not become less but rather more lucrative – encouraging new players to step in and old entities to intensify efforts in bringing drugs to the market, drugs that at the same time become more potent as mentioned previously. With rising prices for drugs, another statistic increases too, namely violent crimes. Especially addicted individuals are when facing rising costs, inclined to turn to crime to keep their addiction fueled.

These can range from pickpocketing to theft and assault. On the other side of the spectrum, the surplus in revenue of criminal organizations due to a price increase is often used for protection of the own enterprise buying guns and administering violence. The victims here are usually law enforcement officers, other gang members and occasionally civilians caught in the crossfire.

Who Wins the War on Drugs?

In 2010, former Orange County presiding judge James P. Gray gave his opinion on the matter who benefits from the War on Drugs.

Over the decades this war has been raging, criminals are the leading group of winners here. However, there is more. It has to be noted that politicians and the government itself do benefit greatly by the fear and insecurity caused by the use of drugs. Politicians use it as leverage to win elections based on uninformed but easy to comprehend slogans to crack down on drug use while law enforcement agencies like the DEA only exist because of it. Their ratio of costs and results are more than embarrassing, to be honest. Then there are privately held prisons, which, as said, are great benefactors of the U.S. approach to just incarcerate anyone for extended periods of time for often harmless behaviors.

Another winner of this method to drug use and distribution, however, is one that is rarely talked about in this context – Terrorism. All the main terrorist groups are actively involved in the drug trade to fund their organizations. Therefore actually taking away that income stream would be a massive blow to many terrorist threats around the world, however as shown, that is something not even remotely achieved by a violent approach to crush everyone involved.

Who are the Losers?

Sadly we all do. Drugs can be potentially harmful, but if the War on Drugs has caused anything, it’s harm to many more people, much more than drugs in and of themselves would be capable of. In the end, this dominant approach has nothing but enabled organized crime, encouraged street crime, criminalized ordinary citizens and neglected people with severe addiction issues. Even more so, the War on Drugs has been especially harsh on countries smuggled drugs originate from.

Mexico has recorded about 164,000 murders in between 2007 and 2014, exceeding the numbers of murders in Iran and Afghanistan in the same period. Bear in mind these countries had an actual war to fight at the time. Farmers that grow the required substances have been brutalized all over the world as well.

Taken as a whole, this is a tremendous blow to our entire society that is felt everywhere around the world. Instead of pointing the finger at the approach we’ve taken for so long, that blame keeps being averted to drug users, promoting an unproductive cycle of violence that will spin on forever, until we eventually realize, that we have gotten it wrong all along.

The biggest obstacle we face is probably the one thing that has been poked for decades now – the irrational fear of narcotics and its users when the real cause of many problems has been our fight against it. Advocates for War on Drugs and their opponents engage in ridiculous discussions that are predominantly shallow, uninformed and fueled by unbiased fear.

What’s The Alternative

As hopeless as the situation might seem, there are viable options to counter the issues that have been strengthened by the War on Drugs. To be able to implement them, however, we need to stop seeing drug users as criminals as long as they keep to themselves and acknowledge addiction as a serious health issue. As shown in the video above, fear of intoxicated individuals is still strong, neglecting the fact that if you criminalize a person for their personal choice of taking a substance, they do get in touch with a criminal world and are very likely to turn to a criminal lifestyle.

Let’s look at what’s going wrong and what we need to eliminate. We need to eliminate thriving criminal organizations illegally distributing drugs of varying quality and varying prices. We need to help those addicted to dangerous substances and not destroy the lives of people that have, provenly, not harmed another person. Many people may agree with this statement exactly up to the point where we mention, that the only way to achieve this is not by fighting it, but by decriminalizing it.

Legal Drugs = More Addicts?

Now, most of you will cry out, that the legal consumption of drugs will make more people drug addicts. Well no, it’s not that simple thankfully. While there will be more people giving it a try, describing it as the start of a drug epidemic is very far fetched. Decriminalizing would mean one thing in particular – state regulation. Having control over quality and potency of the product as well as rules determining who, when and where it can be consumed is the best countermeasure against drug addiction.

People who want to try drugs will do drugs, unrelated to them being legal or not. The high potency and varying quality are what usually poses the highest risk of lethal or harmful overdoses, one which can be counteracted if there is state regulation. Another thing to think about is drug usage of minors. A criminal does not care if an underage person buys drugs or not, while state regulated drug use can put necessary rules on substances and, at the same time, force criminal enterprises out of the picture. Of course, you cannot expect crime just to vanish, but having a legal, safe and affordable alternative will always be the best option for the vast majority of people.

Legal Drugs: Safer and Lucrative

And this is just the tip of the iceberg. It is not also the safer but the most lucrative option for the state. Fewer people in the prison systems, fewer lives destroyed and impacted, less spending on law enforcement (or at least a freeing up of resources for more pressing issues like actual violent crimes) and a hefty new tax income stream.

Even if we were to decriminalize drug use, we should still have to do something for the people that do get addicted to substances, as we do with the drugs that are legal already, like alcohol (which is actually a gateway drug, did you know?). The best-proven method is called Harm Reduction and has been gaining traction in several countries already. The fundamental principle of Harm Reduction through Safe Injection Sites is to provide users clean equipment, drugs and medical treatment that stabilizes their lives to be able to get jobs and eventually start rehabilitation efforts. This approach has been successfully implemented back in the 80s in Switzerland, and Safe Injection Sites in Canada report similar success stories of reducing overdoses significantly and enabling people with addiction problems to be reintegrated into society. Canada is also just a few steps away from eventually legalizing cannabis by the way.

For many people, drug use and the War on Drugs is a clean cut topic, except it isn’t. We hope we were able to show, that what seems right and wrong may not be an adequate representation of reality. The statistics are real, and they are stating that we are not getting better in our efforts to get a handle on drugs. After 45 years of creating and exaggerating an issue that was previously unheard of, we think it is only viable to ask for another approach.

About Andreas Salmen

Born and raised in Germany, learned a job in IT and Business and ultimately decided that this wasn’t exactly where my life was going to end. Left everything behind to become a writing backpacker instead. The world’s crumbling away anyway so why not write about it and get a few good Instagram pics on the way, am I right?

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