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10 Ways the Drug War Is Causing Massive Collateral Damage to Our Society

From racial injustice to flawed foreign policy, the war on drugs causes harm on many fronts.



The war on drugs is America’s longest war. It has been 40-plus years since Nixon launched our modern “war on drugs” and yet drugs are as plentiful as ever. While the idea that we can have a “drug-free society” is laughable, the disastrous consequences of our drug war are dead serious. While it might not be obvious, the war on drugs touches and destroys so many of the issues we care about and the values we hold. Below are 10 collateral consequences of the drug war and reasons we need to find an exit strategy from this unwinnable war.

1. Racial Injustice

The war on drugs is built on racial injustice. Despite roughly equal rates of drug use and sales, African-American men are arrested at 13 times the rate of white men on drug charges in the U.S. -- with rates of up to 57 times in some states. African Americans and Latinos together make up 29 percent of the total U.S. population, but more than 75 percent of drug law violators in state and federal prisons.

2. Denied Access to Education, Housing and Benefits

Passed by Congress in 1998, the Higher Education Act delays or denies federal financial aid to anyone ever convicted of a felony or misdemeanor drug offense, including marijuana possession. A drug offense will also get you and your entire family kicked out of public housing. Thirty-two states ban anyone convicted of a drug felony from collecting food stamps.

3. Wasted Taxpayer Dollars

U.S. federal, state, and local governments now spend $50 billion per year trying to make America “drug free.” State prison budgets top spending on public colleges and universities. The prison industrial complex is ever more powerful. Nevertheless, heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine and other illicit drugs are cheaper, purer and easier to get than ever before.

4. Unsafe Neighborhoods

Most “drug-related” violence stems not from drug use, but from drug prohibition. That was true in Chicago under alcohol kingpin Al Capone and it is true now. The mass killings in Mexico and in many U.S. cities are not from marijuana or other drug use, but because the plants are worth more than gold and people are willing to kill each other over the profits to be made.  

5. Shredded Constitutional Rights

Armed with paramilitary gear, police break into homes unannounced, terrorizing innocent and guilty alike. Prosecutors seize private property without due process. Citizens convicted of felony offenses lose their right to vote, in some states for life. More and more Americans are subject to urine tests without cause. And the list goes on.

6. Bloodbath in Latin America

U.S. drug policies in Latin America have failed to reduce the supply of illicit drugs. Instead our policies have led to a bloodbath with more than 60,000 people killed in prohibition violence since 2006 in Mexico alone. Our policy and strategies have empowered organized criminals, corrupted governments, stimulated violence, assaulted the environment and created tens of thousands of refugees.

7. Compromising Teenagers’ Safety

The defenders of the failed war on drugs say that we can't discuss alternatives to prohibition because it would "send the wrong message to the kids." Ironically, the drug war is a complete failure when it comes to keeping young people from using drugs. Despite decades of DARE programs with the simplistic “Just Say No” message, 50 percent of teenagers will try marijuana before they graduate and 75 percent will drink alcohol. Young people also feel the brunt of marijuana enforcement and make up the majority of arrests. Arresting young people will often cause more damage than drug use itself. Teenagers need honest drug education to help them make responsible decisions. Safety should be the number-one priority.