An Exit Strategy from America's Longest War -- 40 Years of Disastrous Drug Prohibition
Forty years ago this week, President Richard Nixon declared illicit drugs "public enemy #1." The ensuing war on drugs has been fought in fits and starts by every ensuing administration and is arguably the most disastrous public policy in American history since chattel slavery and its Jim Crow progeny. This ignominious anniversary provides an opportunity to reflect, to ask ourselves and our leaders some very hard questions, and to demand a new direction in U.S. drug policy once and for all.
Initiated by President Nixon and escalated under Presidents Reagan, Bush, and Clinton, the war on drugs was said to be fought to keep Americans, particularly children, safe from harmful psychoactive substances. After four decades and at least $1 trillion, illicit drugs are actually cheaper, more potent, and widely available to Americans of all ages. Addiction remains persistent among a relatively small percentage of drug users, yet the overwhelming majority of people who want to access drug treatment don't, most often because they simply can't afford it. What's more, overdose deaths as well as HIV and hepatitis C transmissions have all skyrocketed despite recognized, low-cost public health interventions. That's because the drug war focuses on criminal justice -- rather than health-centered -- solutions to problems caused by drugs.
In fact, the acceleration of drug-related prosecutions is the largest contributor to the six-fold ballooning of this country's prison population since 1970. Of the 2.3 million Americans behind bars, half a million are there for drug offenses, the vast majority for possession of small amounts of illicit drugs for personal use. For context, the United States incarcerates more people just for drug crimes than Western Europe -- with 100 million more people -- incarcerates for all crimes combined. Here in California, we imprison 8,500 each year for drug possession, at an annual cost of nearly half a billion dollars.
Our over-reliance on a criminal justice approach to drugs is made even uglier by easily-documented racial disparities that reveal system-wide selective enforcement of our drug laws. Despite what we're used to seeing in the mainstream media, people of all races and ethnicities consume and distribute drugs in roughly equal proportion. That means white Americans take and sell the vast majority of illicit drugs. Yet, African Americans and Latinos represent a startling two thirds of all people arrested for drug crimes. The impact of a permanent drug arrest record, let alone a felony conviction, has well-documented lifelong consequences. The mass criminalization of people of color, particularly young African American men, has become as profound a system of racial control as the Jim Crow laws were in this country until the mid-1960s.
Far from keeping us safer and healthier, the war on drugs has been a war on families, on communities of color, and on American public health. Today a vibrant national movement voices that message as more and more people speak out against this historic policy catastrophe. At least 50 events around the country this weekend, seven of them in California, will commemorate the 40th anniversary of the drug war and advocate alternative approaches, many of which have been in place around the world for decades. And just two weeks ago, the Global Commission on Drug Policy called for a major paradigm shift in how our society deals with drugs, including decriminalization and legal regulation. The high-profile commission is comprised of international dignitaries such as former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, former U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz, entrepreneur Richard Branson, and the former Presidents of Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, and Switzerland. Their report understandably sent a jolt around the world, generating thousands of international media stories.
Now the time has now come for all of us to forge an exit strategy from this nation's longest war. It's time to replace our punitive drug laws, and their race-based enforcement, with policies grounded in science, compassion, health, and human rights.