This article presents an overview of the issue of the war on drugs, the current form of which began shortly after the election of the Nixon administration in 1968. Although the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) claimed that both the use of illicit drugs and the amount of illegal drugs entering the country has declined, the larger picture since the 1970s suggests that these trends simply reflect high rates of illicit drug use and, more generally, the failures of the war on drugs to achieve its goals. The success stories that are evident have largely been achieved at the local level both in terms of law enforcement and in terms of treating addiction, whereas national policies continue to be criticized as counterproductive. Although the national policy in the United States remains heavily prohibitionist, approaches consonant with the largely antithetical harm reduction model that is prevalent in Europe have been in limited use in the U.S. since the 1960s. These methods, including methadone programs and the specialized drug courts that first appeared in 1989 and now number more than one thousand, are generally referred to as a "public-health" approach to drug use (Black, 2009). From a more sociological perspective, a key issue is the degree to which legal or illegal substance users maintain rational control over their substance use.
Keywords DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education); DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration); Harm Reduction; Methadone; ONDCP; Operation Ceasefire; Schedule 1 Drug; Voter Disenfranchisement
The international growth in hard-drug use in the 1960s led to sharply divergent national policies over the following decades: a prohibitionist approach that emphasizes the moral sanction and legal punishment of illicit drug users; and a harm reduction model that amorally uses almost any approach that will reduced drug-related crime, drug-related diseases (particularly HIV/AIDS), and individual drug use. These methods include the decriminalization of hard-drug possession or the non-enforcement of drug possession laws, needle-exchange programs and safe-injection rooms for addicts, and even providing government-supplied drugs for addicts (Maris, 1999).
The Netherlands, Switzerland, Australia, and England have used harm-reduction principles that have shown relatively substantial results. Needle-exchange program and safe injection rooms were pioneered in Switzerland. Those programs initially led to civic unrest and overdoses, but government intervention in the form the distribution of drugs to addicts has met with substantial voter approval. Sweden, by contrast, prides itself on being successfully "drug free" and has a long history of limiting and strictly regulating the sale of alcohol; that nation, like the U.S., considers the forced treatment of drug users a preliminary measure (Riley, 1998).
Prohibitionist and harm reduction policies are roughly compatible with the older models of supply-side policies and demand-side approaches to combating illicit drug use, respectively. This distinction is a little confusing in the sense that virtually all nations seek to minimize both the supply of, and the demand for, illicit hard drugs (Thomas, n.d.). The issue is further complicated by the evidence that legally-available substances, particularly tobacco and alcohol, cause a far greater degree of societal harm than illicit drugs such as marijuana that, though classified as a Schedule 1 drug, has numerous medical applications and is probably less psychologically and socially harmful than alcohol. The wide-spread misuse of prescription drugs and the government's inconsistent policies about them complicate the scenario even further (Maris, 1999).
The non-enforcement of soft-drug possession laws that is practiced in parts of Europe appears to be the most manageable alternative to a prohibitionist policy. This approach, for example, allows law-enforcement officials the leeway to investigate soft-drug offenses when they overlap with serious trafficking crimes, and those nations are obligated to prosecute drug trafficking under international treaties. A more radical approach that some physicians and sociologists have investigated since the 1960s is the treatment of drug addiction as a medical problem rather than a criminal matter.
The official breakdown of the spending on the war on drugs over the past several years has been about 60% on law enforcement and 40% on treatment and prevention. An estimated $50 billion is spent annually (split about evenly between federal and state budgets), including the cost of offender incarceration (Miron & Waldock, 2010). These figures, however, might be misleading in that these funds overlap with government expenditures on combating violent crime, terrorism, and border-policy violations. However, there is some evidence that the institutionalization of the war on drugs, particularly since the end of the Cold War in 1989, has led to a self-perpetuating cycle of escalating government spending based primarily on maintaining existing programs, regardless of results.
One of the most infamous aspects of mandatory minimal drug sentencing requirements was that the penalty for the possession of 5 grams of cheap "crack" cocaine was the same as for 500 grams of expensive powdered cocaine: five years imprisonment. The sentences that small-time crack dealers and traffickers received in the 1990s were 59% longer than the average for those of rapists and only 18% shorter than those of murderers (Davenport-Hines, 2001, p. 356-357). However, the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, signed by President Barack Obama, eliminated the mandatory sentence for crack possession. The prison population convicted of drug offenses increased 1,300% between 1980 and 2001. The number of non-violent drug offenders that were incarcerated between 1979 and 1998 increased about 350%, or from 6% to 21% of the prison population. A little more contentiously (if not conspiratorially), it has been argued that prison construction and the business of imprisonment have absorbed many of those left unemployed or underemployed the dissolution of industrial employment in the "rust belt." The expansion of the war on drugs also appears to have absorbed many of the military resources that had previously been expended in the Cold War (Jensen, Gerber, & Mosher, 2004).
Substance use seems to reflect cultural and social factors far more than national policies. Davenport-Hines observes that both heavy and moderate rates of illegal drug use in Europe have little or no relationship to either the harshness or the lenience of national drug laws (2001). For example, Britain has had both very high rates of hard-drug use and (until recent years) very harsh drug possession laws (2001, p. xiv). A study in Washington state found that Hispanic immigrants who acculturated quickly used illegal drugs at a rate 13 times higher than Hispanics who did not. In other words, Hispanic immigrants who separated from their conventionally close-knit communities were likely to use illegal drugs at about the same rate as natives; that figure is 7.2% of the population for acculturated Hispanics and 6.4% for whites. These new behavioral patterns were associated with a new set of social skills and cultural information. In short, the process of acculturation tends to result in immigrants assuming the cultural traits of natives (American Sociological Association, 2007).
The U.S. provides an estimated 60% of world market for illicit drugs. About $60 billion is spent annually by civilians on illicit drugs (Vellinga, 2000). Ironically, that amount roughly equals the annual government expenditure on the war on drugs. If marijuana had been decriminalized circa 1990, there would have been 2 million rather than 11 million "problem" drug users in the U.S. (Baum, 1996, p. 332). At that time, there were five times as many marijuana users as cocaine users in the nation and ten times as many cocaine users as heroin users according to government figures (Davenport-Hines, 2001, p. 354). The street price of cocaine fell about 50% between the 1980s and the 1990s as international production doubled (Vellinga, 2000, p. 120). Hospital admissions for cocaine-related causes was 422,896 in 2009 (National Institute of Drug Abuse, 2011). In the 1990s, police commissioners found that federal drug convictions of serious traffickers did not exceed about 15% of all drug convictions, and there was apparently little hope of improving this ratio; they also objected to the federal government's hard-line stance on marijuana arrests (Wallace-Wells, 2007).
There are an estimated 353,000 meth users in the nation, a statistic that shows a sharp decline in use since 2001; between 2007 and 2010, the number of illicit drug users has increased (Leger, 2011). Drug-related crime has also been stable since 1997, but recent trends indicate a general upsurge (Wallace-Wells, 2007). The U.S. government was able to largely eliminate the illegal sedative known as "quaaludes" after the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) convinced international producers of its active element (methaqualone) to regulate production. According to one study, about 90% of the illicit drugs that enter the nation are now moved through Mexico. Cartels are able to reduce overall risks by selling to mid-level traffickers at a lower price than they would receive in the U.S. (Wallace-Wells, 2007).
The legal principle of disenfranchisement bars felons from voting, working in some forms of employment, exerting parental rights, and receiving access to some public benefits such as welfare and job-training programs. Europe also renders many felons "civilly dead" in this manner. Some states merely apply these restrictions temporarily. The crack and meth epidemics appear to have benefited Republicans in Senatorial and federal elections by disabling portions of the conventional Democratic-voting demographic. The first three or four years out of prison for a drug offender have been identified as the period in which disenfranchisement policies are most likely to result in employment and social problems that can be linked with family violence and lowered marital stability (Jensen, Gerber, & Mosher, 2004, p. 111-113).
A conventional explanation for the criminal sanction of marijuana possession has been the "gateway drug theory" that marijuana use leads to hard-drug use. This theory has largely been discredited or recognized as one that asks fundamentally misleading questions about the factors that lead to substance abuse. In the 1990s, a common variation on this theory was that drug use was unlikely to emerge as a problem if it did not appear before the age of 18 (Wallace-Wells, 2007). A Dutch study acknowledges that adolescent drug use is highly undesirable, but it also asserts that the mental health of adults is a far more significant factor in addressing substance abuse. American studies have confirmed that criminal activity usually precedes drug addiction among the addicted criminal population, and that the real issue at hand is a "deviant lifestyle resulting from personal and social problems" (Maris, 1999, p. 497-503).
Before the War on Drugs
Before the 1968 election, Democrats had drastically increased spending on social programs and even considered a non-enforcement policy on small-scale drug possession charges. Although the Nixon administration pursued a new "no-knock" crime bill to increase the power of drug-enforcement agents and reclassified controlled substances in a questionable manner (particularly in terms of the distinction between Schedule 1 and Schedule 2 drugs), it also spent more on drug treatment than on enforcement. Every administration since has spent more on law-enforcement measures than on treatment and prevention. J. Edgar Hoover had long prohibited FBI agents from working undercover in drug investigations because the large amounts of money involved could easily lead to the corruption of law-enforcement agents. Local police chiefs eventually learned that lesson through bitter experience (Baum, 1996, p. 5-9).
A common sociological response to the issue of drug use over the past several decades is known as "normative ambivalence theory," which essentially asserts that substance use can result from overwhelming social circumstances. In short, substance use can be understood as an entirely rational response to social alienation or personal deprivation of some sort. Earlier views of substance abuse tend to attribute the condition to a single factor such as genetic weakness. More recent views can rather similarly portray the addict as entirely lacking in control over his or her substance use and therefore as deprived of rational control of his or her actions as much older and simpler theories (Turner, 2006, p. 6). Alfred Lindesmith, an early advocate of the medical treatment of drug addiction, found himself in conflict with the national drug policy decades before the official war on drugs was launched after 1968 (Galliher, Keys, & Elsner, 1998).
Lindesmith helped to establish an early sociological theory circa 1950 by which a drug user might become an addict. A drug user who received an opiate (such as morphine) from a medical professional was differentiated in this theory from a "street" user in the sense that only the latter was aware that the painful physiological effect of withdrawal from the drug was due to removal of the drug. In other words, conscious awareness of the initial effects of withdrawal is likely to encourage a temporary street user to become a drug abuser. Recent evidence that the withdrawal effects from crack cocaine are less severe than those of other drugs has resulted in the theory that some compulsive drug use is more analogous to compulsive behavior such as smoking, gambling, eating, or sexual activity than, for example, heroin addiction. Nevertheless, Lindesmith's work was ahead of its time. One line of inquiry that his research has led to is the question of whether a socially unsanctioned practice like hard-drug use can produce any worthwhile ends (Turner, 2006, p. 5-6). Another way to frame this issue is to assert that legal prescription drugs and illegal drugs are almost invariably comprised of the same substances, and that the definition of a Schedule 1 drug therefore appears largely arbitrary.
Lindesmith was marginalized for decades by the Federal Bureau of Narcotics--a predecessor of the DEA--and mainstream academics). He portrayed drug addicts as urbane guilt-ridden whites who did not partake in criminal activity. Lindesmith attempted to report his findings as early as 1937, but they were suppressed until the 1950s when the American Bar Association and the American Medical Association began to embrace his research as a valuable alternative to mainstream views of drug use. Ironically, his research might have remained ignored if it had not attracted heavy-handed government disapproval (Galliher, Keys, & Elsner, 1998, p. 679-681). This polarization of professionals and government policy-makers remains an issue.
In the 1990s, the Clinton administration commissioned the RAND Corporation, a think-tank that had performed statistical studies of Cold War-related data for the Pentagon, to study the war on drugs. Susan Everingham, who led the research, expected to find that the data to reveal that foreign intervention would be the most effective strategy. The resulting study of cocaine use and trafficking arrived at the opposite conclusion: treatment is seven times cheaper than domestic law enforcement measures, ten times cheaper than interdiction at the border, and 23 times more cost-effective than foreign intervention in combating illicit drug use (Massing, 1998).
Studies commissioned by the Nixon administration had similarly concluded that attempting to cut...
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